It was 2005 when the word started to circulate in the right Liberal circles. All their troubles would be soon over. A saviour was about to appear from abroad. It seemed so promising, almost so miraculous.
After nearly 30 years away from his native Canada, the storied Michael Ignatieff was to favour us with his presence. And what a presence. Father a renowned Canadian diplomat internationally. Grandfather a member of the cabinet of the last Russian czar.
More? Star graduate of Harvard, richest university in the world. Star graduate of Oxford. Author of 14 books. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for his family memoir. Owner of seven honorary doctoral degrees. And, even more intriguing, while at the University of Toronto the roommate and rumoured best friend of one Bob Rae, later, as we know, a five-year NDP premier of mighty Ontario. When Rae fell ill with depression as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, Ignatieff nursed him back to health.
The saviour was scheduled to address the annual convention of the Liberal Party of Canada in Ottawa. I happened to be located in an aisle chair and before the soaring oratory was half-over, three different types—a press gallery veteran, a senator and a lobbyist—came over to whisper: “What seat do you think he’s going to run in?”
I wrote several columns in admiration (considering the alternatives) and apparently he had aides who could read and so a lunch was arranged. He sat down, gazed at my chest and exclaimed, “NICE TIE!” Two weeks later, at a Harvard reunion dinner in Toronto, I was at his table and he gazed at the chest of the chap next to me and exclaimed, “NICE TIE!” Three weeks later, my wife and I were at the storied Politics and the Pen dinner in Ottawa and he gazed at the blazer on her chest and exclaimed, “NICE BUTTONS!”
Oh dear, I thought. The stiff academic, loosed into the unfamiliar political world, had been taken over by the public relations flacks, hired by the party to teach him how to talk to the common folk, keeping Latin and Shakespeare to the rear.
And then there was the problem of a riding for the anointed one. It was assumed Toronto-Rosedale, where all the toffs, their butlers and cooks live, would be the appropriate soft landing. If not there, St. Paul’s, another Grit home with all the nice lawns. Strangely enough, as potential rivals for the leadership sensed the threat, the lofty academic with all those central Toronto credentials was forced to retreat to the rather humiliating geography of Etobicoke-Lakeside, out on the fringes of the suburbs.
Apparently Iggy was very hard to love. One of the Toronto papers printed a letter to the editor, from a woman who admitted she was a Liberal but wrote that “every time I see Michael Ignatieff smiling in print or on television, it reminds me of what the Duke of Wellington said after reviewing his troops before the Battle of Waterloo: ‘I don’t know what they are going to do to the French, but they scare the hell out of me!’ ”
And then there was the embarrassing leadership convention of 2006, at which all the planning for the return home was aimed. And Mr. Dithers, Paul Martin, would finally be gone. Candidates were Iggy, the alleged best friend Rae, promising young Gerard Kennedy and an unknown Quebec professor by the name of Stéphane Dion. Such friends were Iggy and Bobby that neither one would support the other, Kennedy at the last vote jumped to Dion, thus giving Liberals the worst excuse for a politician ever to appear since Donald Duck.
Dion fumbled on, the two supposed best friends equally silent, all of us assuming they would resolve their obvious dilemma and determine which of the two would be best to replace him. Such silly optimism. The Stephen Harperites, agog with glee at the inept performance of the goofy Opposition leader, watched with equal interest the two ex-roomies, still jockeying for the head spot. The arrogance of the Tories—seeing no united front against them—led of course to that insane late-2008 budget that forced Harper to kill Parliament for two months or lose his job.
The doomed goofy one, as we know, arranged his final suicide with the haywire “coalition” pact with the ever-desperate Jack Layton and—speaking of suicide—the grim Gilles Duceppe, whose avowed aim is to break up Canada. Meaning whoever succeeded Dion would be dead for the Liberals in the four western provinces. Thanks, goofus.
And so, with blood already on the floor, Ignatieff finally got serious about the alleged friendship and dispatched Rae to the ashcan by refusing to go along with a national party vote on the leadership, relying only on his caucus support to put in the dagger. Such is friendship.
Just one thing, Mike (does anyone call you Mike?) In future, junk the tie gig.