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'Who did I think I was?'

Ignatieff owns up to his personal failure in frank political memoir

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/10/2013 (1381 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Having made a career thinking about politics, Michael Ignatieff's actual political life was brief, and intense.

Canadians know Ignatieff's story: descendant of Russian "minor nobility," son of parents with impressive political pedigrees, he left a stellar academic career at Harvard to return to Canada, only to oversee an astonishing defeat of his Liberal party, along with the end of his own political aspirations.

Paul Chiasson / THE CANADIAN PRESS archives
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff ponders a question during a news conference Saturday, April 23, 2011 in Halifax.


Paul Chiasson / THE CANADIAN PRESS archives Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff ponders a question during a news conference Saturday, April 23, 2011 in Halifax.

Professor, journalist, documentary filmmaker, novelist, pundit, politician; Ignatieff shone in all those occupations except the last. In this frank and insightful memoir, he reflects on what most of us would try to refute or ignore: personal failures.

One can sense the anxiety, the doubt and the dread he experienced during his unsuccessful sojourn into politics.

Lasting just over five years, his political career was indeed fleeting. Looking back at his time as elected politician and party leader, he finds it all "preposterous."

"Who did I think I was?"

Ignatieff doesn't answer that directly, but it's clear that public office changed him. He learned to block intuition, rely on others' advice, and opt for short-term goals, hoping they would lead to bigger things. But Ignatieff never set his compass to loftier targets. Politics is too immediate, too fickle.

In 2004, three "men in black" -- Liberal party insiders -- visited Ignatieff at Harvard, urging him to return to Canada to run for the party.

He now sees he was "boarding a ship heading for the rocks," but he believed in the "compromise" of Canadian politics. There would be none of that.

Opponents called him "American," a George Bush supporter and in favour of torture. The Conservatives relentlessly branded him a "visitor."

Unsuccessfully, he tried to stay above the fray, but politics doesn't work that way. Some friends -- Bob Rae was one -- rejected his ambition. Others, like Stephen Harper, considered him the "enemy," leaving no room for compromise.

Harper, Ignatieff says, gives the "impression of conviction," but his politics is "total opportunism" -- a dangerous yet effective combination.

He was no match for Harper's style and political machine. Disenchanted and exasperated by petty politicking, most noticeable during question period, Ignatieff loved connecting with people, and the "common life of the country."

Leadership battles were waged against Rae and Stephane Dion. The Liberals would not be a team of rivals. Rivals, yes, but no team. And wary of "coalitions," he rebuffed Jack Layton's offer to join forces, believing that his "natural governing party would be back soon."

Although campaigns failed to bring momentum, he felt "ready" in 2011. But as voting grew closer, Ignatieff saw where he and his party were headed.

"I thought I was in an election," he writes. "We were in a reality show."

Decimated by the Conservatives and overtaken by the NDP in Opposition, even Ignatieff lost his seat.

The last chapters offer reflections on politics. Once fancying himself a communicator, Ignatieff realized politics uses a different language. He reflects on Machiavelli, Max Weber and others, but it's not heavy-handed.

He weaves philosophers with cabbies and single moms, and it works in this coda to his story -- the intellectual and the politician in balance.

The "art" of Canadian politics has nobility, not status for the elite, but a dignified chance to "do better." Ignatieff's hopes to do better, sparked that evening by the "men in black," were snuffed to ashes.

However, ashes can nurture new growth, and in spite of his experience, Ignatieff's last word is hopeful.

Story told, he ends with thoughts for those willing to "surrender the entirety of your life" to politics: it is a higher "calling."

Answering the call matters more than success or failure.

George A. MacLean is associate dean in the faculty of graduate studies and professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba.


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