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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

The confessions of Michael Ignatieff Add to ...

In his new book, Fire and Ashes, Michael Ignatieff describes how his lifelong friendship with Bob Rae went up in smoke. It happened over Chinese dinner in 2005, when Michael and Zsuzsanna broke the news to Bob and Arlene that they were packing up their life at Harvard and moving back to Canada so that Michael could go into politics. Mr. Rae (who harboured not-so-secret ambitions to get back into the game himself) was furious. “He exploded,” Mr. Ignatieff writes. “I hadn’t earned the right. He had put in the years and who did I think I was?”

Mr. Ignatieff was shocked to discover that the road to power invariably means burning bridges. Bob Rae never forgave him.

During the 2006 Liberal leadership convention he refused to release his delegates to his old friend, with the result that  Stéphane Dion, not Mr. Ignatieff,  won the race.   

Mr. Ignatieff had to wait for Mr. Dion to make a total hash of things before he got his turn.

In the end, Mr. Rae’s dim view of his ex-friend’s opportunism was widely shared by voters. Mr. Ignatieff and the Liberals were demolished in the general election of 2011. Mr. Ignatieff blames his defeat, in part, on the relentless barrage of Tory attack ads that cast him as a carpetbagger. But Mr. Rae had a point. He was a carpetbagger.

Like a flawed Greek hero, Mr. Ignatieff believes that his greatest sin was hubris – which, in case you have to look it up, is ambition combined with pride and ignorance. He actually believed the three Liberal operatives who showed up on his doorstep in Boston one day and persuaded him that they could pave the way for him to Sussex Drive. (“The men in black,” he calls them). He had no idea that the Liberal Party was in such bad shape, that it had largely destroyed itself through infighting, scandals and intellectual exhaustion, or that the piggy bank was empty.

It didn’t take much to persuade him. He felt that destiny was calling. “Politics was in the blood,” he says. His ancestors had a noble history of public service. He knew his parents would have been overjoyed. He wanted to challenge himself and see if he was up to it. Most of all, he wanted to stop being a spectator and be a player instead. He longed to join the ranks of intellectuals like Vaclav Havel and Samantha Power, his Harvard pal who became Barack Obama’s ambassador to the UN – people who had made a difference.

“I had almost no sense of political vocation,” he writes. But he didn’t let that detail hold him back. He figured he could overcome this deficiency through sheer force of will.

A decade ago, Mr. Ignatieff wrote a widely praised but little-read novel called Charlie Johnson in the Flames. Charlie is an American journalist working in Bosnia. He, too, is a spectator, but he decides to become a player after witnessing a terrible atrocity. Things end badly. Mr. Ignatieff chose to ignore his own cautionary tale, but who can blame him? Public intellectuals seldom move the needle of history. Men of action do. And even if they flame out, they can always say they tried.

As Mr. Ignatieff tells it, he finally found out what his political mission was. It was to protect defenceless Canadians from the ravages of the ruthless Harper government, which fights dirty and strives for utter domination. Unlike them, he played fair. Unlike them, he took the high road, even when it cost him. Although he strenuously defends politics as an honourable calling, he was shocked – shocked! – to discover that Question Period is a travesty and party politics is bitterly combative and elections are a reality show devoid of content. Which is like being shocked to discover that not all the women who work in whorehouses are ladies.

Yet there are consolations in defeat. After pride comes the fall, but after the fall comes enlightenment, repentance and redemption. Mr. Ignatieff, a natural memoirist, has entered the redemptive phase. He is hard at work rebuilding his career as a public intellectual. He presents himself today as modest, self-effacing, humble. He doesn’t spare himself. Yet he also leaves the impression that he believes he failed at politics in part because he was too good for us.

Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version which said Bob Rae threw his support behind Stéphane Dion in the final leadership ballot in 2006.

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