Skip to main content

Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae is at home in Toronto last week: "If the election were today, we would be begging Bob to run, because there's nobody else," former rival David Peterson says.The Globe and Mail

In a photograph from 1968, Bob Rae sits near the end of a long conference table, with shaggy hair and tweed jacket, holding a pipe in his mouth with a stem as long as a stiletto. The Vietnam War has polarized the academic community and the university is in upheaval. Mr. Rae is 20 and a member of the newly instituted university commission on governance, a radical experiment in opening the upper echelons of the ivory tower to the lowliest members of the academy.

He has been invited there, as a rising student activist, to voice his views to Claude Bissell, then president of the University of Toronto, a man old enough to be his father – indeed, Mr. Bissell went to school with Mr. Rae's diplomat father, Saul, in the 1930s.

Four decades later, that table has turned: Mr. Rae is now 63, and his hair is snow white (although there's lots of it) and his skin is ruddy and wrinkled, and he has just presided over a Liberal Party policy convention where more than a third of the delegates are under 30. Like Mr. Rae in his youth, they have a voice (now amplified by social media) and they intend to use it. One signal was a new set of rules for choosing leaders that should put an end to old boys in backrooms deciding whom to anoint.

"The whole top-down politics is changing," says Mr. Rae's erstwhile rival and recent ally, former Ontario Liberal premier David Peterson. "There's an Arab Spring taking over politics everywhere and you are going to have younger, media-savvy different ways of communicating. It won't just be the same old baloney you and I know from watching politics."

You might argue that's just what the Liberals need. The party of Wilfrid Laurier and Pierre Trudeau, the one that likes to dub itself the natural governing party of Canada, is in rough shape. The last time it won a majority in the House of Commons was in 2000, when Jean Chrétien was prime minister. Since he stepped down in 2003, the Liberals have turnstiled through three leaders: Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, each more improbable than the last. They didn't just lose the federal election on May 2 – they were walloped, losing their status as the Official Opposition and limping into third place behind the governing Conservatives. It was the party's worst showing in its history.

Mr. Rae is no longer the young prophet in the academic temple, the Rhodes Scholar, the NDP finance critic who toppled Joe Clark's government on a budget motion in 1979 or the surprise winner of the 1990 Ontario election, the first NDP premier ever elected east of Manitoba. He carries the burdens of what happened after that: the infamous "Rae Days," crossing the floor from the NDP to the Liberals, and perhaps flip-flopping on his promise not to seek the party leadership again.

For now, he is caught in limbo, allowed to be interim leader so long as he doesn't admit publicly that he wants the job for real. But he also was voted parliamentarian of the year by Maclean's magazine in November, delivered three barn-burner speeches at the policy convention two weeks ago – without a Teleprompter – and has soared to 35 per cent in the approval ratings, according to an Angus Reid poll released this week.

"If the election were today, we would be begging Bob to run, because there's nobody else," Mr. Peterson says. "He's a smarter guy than he was. He's had more experience, he's learned the game and he's battle-ready."

The one flaw Mr. Rae can't bat away is his age. "You have to think ahead in this business," Mr. Peterson says. "Is he the right guy to lead the party in four years' time, in the only race that matters?"

That's the rub: This could have been Mr. Rae's moment, but there isn't going to be an election any time soon. It's unlikely Prime Minister Stephen Harper will visit the Governor-General to ask for a dissolution of his parliamentary majority until 2015. Mr. Rae will be 67 by then, and probably 70 before he, or his party, could realistically expect to move into 24 Sussex. Will it be his fate to have been the right man at the wrong time?

The Liberals invited communications guru Don Tapscott to be their keynote speaker at the convention in part because of his reputation for understanding the Millennial generation. He isn't counting Mr. Rae out. "It would be reasonable to conclude that anybody of Mr. Rae's age is yesterday's man," he says. But, in fact, Mr. Rae is one of the people "driving this vision" of the party as an engaged, open network that reaches out across all kinds of channels to build community and draw young people into a real discussion about ideas.

"The party needs a leader who understands this generation, their culture, their modus operandi, and embraces it," Mr. Tapscott says, "and I don't care if that person is 20 or Methuselah."

Is that the new Bob Rae? Mr. Rae certainly thinks so, although he insists he hasn't decided whether he wants to be permanent leader. Listening and patience are the biggest differences in him, he says. Being the smartest person in the room doesn't cut it any more. The key is "learning how to make sure you get people working for you who are even smarter than you, and that you aren't afraid of them. ... That's something you've got to figure out."

And some of the younger Liberals agree: "My opinion of Bob Rae has changed since he has become interim leader," says Ryan Barber, 31, president of the Liberal riding association in Simcoe North. "He's had 20 years to toughen up and articulate why his critics are wrong and he is right. Our last two leaders got blindsided because they were relatively inexperienced in being in a leadership role and they didn't see it coming. … I think Bob has shown in a lot of interviews that he isn't knocked off course by a tough comment or an attack. Bob's personality strikes you as the person who beats up the bully in the schoolyard."

That may just be enough to make him leader. But is it enough to get time back on Mr. Rae's side?

The two Bobs

After the party convention, the Liberals are pumped, and nobody more so than Mr. Rae. He hits the ground running, using the lag time between the convention and the reopening of the House of Commons on Monday to cross the country visiting community colleges on a skills-and-trades tour. I catch up with him on Tuesday morning at the Centre for Hospitality & Culinary Arts at George Brown College in Toronto. Wearing a white chef's jacket and toque, he tours the various prep rooms shaking hands, asking questions.

For most of his career, there have been two Bob Raes: the public performer who comes alive in the spotlight and the socially awkward, distant guy who seems preoccupied at a dinner party. The first Mr. Rae was in full tilt at the convention, exhorting delegates to "go forth and, for heaven's sake, multiply!" But the other Mr. Rae, the distracted, self-absorbed one, seems to have vanished. At the culinary institute, he seems goofy in his outfit but genuinely interested in meeting the students and watching them knead dough, roll pretzels or fashion delicate roses to decorate wedding cakes, skills they will use to seek jobs in an economy about as tough as the one Mr. Rae faced as premier of Ontario in the 1990s.

Intrigued by a garish sculpture of three swans, including a black one floating on an inky pool of caramelized sugar, he stops for a closer look. "Could you make a loon?" he asks wistfully. This is a glimpse of a more private Rae, the son of a peripatetic diplomat's family who got his sense of home from the one-acre island that the family bought at Big Rideau Lake in the fall of 1956, where Mr. Rae has spent nearly every summer since.

"We watch the loons by day and listen to their primeval cries at night," he wrote in his 1996 memoir, From Protest to Power. The lake is where the family spread his younger brother David's ashes after he died of complications of leukemia in 1989, and where "I know the same will be done one day for me."

Mr. Rae was born Aug. 2, 1948, in Ottawa, the third of four children of Saul Rae and his wife, Lois. His maternal grandmother, Nell, the daughter of a Clyde shipyard draftsman, was born near Glasgow, where she met and married Willy Cohen, a tailor and the son of Jewish refugees from Lithuania. They eventually immigrated to Canada, settling first in Winnipeg and then Toronto, where the Cohens became the Raes (a circumstance Mr. Rae didn't know until he was an adult).

Nell Rae took in boarders to put food on the table, and turned her offspring into a vaudeville musical act called the Three Little Raes of Sunshine. Grace, the eldest, eventually became a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall; Jackie, the youngest, earned a Distinguished Flying Cross as a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War, and became a singer-songwriter and a producer of TV variety shows; Saul, the middle child, was the brainiest, so his mother wrangled him a scholarship to the University of Toronto.

It was there that Saul met George Ignatieff, with whom he also went on to Oxford and then into the External Affair Department in the diplomatic swirl around Lester Pearson in the 1940s and 1950s. He met and married a British, Cambridge-trained historian named Lois George and together they raised their four children in diplomatic postings in Washington, Ottawa and Geneva.

Bob Rae inherited the intellect, the fateful connection to the Ignatieff family and the love of song and dance, though he mainly keeps that last one under wraps these days.

Party man

Mr. Rae had his first brush with the Liberal Party as a student, working for Pierre Trudeau at the leadership convention in 1968 – by then, his older brother, John, was a staffer for Jean Chrétien and his sister, Jennifer, was working on Mr. Trudeau's media team. But Mr. Rae didn't think of himself as a Liberal. He sensed a smugness in the party, and he was wary of what he saw as a conservative streak in Mr. Trudeau. As he described himself in From Protest to Power, "I was a thoroughgoing democrat, whose socialism was never Marxist and always pragmatic."There are some people, NDP stalwart Stephen Lewis among them, who think Mr. Rae persuaded himself that he was something he wasn't – a social democrat.

After university, Mr. Rae won the Rhodes Scholarship that had eluded his father and went off to Balliol College at Oxford in 1969. He flourished in the intellectual stimulation of tutors such as Isaiah Berlin, but socially he was out of place in tradition and class-ridden England.Unable to see his future, he fell into a lengthy depression.

Friends like Michael Ignatieff, who was doing a doctorate at Harvard, helped, as did extensive therapy. But he was energized by working on behalf of poor tenants in a legal-aid clinic in North London. Fixing things – institutions, people, political parties – became a lifelong preoccupation: It led to his return to Canada, a law degree, a practice as a labour lawyer and his decision to run for the NDP in a federal by-election in 1978, when Ed Broadbent was leader of the party and Mr. Trudeau was prime minister.

Within the year, Mr. Trudeau had called and lost an election, Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark had become prime minister, and Mr. Broadbent had appointed the eager, media-savvy Mr. Rae – the only NDPer elected in Toronto – as finance critic. From this perch, he successfully presented an amendment to Mr. Clark's budget bill and brought down the government. It was Dec. 12, 1979. Mr. Rae was 31.

Another election, in February, 1980, saw Mr. Trudeau emerge from the shadows to win a majority government. Mr. Rae held on to his seat. Five days later, he married Arlene Perly, his political soulmate and now the mother of his three grown daughters. Meanwhile, the Ontario NDP came calling.

Nurtured by Donald C. Macdonald over the decades, the party had flourished under Stephen Lewis in the early 1970s, forming the official opposition in 1975. Now, though, it was floundering and Michael Cassidy had decided to step down as leader after the party's disappointing results in the 1981 election. Who better to come to the fore than Mr. Rae, the Tory-government slayer and repository of quick barbs in Question Period?

A private dinner was arranged with Mr. Rae, Mr. Lewis and their wives at the home of a mutual friend in Toronto, and Mr. Lewis was "very cheered" by Mr. Rae's interest.

But, while driving home afterward, Mr. Lewis's wife, journalist and feminist Michele Landsberg, turned to him, the way that wives often do at the end of an evening, and said: "Did you not understand that he is not one of us? His basic convictions are not ours."

Mr. Lewis replied, as husbands often do: "Are you crazy?"

As history unfolded – with the NDP's move to the centre, the Liberal-NDP accord after the 1985 election, the NDP's surprising victory in 1990 and Mr. Rae's desperate attempts to cope with the deep recession of the early 1990s and the loss of more than 300,000 manufacturing jobs in the cataclysmic adjustment to free trade – Mr. Lewis says he came to see that his wife "was entirely and totally right."

He cheerfully admits that "she's never let him forget it," especially when Mr. Rae instituted the Social Contract, in which public-sector employees kept their jobs but were forced to take several unpaid vacation days a year – the notorious Rae Days, which lost him support on the left even as he was being pummelled over deficits and affirmative-action policies by the right, and led to the landslide election of Mike Harris's Tories in 1995.

Mr. Rae resigned his own seat in 1996 and quit the party in 1998, but it wasn't until 2002 that he published an opinion piece in the press announcing a definitive break with the NDP, saying its economic policies (as well as its position on Israel) had become out-of-touch. And it was only in 2006 that he joined the Liberals and made his first run for the leadership, losing to Mr. Dion. He returned to Parliament as the Liberal member for Toronto Centre in 2008, then lost a second leadership contest to Mr. Ignatieff that summer.

Mr. Rae says he always knew that he wasn't an ideologue. But, as premier, he had to confront rhetoric with pragmatism and, for somebody who had always excelled at politics, the failure of his own ambitions.

For his part, Mr. Lewis believes that Mr. Rae has "an extraordinary and uncanny political ability" and is "one of the most able politicians in the country," but "he seems a thousand times more comfortable as a Liberal than he ever did a New Democrat."

There was more going on in Mr. Rae's rocky performance as premier than lousy economic times, Mr. Lewis says: "He was a Liberal acting as a New Democratic premier and he didn't know how to integrate the two into his performance," he said. "And now he is a Liberal acting as a Liberal and he is totally comfortable."

The best defence . . .

"What Bob Rae has to worry about are the attack ads," a pal proclaimed at a Toronto dinner party just after Christmas, alluding to the Conservative tradition of ad-hominem assaults, dating back to Kim Campbell and the television images ridiculing Jean Chrétien's facial deformity in the 1993 election campaign, but especially the way the Conservatives lacerated both Mr. Dion and Mr. Ignatieff – the latter with the much-repeated slogan "He didn't come back for you."

On the eve of the Liberal policy convention, the Conservatives tipped their hand that they considered Mr. Rae a leadership threat by issuing a statement ridiculing the Liberals for being like "lemmings," ready to follow him off the edge of a political cliff.

Mr. Rae came out swinging in a blistering defence of his tenure as premier of Ontario before the caucus, saying, "I was a piker compared to Jim Flaherty and Stephen Harper. Better a Rae Day than a Harper lifetime." He was still at it the following week in an interview with GeorgeStroumboulopoulos, delivering a "just watch me" diatribe worthy of Mr. Trudeau during the October Crisis.

In conversation, Mr. Rae, who has always said politics is more like "hockey than ballet," is less heated but equally insistent that he can and will defend his record. But he has a few other arrows in his quiver aside from toughness. He credits his experiences as a mediator and as an international representative with improving his "basic ability to interconnect."

He says he is also "a lot more relaxed than I used to be. I genuinely enjoy meeting people and going on tours, and I think that has allowed me to put things in perspective."

As well, unlike Mr. Dion or Mr. Ignatieff, Mr. Rae is a known quantity. His record as premier has been minutely documented, beginning with Thomas Walkom's excoriating condemnation, Rae Days: The Rise and Follies of the NDP, in 1994. Can there possibly be any more skeletons in that Queen's Park broom closet?

No, says Ms. Perly Rae, a fervent supporter of her husband's record and abilities. "He's got the wisdom and the learning, but there is nothing else to reveal," she says. "There is a slightly brash confidence that comes when you are young, but suddenly to be hurled into the premiership was a big job. He's more relaxed now. He's more fun."

An entire generation has grown up since Mr. Rae's government was defeated in 1995. In the meantime, as a self-defined "recovering politician," he developed a reputation for taking on difficult issues: the Air India bombing, the restructuring of the Red Cross, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the crisis at Burnt Church and nation-building in the Forum of Federations.

That's the way Mr. Rae sees the interim leadership – as a challenge to fix the Liberal Party. "This is more complicated because it is a political party and everything is done in public."

Comeback kid

Mr. Rae is far from being the first politician to come out of the wilderness and back into the fray. The list includes Robert Bourassa in Quebec, Mr. Chrétien and even Richard Nixon in the U.S.

But is he too old? "Bullshit," he says.

At the convention, I heard him use an even stronger expletive, after pointing out that his grandmother, Nell, had lived to be 107 and that his mother was doing just fine at 97. "My generation are going to want to stay active, and frankly they are going to have to, in many cases," he says. Rather than age, he wants to talk about experience and vision.

Mr. Barber, the delegate from Simcoe North, who is also a teacher at a correctional centre in Penetanguishene, Ont., agrees, citing Jean Chrétien as an example. He was dubbed "yesterday's man" when he became Liberal leader in 1990, but went on to win three majority governments.

"People re-elected Jean Chrétien consistently because he had a good sense of what the Canadian public wanted," Mr. Barber says. "And that is something we have lost. Bob, for all of his history, is very forward-looking."

Mr. Barber thinks that the party needs to absorb the lesson of the current NDP, which is dropping in the polls after the death of Jack Layton. "You need a really good organization and a strong leader. If you are missing one or the other, your success isn't going to last."

The only way to have both is to open up the institution – as Mr. Bissell, the University of Toronto president, did when Mr. Rae was a student – and let a younger generation participate in rebuilding for a new, more democratic age.

That process, led by Mr. Rae, will draw in more leadership candidates, Mr. Barber is betting, and that's a good thing – for the party and Mr. Rae. He has "made the job look attractive again."

Sandra Martin is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail

Editor's Note: The version of this story that appeared in Saturday's newspaper and online earlier misspelled Arlene Perly's surname, and overstated the number of Rae Days. This version has been corrected.