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Tepid times, tepid leaders

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They say that as you get older the past looks increasingly better. I wonder if that is the case with politics?

It seems that every decade voters bemoan the state of politics and politicians, claiming yesteryear featured stalwart leaders who bestrode Parliament with rhetoric and integrity in a manner that they do no more.

Is it really so much worse now? I think it depends on what you compare it with. I wasn't around when Abraham Lincoln was in the White House nor when Winston Churchill led Britain at war. I was in Canada for the last of the Trudeau administrations but by then the bloom had departed the rose.

Jean Chrétien was damaged by the sponsorship scandal. Paul Martin, who was so impressive as finance minister, failed to grasp the mantle of the prime minister's job with the same firmness and paid the price. Stephen Harper still seems stiff -- his singing of Beatles songs notwithstanding -- and he is oddly clumsy in his choice of the issues he fights on. But is Harper really less admirable than John Diefenbaker or John A. Macdonald, who was accused of taking bribes over the construction of the trans-Canada railway?

Our collective ennui with politicians has as much to do with the times as it has with the actions of the politicians or the practices of Parliament.

If the members of the House of Commons are smart they will agree in the present session to amend question period so that it resembles less of a bar-room argument and more of a quest for answers and a probing of responsibility. Having a single day to question the prime minister instead of parading him all the time would be one notable change that would remove some of the constant barracking and point-scoring that plays to television today.

But it is not question period or the sight of politicians saying one thing and voting another, as some have done over the long-gun registry, that has brought our politicians and politics into such disrepute. Politicians have always changed their minds.

Some of the decline in our opinion of our leaders has to do with the constant glare of media attention. In John A. Macdonald's time, it was possible for leaders to appear more dignified and above the crowd. In the world of the Internet that is simply impossible.

But the Internet and other media don't, on their own, explain why politics and politicians are so despised, nor why, occasionally, some rise above it. Take the last American election campaign, for example. Barack Obama rose above the fray to appear as a fresh, charismatic voice with a new plan to reshape politics in the U.S.

Today, according to Gallup polls, Obama's approval rating is tracking about the same as president Bill Clinton's and much worse than president George W. Bush's at a similar juncture in their terms in office. Therein lies a clue. Bush's approval rating shot up after the events of 9/11. There was a similar leap in the popularity of prime minister Margaret Thatcher after her decision to sail the British fleet to the Falkland Islands to rid them of the Argentine invaders.

Churchill is still admired because of the scale of the task at hand -- winning the Second World War. Bush, after a shaky early response, famously stood at Ground Zero with his megaphone and appeared as the leader Americans needed. Franklin Roosevelt combated the Great Depression and so on.

It was the times that shaped our views of the leaders. President John F. Kennedy had the Cuban missile crisis; Trudeau emerged when North America was going through the biggest upheaval in social mores in a century. His statement, "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation," spoke to a generation. Macdonald forged a country.

You might think that the financial crisis of the last two years and the resulting recession would have created a similar Big Picture opportunity. But in Canada the recession has been relatively mild and in the United States, Obama has been unable to convince his electorate that he has the answers.

Our view of politics and politicians may be at a low point because issues like the gun registry and the census may be important but they pale in comparison with 9/11 and the Cold War. Abraham Lincoln had civil war and slavery to deal with. Our leaders have no such challenges and no such issues.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 23, 2010 A15

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