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Peter C. Newman (Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail)
Peter C. Newman (Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail)

Jane Taber

In Peter C. Newman's book, Ignatieff was 'the catalyst on the road to ruin' Add to ...

Originally - and before the debacle - Peter C. Newman was fashioning his biography of Michael Ignatieff on Theodore H. White's series of books analyzing the American presidents, The Making of the President.

Mr. Newman, the celebrated Canadian political author, planned to write about the making of the prime minister. He called it: Michael Ignatieff: the Man in Full.

His research revealed the Liberal leader as a man who, having lived outside the country for half his life, had a confused view of patriotism. "He thought if he loved the country enough it would love him back, and it doesn't work that way," Mr. Newman observed.

In addition, the author found a brilliant man so full of ideas that he was unfocused; he found someone bent on seeking redemption and a man who aspired to be a winning politician, having only ever led one revolution - a protest against a pajama party at Upper Canada College.

"I have wonderful material," said Mr. Newman.

Several months ago, however, Mr. Newman, 82, realized he had to change course - and quickly. Mr. Ignatieff was not the "knight in shining amour and world intellectual" who he and his publishers expected to defeat Stephen Harper and become prime minister.

And with that, the ever-so-nimble Mr. Newman began writing When the Gods Changed; the Death of Liberal Canada.

In it, Mr. Ignatieff still serves as the protagonist - "the unwilling agent of the Liberals' self-destruction" and "the catalyst on the road to ruin."

"It's not a happy ending," said Mr. Newman.

The book, out this fall, is modelled on U.S. author Michael Herr's Dispatches - a non-fiction memoir of the Vietnam War, but written like a novel.

"The Liberals were a state religion and now we've got a new god," Mr. Newman said. "I want to have Ignatieff as the narrative arc because it's his story, the rise and fall, but it's more important than that. I believe it is the end of the Liberal Party. … I'm sorry to say it. But it's not hard to document that this is the end of it."

Just after Mr. Ignatieff became Liberal leader in 2008, the two began to meet monthly for a debriefing - Mr. Newman lugging his big, bulky tape recorder to Mr. Ignatieff's Toronto condo in Yorkville, his Ottawa office or to Stornoway, his official residence.

They would chat about everything, and Mr. Newman came away admiring the man - realizing, however, that politics was "not his destiny."

He recalled at one point telling Mr. Ignatieff that he "was a swell bunch of guys." "He didn't like that at all," said Mr. Newman, explaining that Mr. Ignatieff "knows so much about so many things that it doesn't add up to very much because people need something more definitive."

At one point, Mr. Newman hired two psychologists to analyze Mr. Ignatieff's public record. "I include their report in the book and it's all about redemption," Mr. Newman said. "He has a very, very strong thing about redemption - in other words, feeling guilty."

He feels guilty about being an observer of "some of the most ferocious genocide in modern history," according to Mr. Newman. "He was there and he saw," said the author, referring to Mr. Ignatieff's experience, for example, in Kosovo.

"He couldn't do anything about it," Mr. Newman said. "He was just watching it. And I think he felt guilty - instead of being a neutral observer he should be doing something."

And that something was politics.

One problem, however, is that in addition to being unfocused, Mr. Ignatieiff was "all over the map ideologically," Mr. Newman said. "Iraq is the most obvious example," he said, referring to Mr. Ignatieff's support of the 2003 U.S. invasion and his later recanting of it.

Mr. Ignatieff, he believes, is not a strong leader - something that Canadians, living in such a vast country, crave.

Being an intellectual doesn't always make a good politician either, "because as an intellectual you are seeking truth and as a politician you are seeking power and those lines are still crossed," he said.

Last January or February - Mr. Newman can't remember exactly - he left from one of his chats with Mr. Ignatieff asking himself, "why does he look so relieved?

"He was in a very good mood, very happy as if a burden had been lifted from him," Mr. Newman recalled. "I remember going home and writing a note to myself that he has made the decision, he's going [to defeat the government] and he just wanted to get it over with."

Mr. Newman realized then that Mr. Ignatieff, having served in the thankless job of opposition leader, was finally seeking "a resolution."

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