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Oh, Zsuzsanna

Ignatieff's wife is the Liberal secret weapon

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OTTAWA -- In 1997, Michael Ignatieff convinced his then girlfriend, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, to accompany him and his two children to spend a summer in the Rockies.

Ignatieff had just signed on as the chair of the Banff Centre's literary journalism program and would spend the summer teaching in the famous Alberta park.

"He said to me you must must come because there will be plenty of wildlife," Zsohar says. "I'm kind of partial to seeing animals in their own habitat so I said 'hmmm. . .wildlife? What kind of wildlife."

There would be lots of big game animals, Ignatieff assured her. So she went. It was her first time in Canada and for the first week every day she kept asking when they'd see the animals. Finally one morning Ignatieff called her to come quickly.

"Right in front of the kitchen window stood this old threadbare moose," said Zsohar, her eyes glistening with merriment as she remembers the moment.

"It was an elk," Ignatieff corrects her.

"An elk. He was kind of looking into the window. For a long time I thought it was a stuffed one!"

Zsohar had seen her first wild Canadian animal. There would not be many more that summer but her introduction to Canada was complete.

"There was not a lot of wildlife I have to tell you but it was a wonderful, really good time."

Zsohar tells the story with a girlish giggle in her voice, teasing her husband about his promises of lots of animals. The two are sitting in their spots, side-by-side, at a table near the front of the Liberal Express bus as it barrels down a Quebec highway near the end of Ignatieff's summer long national tour.

Zsohar, who turns 63 this month, has been along for every one of the 39,000-plus kilometres travelled to date. She will miss only the last three days of the tour this week when she is in Hungary visiting her mother.

Although the U.S. fascination with the spouses of political leaders is not really replicated in Canada, Zsohar's presence on this tour has been well documented. In part because the leader himself is always ensuring she is not far off.

Whether it's boarding an elevator after a policy meeting or returning to the bus following a lunch stop at a local Italian restaurant, he seemed to constantly be asking "where is my wife?"

He introduces her to every crowd, often times as "the boss."

If the summer tour goes down as the event that gave Ignatieff's political career it's first real boost, there will be no doubt Zsohar's role will be prominently remembered as one of the reasons why.

Not because of the intellectual or political skills she has -- which are numerous.

But because when she is by his side, Ignatieff is far better at his job.

Ignatieff freely acknowledges what his coping mechanism is for dealing with the ups and downs of political life.

"There she is," he said warmly, nodding towards his wife.

Those who work for him will tell you the sometimes-brooding and moody Ignatieff is infinitely easier to work with when Zsohar is around.

Zsuzsanna Zsohar (pronounced Suzanna Zohar) first met Ignatieff in London in 1993. Zsohar, as a publicist for the BBC, was assigned to market Ignatieff's book, Blood and Belonging. Their relationship was fodder for the British tabloids because Ignatieff, a relatively well-known journalist and television host, left his wife for Zsohar in 1995 after nearly two decades of marriage.

Zsohar -- who also had been married once before -- and Ignatieff married in England in 1999.

In 2000 they moved to Cambridge, Mass. when Ignatieff took a job teaching at Harvard. In 2005, when Ignatieff threw his hat into federal politics, the couple moved to Toronto. In 2008, she followed him to Ottawa, when he replaced Stephane Dion as Liberal leader.

They now live in Stornoway, the official residence of the leader of the opposition in Ottawa's tony Rockcliffe Park neighbourhood.

It's a night-and-day existence from the small, two-bedroom apartments they shared for the first decade of their relationship. Ignatieff jokes that he sometimes wanders around the house calling out "where are you?" because he can't find his wife.

For the first time they've been able to get cats -- a Burmese pair known as Eric and Mimi -- which they both say are a huge stress reliever.

"All the cats want is to run around and get pet," said Zsohar. "They don't care what Mr. Harper says."

She also laughs that a family of racoons came with the gardens, meaning Ignatieff's decade-old promise of Canadian wildlife at her doorstep "finally, finally" came true.

Zsohar, who was born in Hungary, doesn't exude glamour or pomp. Rather there is a quiet sophistication with a dash of mother hen to her presence. She wears little obvious make-up -- save for bright red nail polish -- and for the bus tour opts for ballet flats and khakis. Her reading glasses can often be found hanging from a gold chain she wears around her neck, a fitting librarian-esque image for a woman who devours books and is a devoted fan of her Kindle.

Zsohar says she has "no official role" with the party nor will she ever seek one. Her role, she says, is to support Ignatieff in any way she can.

She takes on the "mundane tasks" of packing and unpacking, ensuring clothes are washed and sleep is attained. On the road, she is also Ignatieff's chief calorie counter.

"I have to act as an enforcer," she says. "There were days in the first and second week when we had four stops at an ice cream parlour and every single stop, whenever I turned around, I saw my husband with a huge ice cream cone!"

Ignatieff is forced to acknowledge his wife's eagle eyes on his waist line when he proudly proclaims he served up 110 ice cream cones in 25 minutes at one stop in southwestern Ontario in July "and didn't eat a single one."

"You didn't eat a single," Zsohar asks, turning to him with eyebrows raised and a skeptical lilt to her voice.

"Well, I had one," he concedes quickly.

"Exactly," she proclaims. "I saw you!"

"I had wild cherry," he adds. "It was really good." It is exactly the kind of exchange which gives a softer edge to Ignatieff, a man many have long seen as arrogant and domineering.

When the Liberal tour bus arrives at a senior's apartment complex in a suburb of Montreal in August, she marches into the crowd and finds a seat among the residents, immediately chatting up one woman about everything from the weather to health care issues.

She isn't afraid to say what she thinks on political issues -- she doesn't agree with the government's decision to close prison farms for example -- but she isn't inserting herself into policy debates or helping form the party's platform. When Ignatieff met with members of the city council in Longeuil, Quebec, she retreated to a chair by the window (smartly choosing the coolest corner of a very warm room) and stayed out of the way.

While Ignatieff and Liberal MPs discussed issues such as Ottawa's decision to hand the reins of a Quebec veteran's hospital to the provincial government, Zsohar was content to watch passing traffic six storeys below, and scroll through photographs on the iPad belonging to the tour's chief blogger and speechwriter.

When Ignatieff is speaking French to a mixed anglophone and francophone crowd outside Montreal she isn't afraid to remind him to repeat himself in English. (Zsohar knows several languages but has not yet mastered French).

She also sees her role not just as supporter but of grounder.

"To make sure he will never just become Michael Ignatieff the politician," she said. "I'm not suggesting he would, but just in case he is tempted to, my role is a sharp tug on the sleeve."

That includes normal family events like phone calls with the kids -- Theo, 26, and Sophie, 23 from Michael's first marriage -- and attending Sophie's recent graduation from the University of Edinburgh.

"A tearful dad watched her go down and we waved and he whooped and hollered and hooted," Zsohar says.

The kids have opted to remain out of the public eye, a decision both Ignatieff and Zsohar support and respect.

Zsohar has landed immigrant status in Canada is awaiting approval on her citizenship application and with this tour, her summers in Banff, and a previous cross-country tour with Ignatieff in 2000 while he was doing research for the book that would become True Patriot Love, Zsohar has fallen in love with her new home and seen more of it than most Canadians ever will.

Ignatieff said it's been "very good to see the country "through her eyes" and says he knows he cannot do political life without her.

Zsohar said it may sound a bit corny but when she and Michael decided together that he would enter politics, she fully endorsed it.

"I really don't think it would be easy for me to sit at home and wait until he comes home and ask 'so what did you today dear," she said. "The truth of the matter is we actually kind of like each other's company."

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2010 h12

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