Who is Stephen Harper? "The driven loner. The obsessive knot of resentments. The floating brain in a jar in the basement of 24 Sussex, surrounded by cats and the souls of crushed Liberals."
While the prime minister may be all those things, writes senior Maclean's columnist Paul Wells, he could not have won elections in 2006, 2008 and 2011 without offering something that appeals to millions of Canadian voters.
It is this "something" that Wells seeks to define in The Longer I'm Prime Minister, his fitting follow-up to 2006's Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper's New Conservatism.
Because Wells has studied and written about Harper for so long, his attempt to get a handle on a man who quite deliberately stays low-key, formless and unknowable -- making it harder for his detractors to hate him and easier for his admirers to like him -- has an air of authority. But even so, Wells' premise that Harper genuinely believes Liberals have brainwashed generations of Canadian Conservatives into thinking they are Liberals is a startling idea.
It does explain, however, Harper's undisguised contempt for Canadians he considers to be purveyors of Liberal hegemony -- civil servants, the media, scientists, intellectuals, environmentalists -- and the delight he takes in being hated by them.
To understand Harper, according to Wells, is to understand his drive to replace a Liberal hegemony with a Conservative one that will endure. Harper exerts fierce control over anything and everything his government and party says, so that "Conservative values are Canada's values" is repeated in one form or another in soothing, reassuring tones, accompanied by images of cute kittens, blue sweater vests and vistas of the Rocky Mountains. All that is good and comforting about Canada is Conservative. All that is bad and scary about Canada is Liberal.
Harper has made no secret of this agenda. In the exuberant aftermath of winning the 2008 election -- thanks in no small part to CTV's Mike Duffy, who was rewarded shortly thereafter with a Senate appointment -- Harper drove home "the Conservative Party is Canada's Party" mantra for the cheering party faithful at a policy convention in Winnipeg.
"We will succeed because Conservative values are Canadian values," he said. "Love of country. Commitment to community. Devotion to the family. Respect for peace, order and the law. Reward for risk and hard work. These are the values on which our country was built and, in this way, the Conservative story is Canada's story."
Wells' examination of Harper's obsessiveness about holding onto power "by doing as much as he can get away with" serves up plenty of detail. But but he relies heavily on anonymous party insiders (or former insiders) to spill the beans on what goes on in Harper's secretive inner circle.
Normally, such reliance on unnamed sources is a weakness, but in this case, it seems remarkable that Wells got them to say as much as they did.
Wells does, however, paint a disturbing picture of Harper, the control freak, who is terrified that he, himself, will destroy his hold on power by saying something stupid.
If anything, Harper's extreme need for control and his vindictive lashing out against anyone he perceives as his enemy betrays him as a man who believes his hold on power is fragile and can shatter at any time.
The longer Stephen Harper has been prime minister, says Wells, "the further he drifted from his best habits and the deeper he sank into his worst."
Wells' book is not a cheerful read and it bogs down at times in election campaign minutiae. But it does shed a small amount of light on a man who puts a lot of effort into staying formless and unknowable, the better to crush Liberal souls.
Sheilla Jones is a Winnipeg-based author, former political commentator for CBC and an unrepentant political junkie.