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FROM THE ARCHIVES: Czar Ignatieff

Two years ago, we asked if Canada could live up to Michael Ignatieff’s lofty expectations. Here’s a look back at his launch into politics.


 

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Nov. 20, 2006—We’re inside Jello, a Montreal club viscous with young Liberals. They’ve gathered this Saturday night in mid-September for the launch of “iggynation,” a series of grunge-bar events designed to bolster youth delegate support for Michael Ignatieff. Any whiff of manufactured Trudeaumania goes unnoticed by the crowd, most of which wasn’t alive for that last spontaneous thrill in the Canadian political imagination almost four decades ago. The ’60s vibe continues in the campaign poster above the stage, a knock-off of Andy Warhol’s vibrant silkscreens of commercialized pop-culture icons — Elvis, Marilyn, Mao. And now, joining their ranks, if only subliminally, Michael Ignatieff, the paragon of that decade’s “The personal is political” rallying cry.

Anticipatory energy crackles. The arrival of the 59-year-old author, marquee public intellectual and human-rights activist well- versed in the world’s sorrow, is greeted with cheers. Cellphones are lifted to capture his image. Senator Roméo Dallaire, the famed former UN troop commander, takes the stage to introduce him. “I’m not just here as a friend and buddy,” he says, “but because he is the only person who can articulate a vision of Canada, who can move the yardstick of humanity, who can move the country well beyond the borders in which we find ourselves.” To a chorus of “Michael, Michael, Michael,” Ignatieff stands before the room, his smile bashful in the benediction.

Gliding between English and dulcet French, Ignatieff delivers a bespoke speech that is as repetitive as a Liberty print: hope, opportunities for youth, hope, fiscal governance as a generational responsibility, hope, equality of citizenship through education, hope, a globally involved Canada, more hope. “Everybody in this room is going to have one heck of a life. I can guarantee it,” he promises. “You’re bright, you’re smart, you’re the best this country has produced. But you’ve got to make sure that everybody in the country feels the same hope and optimism.”

His Canada will take a valiant role on the international stage. “I pledge to you, I pledge to Roméo, we will never send Canadians into the horror Roméo had to live through,” he says, his voice rising with passion. “I pledge to Roméo now, I pledge in front of you, we will always send Canadian soldiers to accomplish missions of human protection with the resources, the rules of engagement, the rules of the road, the command structure and the support from the political apparatus that allows a great man to get the job done.” The crowd erupts. He speaks of creating a youth corps in Afghanistan: “We can send you over there in safe and secure roles — building roads, digging ditches, teaching school, helping to reduce infant mortality.”

The Canada he wants to build will give everyone “a sense in your gut that you’re Canadian,” he says. “This is the challenge of federal leadership and all other challenges will pale behind it. And if I can’t get your help to do it I will have failed, but I’m deeply confident as I look into your faces tonight, as I see the hope, the love of your country in this room, we can do this, we can do this. And that’s what politics is all about.” It is a moment of perfect symbiosis: the philosopher king before the willing clay he wants to form into his nation, an audience looking to this famous stranger for its political redemption.

It is telling of the current political moment, one in which The Daily Show contempt for professional politicians is rife and Angelina Jolie speaks at Davos, that Michael Ignatieff has become the man to beat for the leadership of the Liberal party. He has, as every Canadian knows, lived outside the country’s borders for more than three decades. His administrative experience is limited to running a tiny centre within Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His House of Commons exposure can be counted in days. He is a man for whom the word “liberal” one year ago summoned the names Jeremy Bentham and Wilhelm Röpke, not Ruby Dhalla and Denis Coderre. Yet some 30 per cent of Liberal delegates and 39 MPs — almost half the caucus who have declared their support for a leadership candidate — are wagering on him for electoral salvation. He has become the measure against which the Liberal leadership race has been waged, animating discussion of what it is to be Canadian and what it means to be a politician. His handlers bill him as a statesman for the post 9/11 era. “Guys like me are passé,” says David Peterson, the former Ontario premier and honorary national co-chair of Ignatieff’s campaign. “This is not politics as usual. He is something special.”

“This guy can operate at 150 miles an hour when the rest of us are operating at 90,” says Dallaire. “While most politicians try to just survive the future, this guy is moulding the future. And that is leadership. Management is surviving; leadership is moulding.”

Ignatieff’s lack of a political track record makes him ripe for wild projection. Peterson says he’s seen only one politician with equal communication skills: Bill Clinton. “But there’s no bad boy to Michael,” he says. “Clinton would want to drag you into the bedroom, but he’ll drag you into a classroom.” David Goodhart, editor of the London-based magazine Prospect and an Ignatieff friend, sees similarities with Tony Blair “in terms of silver-tongueness and general attractiveness. Blair is not as intellectual as Michael. But they’re not a million miles apart.”

In an age of convergence, it’s assumed Ignatieff’s impressive skill set will transfer readily to the political arena. Stephen Clarkson, the political scientist and author whose books include The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics, is skeptical. “Liberals may be basking in the reflected glory of his star power on the grounds that he made it in Harvard and was published in the New York Times, but will this romance translate into rallying the dissidents into a united campaign organization, recruiting good candidates across the country, challenging Stephen Harper on his strategy and tactics?” he asks. “He has a formidable talent. Too bad he did not learn more politics earlier.”

But there is, as the response at Jello indicates, a hunger for political engagement, a need for inspiration. Goodhart cuts to the chase of Ignatieff’s theoretical promise: “A philosopher king as party leader or prime minister one day I think is great,” he says. “I think you’re a lucky country to have him.”

The Platonic ideal of thinker-turned-doer sits under fluorescent lights in an anonymous office in his Toronto campaign headquarters. Time has softened his dark princeling features; only his saturnine eyebrows and barracuda smile retain their threat. His head bows forward in the posture of the professional listener. His voice betrays no hint of his decades in London.

Behind schedule, with a plane to catch, he makes little attempt to disguise his harried humour. Still, his responses are pensive. Ignatieff doesn’t answer a question so much as circle it, peregrine-like, examining every angle, soaring away with a vivid historical yarn, swooping back to cap off an ignored inference or to revise an earlier statement. His unwillingness to deliver sound bites frustrated his camp early on, Peterson says. “I told him, I’m going to kick you in the nuts if you give a profound answer to ‘How are you?’ ” he says. “The answer is ‘Fine.’ ”

His friends speak of his brooding intellect. “It’s so rare that someone of such inwardness goes into public life,” says Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic. “He’s one of the most thoughtful people I know. He does not believe that everything has to add up into one spectacularly breathtaking simple idea or picture.”

Yet Ignatieff’s explanation of his departure from Canada is surprisingly succinct. He had to leave, he says, because he “needed weight.” He was 21 and being courted by the Liberal party for a political destiny that seemed inevitable. Involvement in public life was a given in his family. His father, George Ignatieff, was born into Russian aristocracy four years before its violent eviction. The mercy of guards enabled his family to escape execution and the country in 1918. They would settle in Quebec a decade later. On the campaign trail, Michael Ignatieff presents his father’s story — early days of fear and hardship, a Rhodes scholarship, rise within the Department of External Affairs as an ambassador and later as celebrated diplomat — as a template for Canadian immigrant success and recompense. His mother, Alison Grant, hailed from a family that shaped the country’s educational firmament and national identity. George Munro Grant, the scholar and former principal of Queen’s University, was his great-grandfather. His grandfather William Grant was a principal at Upper Canada College. George Grant, author of Lament for a Nation, was an uncle. Vincent Massey was a great-uncle.

Ignatieff’s alpha potential was conspicuous at Upper Canada College, that harsh incubator of the country’s elite. He edited the yearbook, captained the soccer and debating teams, and was valedictorian. No one questioned his boast that he would one day be prime minister. “A centurion,” is how a former classmate remembers him dryly. At the University of Toronto, he studied history, engaged in student activism, and became close friends and roommates with Bob Rae, who, in the two-degrees-of-separation of Canadian political life, is now his primary rival. He joined the Liberal party in 1965, campaigning for Lester Pearson, a family friend. In the first indication of his Zelig-like facility to appear at history’s front lines, he was on the convention floor as a youth delegate for Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1968. As the national youth organizer in the ensuing federal election, Ignatieff witnessed Trudeaumania’s helium moment.

“I had this incredible experience on his plane, and then being at Harrington Lake the night after his victory. It was unforgettable,” Ignatieff says. “I was clearly one of those hard-eyed, ambitious teenagers who saw himself in politics very early.” Yet he veered off the trajectory. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything.’ I needed to get some weight,” he says. He has used this conceit before to explain his leaving; it’s elegant, inviting symmetrical closure. What he doesn’t say is that for a clever, restless young man who grew up in foreign embassies steeped in liberal internationalism, it would have been odder had he stayed. He needed distance from the shadow of familial accomplishment, particularly his father’s Ottawa prominence, he says. “It was a kind of force field you had to break from. Unfortunately, it has taken a little longer than I expected,” he says with an ironic laugh.

Indeed. Thirty-six years — minus a two-year return to teach — was the length of Michael Ignatieff’s odyssey back to Canada. Its sweep would make a panoramic documentary of the sort he used to star in for the BCC — the cloister of august universities, the insider fabulousness of London’s Groucho Club, armchair chats with the great liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin, front-line exposure to war-zone atrocities, debriefings with U.S. military, cameo appearances by Salman Rushdie. Its Big Themes dovetail with his current quest: the exploration of liberalism’s boundaries; an obsession with identity; a movement from observer up the player ranks; a willingness to blaze new trails; and always with the momentum of knowing when to move on. Throughout, the country of his birth hovered, Penelope unaware she was waiting.

Ignatieff’s first stop, in 1969, was Harvard, attended on scholarship. His 1976 doctoral thesis explored limits on punishment in the penal system, then a fashionable topic, the French philosopher Michel Foucault having just published Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Ignatieff’s research took him to nearby medium-security prisons to interview inmates, his first exposure to those society can carelessly fail, “the bottom of the heap,” as he later described them. The thesis formed the genesis of his first book, A Just Measure of Pain, published in 1978, early indication of his ability to repackage for a secondary audience.

He was passed over for an assistant professorship at Harvard for reasons later attributed to reverse snobbery, according to a professor who claimed a faculty member rebuffed Ignatieff, believing that because of his aristocratic lineage and good looks “his accomplishments were less than they appeared.” Years later, Ignatieff would dismiss the place as “the court of the Manchu emperors.”

He accepted a two-year appointment to teach Canadian history at the University of British Columbia, arriving in Vancouver in the fall of 1976 with his new bride, Susan Barrowclough, an up-and-coming British writer. The couple wed in a whirlwind after meeting in London that summer. He found UBC confining, the curriculum dreary and irrelevant. In 1978, Ignatieff took a six-year research fellowship in the history of political economy at King’s College, Cambridge. Shunning the rigid pecking order of the university town, he commuted from London where he and Barrowclough lived in a walk-up flat.

He left the cloister of Cambridge in 1984 to write. In short order, he made a name for himself as an all-purpose intellectual ready to take controversial stands. In 1984, the lifelong liberal alienated friends on the left when he supported the Thatcher government during an acrimonious coal miners’ strike in the belief that the workers were being misled by union leaders. That year, his philosophical treatise The Needs of Strangers put him on the public-intellectual radar. In it, he identified humanity’s widespread failure to provide the community “in which our need for belonging can be met.” Dedicated “To Susan who teaches me my needs,” the slim volume showcased Ignatieff’s synthetic intellect and his ability to popularize extant ideas, in this case the challenge for public servants of providing care to those in need. It also revealed a knack for stirring aphorism: “Being human is an accomplishment like playing an instrument,” he writes. “It takes practice.”

He showed phenomenal range in his ability to cross media — as a columnist, highbrow television interviewer, writer of screenplays, essayist, and contributor to influential periodicals. His output was dizzying. “He is one of the least idle people I know,” says Wieseltier. By the end of the decade, the Michael Ignatieff brand was so fixed in the U.K. he played himself in the 1991 British comedy Antonia and Jane.

Ignatieff’s present appeared to be unfolding brilliantly. He became the father of a boy, Theo, in 1984, and a girl, Sophie, in 1987. He had chattering-class celebrity. He and Barrowclough fixed up a house. “I’m yet another of these ghastly London males of around 40,” he wrote, “who walk around believing they invented fatherhood, children, happy marriages, domesticity.” Yet the present wasn’t big enough for him; his historical self beckoned. He produced The Russian Album, a tender, nostalgic memoir of his father’s family that won acclaim and a passel of prestigious prizes, including a 1987 Governor General’s award. Twentieth-century Russia formed the backdrop of his first novel, Asya, a sweeping saga of the 90-year life of its eponymous heroine. The book can be read as thinly veiled literary atonement, an opportunity for Ignatieff to probe his complex, competitive relationship with his father. (One man recalls telling Ignatieff he knew George Ignatieff slightly. “So did I,” Ignatieff responded ruefully.) Bulging with spies and dashing White Russian officers, the romantic melodrama was met with critical scorn when it was published in 1991. (In its trouncing, Private Eye sneered it had been written by “a classic Canadian bore.”) On his book tour, Ignatieff explained the pull of his Russian heritage to the Guardian: “Oh, some of it’s Freudian. I chose Daddy’s side as opposed to Mummy’s side . . . everybody chooses the past that they identify with . . . I chose strangeness, I chose the unfamiliar.”

He cast himself grandly within an epic continuum: “I have perhaps a little more than most people a sense that my time doesn’t begin with my birth, that my clock started basically in the Russian Revolution, and by its consequences,” he said. “And that my life won’t end when I do. It’ll chunter on in some comic and unintended direction.” Ignatieff’s role, as he saw it, was intellectual redeemer: “A lot of my life has been thinking about loss, and coming to terms with that loss, and what you’ve done when you’ve lost something is go back to the wreckage and see what you can salvage. And what I think I can salvage is this vision of a modern, democratic Russia.” Family gossip of the time had Ignatieff’s interest in salvaging more closely linked to family property; the joke was that Michael had ambitions to become czar, says a relation. Ignatieff says he never considered it. “We have these estates and stuff and you’d go back and people would come up to you and say, ‘We can make very nice Holiday Inn here,’ and you’d think, ‘Me? Me running a Holiday Inn in deepest, darkest Russia? I don’t think so.'”

Toronto lawyer Michael Levine, who has known Ignatieff for decades, speaks of his sense of historical responsibility. He recalls introducing Ignatieff to Charles and Andrea Bronfman. “Only Michael could be as sensitive to the sins of his great-grandfather, and he began by apologizing for his czarist Russian past.” A man who knows Ignatieff well jokes, “there is a quality about Michael that torment is his main activity.” Arrogant is another adjective used to describe him. One man who interviewed him on the BBC in the 1990s recalls Ignatieff airily suggesting to him afterwards that he might like to do some research for him. His third-person sense of self could grate. “Someone like me does not exist in America, and that seems to me to be terrible,” he said in a 1992 interview, referring to the lack of cultural programming in the U.S. A relative recalls a holiday dinner in Canada: “He turned to the table and said, ‘I think you’re the nicest audience I’ve had in a long time.’ His wife of the time had to tell him, ‘This is family, not a studio audience.'”

Familial history, the “history of our characteristic illness,” provided the backdrop for his 1993 novel Scar Tissue. The lyrical first-person account of a son caring for a mother grappling with neurological breakdown mirrored his own mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. Its theme was less the death of a parent than the obliteration of self-history occasioned by the demise of one’s first historian, “the silent custodian of the shadow zone of my own life.” This, to Ignatieff, was itself a fatality. “Memory is the only afterlife I have believed in,” he writes.

Not all family members shared critics’ admiration for the book. Some expressed anger that privacy had been breached, a sentiment voiced about family stories published in Granta. There was distaste that the fiction veiled the fact it was not Ignatieff but his younger brother, Andrew, who cared for his mother in Toronto, sacrificing his work in international development to do so.

Andrew Ignatieff has been voluble in the past about growing up in the shade of a star sibling who deleted him him out of his family fiction. In Old Boys: The Powerful Legacy of Upper Canada College, James FitzGerald’s 1994 oral history of the school, Andrew spoke of his brother’s brutal snubbing of him when he recounted the corrosive effect the institution had on their relationship. His public posture toward his brother now is fond, if wry. Any storied estrangement is over, Andrew says. He supports his brother’s candidacy, volunteering time even though his own loyalties lie with the NDP: “As I jokingly say to people, ‘He is a difficult person to have as a brother but for many of the qualities that will make him inestimable as a leader.’ ”

Other relatives are less forgiving. “He was writing his autobiography in everything,” says one. “There wasn’t room for other people. There’s always a lot being airbrushed out. His great-grandfather was the richest man in Europe who lost all his money at Monte Carlo. That wasn’t mentioned [in The Russian Album]. It also didn’t mention that Count Paul Ignatieff ran all the pogroms in Russia. ‘Rounding up all of the Jews to protect them from outraged peasantry’ — that’s as mealy-mouthed a description of what his great-grandfather did as is conceivable.” The same relative recalls reading George Ignatieff’s 1985 memoir, The Making of a Peacemonger, before Michael Ignatieff edited it, noting: “It was far more interesting, though less well-written.”

Russia present, in the wake of the Cold War’s end and the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, formed the stage for the next phase of Ignatieff’s grand tour. As old orders broke down, the nation-states of the Soviet Union fractured into fierce, warring nationalist shards. Entire populations were obliterated in nightly news roundups. In 1991, Ignatieff began work on a BBC documentary on ethnic nationalism, Blood and Belonging. Several of the regions he chose to visit had personal resonance: the former Yugoslavia where his father had served as Canadian ambassador in the 1950s and his family holidayed at Tito’s summer residence; the Ukraine, where he sought out his family’s former estate; and Quebec, where his family is buried. The experience was transforming. Faced with the barbarities committed in the name of ethnic nationalism, the former cosmopolitan emerged an advocate of nation-building. As he writes in the book spawned by the series, “a cosmopolitan, post-national spirit will always depend, in the end, on the capacity of nation-states to provide security and civility for their citizens.”

While he was busy writing global prescriptives, Ignatieff’s domestic life flared into a hostility zone when his marriage broke down. There was always strain, says a friend. “Both of them were tough, difficult people.” He met Zsuzsanna Zsohar, the woman he would marry in 1999, when she handled the publicity for Blood and Belonging. The Budapest-born Zsohar, who headed promotion at the BBC, was known for her deft touch with luminaries. Friends say Zsohar has aided Ignatieff in “the practice” of being human. Andrew Ignatieff says his second marriage has made his brother more attenuated to the effect he has on others. “I don’t think Michael until recently understood his own capacity to generate anger and passion and devotion and fury in people,” he says.

Ignatieff’s journeys through the graveyards of ethnic genocide took him to the forefront of the emerging discipline of “humanitarian intervention,” the advocacy of military action across borders to prevent mass killing when other measures fail. This too was a post-Cold War development: with the reduction of security tensions between major powers, concerns over violations of human rights could come to the fore. It also gave new purpose to the American war machine. Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone — all were interventions, to varying degrees, justified by the seemingly unassailable “humanitarian” motive. As such, “human rights” evolved from the apolitical purview of letter-writing Amnesty International to the political application of force to redress violations. The parameters of liberalism were being redrawn to include “liberal hawks.” Ignatieff became a vocal advocate. Again, the personal became the political, says a friend who observes that humanitarian intervention reconciles the conflicted philosophical traditions personified by Ignatieff’s father and his life: “His lineage has parallel threads of human rights, internationalism, United Nations liberal principles. On the other side, there’s an understanding of, even an enthusiasm about the role of force and the military and the importance of putting a line in the sand.”

When the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, a newly formed unit within Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, sought its first full-time director, Ignatieff was the ideal fit. Funded in 1999 by voice-mail entrepreneur Greg Carr, the centre approached human rights from a public policy perspective — bringing human rights and military communities together to study law and the conduct of war. Ignatieff arrived in 2000 on a five-year contract. Students adored him. The fact he had sat around campfires with mullahs and had been shot at won him respect. “People often started the semester intimidated by what they’d heard about his intellect, but they would almost invariably come away finding him to be authentic and approachable,” says a former student, Jacqueline O’Neill. Sarah Sewall, who replaced him as director, speaks of Ignatieff’s “exceptionally adept interpersonal touch. He tends to make people feel listened to and responded to,” she says. Ignatieff refers to teaching at Carr as “the happiest moment of my professional life by a country mile. I felt at home being a teacher.” He speaks with pride of the work his students are doing in the world.

The transition from London to Cambridge was more difficult for Zsohar. She was legally not allowed to work; the couple found Boston’s cultural life lacking compared to London’s. “I was sharpening the knife to kill myself,” she jokes. They established a new pattern: Ignatieff taught and wrote; she handled everything else.

Sept. 11 — and the newly created “war on terror” — gave the centre’s work new profile. Ignatieff’s position lent authority to his support of the invasion of Iraq expressed in “The Burden,” a cover story in the New York Times Magazine in January 2003, two months before the bombing of Baghdad. “The 21st-century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science,” he wrote, “an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.” Writing in Harper’s, Lewis Lapham ridiculed the piece as “sententious and vacant prose, most of it undistinguishable from the ad copy for an Armani scarf or Ferragamo shoe.”

A close friend says Ignatieff anguished over his decision. “First he supported the war, but he did that tormentedly because it’s not something he’d do naturally. Then he had doubts about the war and was tormented because he supported the war.” Supporting the war was the most difficult decision of his life, Ignatieff says. “I have many second thoughts about Iraq, obviously.” But he maintains his basic convictions, which came out of witnessing Saddam’s treatment of the Kurds and the Shia when he was making Blood and Belonging in 1992. “The question wasn’t, did he have a nuclear program, did he have a biological program, but did he have the capacity and intention to acquire one,” he says. “I still feel that he constituted a danger.”

An intimate believes Ignatieff’s position was also influenced by the centre’s high-octane environment and the easy access between the upper echelons of the U.S. government and Harvard: “He allowed himself to be persuaded.” The American writer David Rieff, a former advocate of humanitarian intervention turned critic, met Ignatieff at a conference in Bosnia after the war. The two have sparred in print, though that hasn’t dampened a genial social relationship, Rieff says. “He’s a brilliant guy. But what I don’t think any of us understood in the ’90s was the degree to which the American project was completely hegemonic, that in a sense ‘human rights’ became the latest warrant for the American empire. And that’s what I didn’t see in the ’90s and I think it’s what Michael doesn’t see to this day.”

Rieff believes Ignatieff came to idealize American power, though not the players. (“I would think the Bush people would make him wince,” he says.) “But he thought it was a force for good in the world and he thought the engine of that force was the military. And he very much sentimentalized the military. You can see it in Warrior’s Honour, ‘The Burden,’ Empire Lite.” Rieff views Ignatieff’s tendency to romanticize subjects as his one intellectual fault. “The Achilles heel of Michael’s journalism, of his fiction, of his essay writing — though not of his straightforward academic work — is a certain sentimentalization of the people he admires and the causes he admires.”

The new landscape of detainment and interrogation prompted Ignatieff’s next philosophical high-wire act in The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, where he tried to puzzle out whether the democratic ideals of Western liberal societies could be reconciled with the coercive measures required to deal with the threat of terrorism. He proposed possible guidelines, suggesting certain “coercive interrogation” techniques — sleep deprivation, disinformation and disorientation — might be acceptable. The gambit sparked outrage and got him labelled a promoter of “torture lite.” Ignatieff responded angrily to critics, accusing them of failing to grasp his intent. In 2004, he wrote a letter to the New York Times Book Review that began, “I’ve always thought it pathetic for authors to complain about reviews,” before condemning its review of The Lesser Evil as “a travesty” that contained an “essential error.” The next year he abruptly quit the editorial and advisory boards of the British scholarly quarterly Index on Censorship, a defender of free speech, after it ran an essay by Conor Gearty, a professor of human rights law at the London School of Economics. Gearty argued that some human rights lawyers and liberal intellectuals had provided the Bush administration with “the intellectual tools” with which to justify expansionism, and created a climate in which torture could be condoned. He named Ignatieff “probably the most important figure to fall into this category of hand-wringing, apologetic apologists for human rights abuses,” and accused him of excusing evil means to fight the greater evil of terrorism by defining them “lesser.”

Gearty doesn’t know Ignatieff but isn’t a fan of his work. “I didn’t share the estimations of many that he is so brilliant,” he says. “Then when I read The Lesser Evil I was shocked by how dreadful it was — poorly put together, contradictory, lazy, full of assertions undermined by paragraphs just afterward.” Gearty says he didn’t say Ignatieff endorsed torture, merely that he provided a moral framework for its justification. “But he hit the roof about this,” he says. “He expressed anxiety I got so many facts wrong. I said I’d be happy for him to have a reply but he didn’t.”

At Carr, Ignatieff found himself frustrated again. He joked with colleagues about the centre being filled with “laptop generals” and “Monday-morning quarterbacks.” He speaks of feeling a disconnect the few times he was in a room with decision-makers in the United States. “I would never be part of that,” he says. “When I was in the United Kingdom in ’91 during the first Gulf War, I talked to very senior policy-makers because I was a journalist, and I was always aware that there was a glass partition between the two.”

A telephone call from Toronto lawyer Alfred Apps, a long-time Liberal party recruiter, in October 2004 presented the opportunity to cross over. Ignatieff’s was one of several names on a list of people who might provide new blood to wash away the sponsorship ignomy and infuse new life into the party. Ignatieff had been cast as potential Liberal knight in the early ’90s when his name was bandied about as a possible successor to Jean Chrétien. Several friends say they spoke with Ignatieff over the years about returning to run for office. “The vehemence with which he resisted to me was an indication of him trying to insulate himself from the temptation,” says one.

There had been countless offers to return in non-political roles, Levine says — to run TVOntario (when Rae was Ontario premier) and to head Massey College at the University of Toronto, among them. Robert Prichard, president and CEO of Torstar, says he tried to recruit his former UCC mate to U of T when he was the dean of law in the ’80s and its president during the ’90s. Ignatieff shrugged off all offers. “You can’t go home again,” he told Saturday Night in 1992.

Ignatieff had, since leaving, oscillated between Canadian outsider and insider. In the early 1990s, he told an interviewer that the only thing he missed about Canada was Algonquin Park. In the preface to his 2000 book The Rights Revolution, which named Canada an exemplar in upholding the claims of distinct ethnic and linguistic communities, he presented himself as an “alien”: “This book may seem like a report by a visitor from a distant planet. I want to alert readers that I am a Martian outsider.” At Carr, however, he self-identified as Canadian to the point of obsession, introducing debates on the Clarity Act, Aboriginal rights, NAFTA. “Literally every assertion of political judgment was preceded by ‘I’m Canadian but’ or ‘I’m Canadian and,’ ” says Samantha Power, the human rights activist who became friends with Ignatieff when she taught at the centre. “This was a long before he was talking about going back to Canada. It was this bizarre tick he had: ‘I’m Michael Ignatieff. I’m Canadian.’ ”

Dallaire, at the centre on a fellowship in 2004, became an ally. “I could find in him someone who could articulate things about Canada I only felt,” he says. “He was out of the country but kept abreast with the country. I know a lot of people who live in this country but don’t have a clue what goes on beyond their town, their region. If there’s a country that’s turned onto its belly button to ponder, it’s Canada.”

Ignatieff was a virtual citizen, well-informed from afar. When he returned it was to teach — stints at the Banff Centre of Fine Arts, taken, he says, to give his children a Rockies vacation — or to proselytize. At the 1998 Keith Davey lecture in Toronto, he described Canada as a “fiction” that was “never finished, never the same in every mind that imagines her, but the fiction that allows us to say the word ‘we.’ ” Canada was always eager to have him. Former head of CBC TV programming Slawko Klymkiw says that when Ignatieff’s BBC work dried up in the mid ’80s, Newsworld created an interview show for him based in London, which ran a year.

By 2004, Ignatieff’s odyssey was winding down. He continued the conversation with party organizers. “I had to test out whether they had the organizational sinews to secure a nomination,” he says. Certainly he had acquired “weight”: 16 books translated into a dozen languages, eight doctorates (seven honorary), two grown children, an ex-wife, a new wife, awards and international renown. Additionally, there was the burden of “The Burden.” Samantha Power believes that the fallout from the war in Iraq played a formative influence in his decision to run for office. “I do think the war brought to light a dissonance that became unsustainable,” she says. “It was ‘Show me the money. Walk the walk.’ All of the virtues of being a public intellectual come to feel a little hollow when the stakes are this high. I think getting it wrong exposed that, and the war going as wrong as it did. I don’t know whether it’s redemption or compensation or a bewilderment at the bad judgment of people in power.”

Ignatieff agrees. “Iraq reinforced a sense that I’d not only never belonged there but I could never participate there,” he says. “And there’s something about sitting being a columnist writing endless pieces for the New York Times. I’d gone as far as I could go.” He alludes to other metaphysical needs. “I wanted to feel at home in my own country and I wanted to participate in my own country’s life and I felt I had something to offer,” he says. “I had international experience. I had a lifetime of liberal commitments. If you look at the written work, it’s all about what being a liberal is.”

The writing that casts greatest insight into his outlook at the time, however, is Charlie Johnson in the Flames, his third novel, published to little fanfare in 2003. Its central character is a world-weary American newsman in Kosovo who watches helplessly as the woman who had provided him shelter is set ablaze by a Serbian soldier. He sets out to confront the soldier with calamitous results. A sense of drift courses through the novel. “What he wanted to do was to go home,” Ignatieff writes of his central character. “But there wasn’t one to go to.” Ignatieff rejects comparisons between himself and his fictional characters. But he does admit to a need to feel “anchored.” His father returned to Canada as the provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto when he was in his fifties, he says. “I saw what it did for him; it gave him a sense of being home. I think there’s some kind of homing instinct that has replayed from father to son.”

The ease with which Ignatieff arrived on the political stage removes any doubt of outsider status. He was invited to deliver the keynote address at the Liberal policy convention in March 2005, his national audition. A panegyric to the party, the speech revealed Ignatieff’s Big Picture sensibility: “National unity, sovereignty, social justice — the three fundamentals — and everything else, ladies and gentlemen, is detail,” he said. In June, Ignatieff and Zsohar dined with long-time Liberal organizer Senator David Smith, who conferred his blessing. In August came his appointment as Chancellor Jackman Visiting Professor in Human Rights Policy at the University of Toronto. After a federal election was called at the end of November, a vacant, winnable riding materialized in Etobicoke Lakeshore when veteran Liberal MP Jean Augustine abdicated her seat after an avuncular chat with Smith and a meeting with Ignatieff. He would be nominated by acclamation after all other applicants were rejected on technical grounds.

Ignatieff’s Canadian ambitions were always national. In an interview in the Guardian, he identified the “unhealed wound” of Quebec’s separatist urge as his signature political concern. “We have an existential politics in Canada,” he said. “Do we survive or don’t we? The next train leaving on platform three is a separatist challenge.” He presented it as a do-or-die proposition, as if the year were 1969. “I thought, this [election] has got my name on it,” he said. “I don’t want to be sitting in an ivory tower years later bemoaning how things turned out.” Though born in Toronto, Ignatieff has always identified with Quebec. He says the prospect of the province’s separation fills him “with something like physical pain, anguish, tears. I can’t think about it. My parents are buried there. It’s very emotional.”

It would be angry Ukrainian-Canadians, however, not séparatistes, who opposed his political entry after a quote from Blood and Belonging was spun out of context. Fighting through the fracas, Ignatieff won the seat handily. Andrew Ignatieff recalls a conversation he had with his brother before he came back. “I told him Canadian politics is not about ideas and vision, it’s the mad scrabble stuff,” he says. “And I think the one thing he found out about himself is that he’s a scrapper.” The unexpected Liberal defeat denied Ignatieff his anticipated learning curve. But opportunity presented when Frank McKenna chose not to run for the leadership. On April 7, capping his freshman week in the House of Commons, Ignatieff announced his candidacy. The man who described himself as “a lone wolf, not an organization man,” in Saturday Night in 1992, was ready to lead the pack.

He had theorized about political leadership, of course. Ruminating on Trudeau’s legacy in Saturday Night in 1987, he posited that Trudeau recast the Canadian politician mould: “he showed that Canadian leaders can make up new rules (you don’t have to be folksy, you don’t have to be approachable, and you can challenge and debate the assumptions of the electorate and win its confidence). It is not his fault if we are still waiting for a generation of Canadian politicians secure enough with their own identities to exploit his breakthrough in the rules of political discourse,” he wrote. Yet paragraphs later, Ignatieff does fault Trudeau, saying he “inherited a great national party and left it a rump. If a prince is judged not only by his actions but by the quality of the succession he manages to arrange, then there is a lot of failure to explain.” It would be this same kind of failure that paved the way for Ignatieff’s viability as a candidate whose political record was pristine by its very absence.

Ignatieff the politician is a work in progress, a compendium of his professional reinventions. Adopting the immersion approach of his academic-journalistic past, he set off on a “listening” tour of the country. He wrote a policy primer, Agenda for Nation Building, brimming with elegantly phrased curatives — a shared “spine of citizenship,” the phrase “Quebec est ma nation, mais le Canada est mon pays,” and the identification of the new “two solitudes” in the urban-rural divide. “We are a great people, we are a serious people,” he instructs his fellow Liberals.

The former virtual citizen is still figuring out his audience. That was revealed in his now-notorious response to the Israeli bombing of civilians in the Lebanese village of Qana — first “I’m not going to lose sleep over that,” then that he regarded it as “a war crime.” Both appeared utterances of a human rights professor — by turns jaded and indignant — who assumed a sympatico audience. A friend of Ignatieff’s suggests that the flippant “not going to lose sleep” claim can also be traced to Ignatieff’s former life as a pundit. “He slid into clever TV-personality response rather than wearing the discipline of a political leader in a dangerous environment,” he says.

Ignatieff can appear like a tourist who has read the guidebooks yet lacks residents’ innate knowledge of where neighbourhoods turn dangerous. His absence from the country is revealed in the details. At a meeting discussing the future of cities, someone said, “Hazel won’t like that,” a reference to legendary Mayor Hazel McCallion of Mississauga, Ont. “Who’s Hazel?” he asked. When asked about Québécois cinema on the Quebec talk show Tout le monde parle, he mentioned Jean Pierre Lefebvre, the director for whom his first wife organized a 1982 retrospective in London. Stephen Clarkson says he attended a fundraiser in Toronto at the National Club where Ignatieff told the crowd that the Liberal party had always been a party of idealism: “And he said it with a straight face!” he says.

His organizers say finding a comfort zone has taken time. “He’s finally relaxing,” Peterson says. “He doesn’t look like he has gas all the time now. It takes a little time to learn that, to find your emotional centre of gravity.” Zsohar is often by his side. Informal in style, she works the crowd easily. While approachable, she refuses to sit down for a formal interview. The campaign is about her husband, not her, she says. “We’ve seen two for one and it doesn’t work,” she jokes, referring to the Clinton presidency. Yet the former publicist’s influence is plain. She observes her husband through her Chanel glasses not as adoring spouse but as PR expert, advising him on who he should be talking to, what people say when he walks away, to better his posture. It is a pattern they established at Harvard when she’d occasionally sit in on his classes. In public, the couple appear seamless, touching often. On holiday they read thick masterpieces to one another, recently A.B. Yehoshua’s A Woman in Jerusalem. Returning to Canada was always part of their plan, says Zsohar, who has applied for Canadian citizenship. “You can only have political voice in your own country.”

Canada, Ignatieff has decided, is now his grand stage, the backdrop for his historical self. He refers to Frank Pickerskill, a Canadian secret agent captured by the Gestapo in France in 1943 and later tortured and executed in Buchenwald as a hero. “My mother loved him and probably would have married him,” he says. “These are hugely defining experiences for me and they all happened before I was born.” His family provides a Narcissus pool to the Liberal party, a limbic link to its nation-building glory days. He speaks of his father standing on the roof of Canada House in London during the Blitz. He defines himself a “Mike Pearson liberal” with the proviso that Pearsonian “peacekeeping” died in Rwanda. He picks up the baton from Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the 45-year-old parliamentarian he calls “our Lincoln.” “The 20th century belonged to the United States,” he says, updating Laurier’s promise that the century would be Canada’s. “It’s possible that the 21st century will belong to China and India. Canada will have to adapt: reducing our economic dependence on the United States, increasing our trade with the new giants of the international system, working to create stability in a world where old forces are weakening, and new forces are rising.”

He rejects the long-standing notion that Canada is a backwater, offering his own return as proof. The perception that the big leagues exist beyond Canada was a “mythology” he had to lose, he says, summoning the image of his mother singing a Judy Garland number slightly off-key while preparing dinner. He repeats the lyric: “For years I’ve had it preached to me and drummed into my head / Unless you play the Palace you might as well be dead.” He smiles at the memory, which also appears in Scar Tissue, then turns it into a tutorial: “The message — and it was the message that she understood as a young woman when she went to art school in London in the ’30s, and the message that my father heard when he went to Oxford in the ’30s, and the message I heard when I went to graduate school — was that if you grow up in Canada, you do sometimes think life is elsewhere and ‘the Palace’ is somewhere else. I went to the Palace and looked around the Palace and did okay in the Palace and realized that that was an illusion, that this place is the place to be.”

“There’s not a clear divide between Michael the novelist and Michael the historian,” says a relative. “But it also is one of the strengths of politicians to project their self-image on others. His uncle George Grant projected his own psychology on Canada and produced a bestselling book in Lament for a Nation. Churchill was someone as well who was able to identify his own ambitions with a country. In some sense he was a total shit but he was very good for the time.”

Ignatieff volunteers that his ambitions are now twinned with Canada. He presents himself as a humble public servant rather than aspiring world-stage player. “I’ve been a lot of places. I’ve been loyal to myself,” he says. “But I’ve not been loyal to a community. Being loyal to a community and trying to serve a community is a part of my life that hasn’t been there, and I would like it to be there.” He defaults to professor mode: “Because here we get to a very delicate issue — and you have to report this correctly, in context,” he instructs. “One of the things that Bob as my rival says — and says fairly, I think — is I’ve never taken responsibility. What he misunderstands is that’s precisely why I’ve run for political office: to take those responsibilities, to shoulder them.”

Denis Smith, the political scientist and author of Ignatieff’s World: A Liberal Leader for the 21st Century?, is doubtful that Ignatieff’s romantic notion of the country can be sustained. “Wait until he gets to know us,” he says. “I don’t think we can live up to his lofty expectations.” Those close to him say the journey from “small l” to “big L” liberal has been trying. “I think he finds some of the inner workings of the party very hard,” Andrew Ignatieff says. “And the relentlessness of the criticism and the off-baseness of it.” Michael Ignatieff shows frustration at being misunderstood as an intellectual. “People who say I’m an intellectual forget I’ve been a war reporter,” he says. “I’ve seen corpses, I’ve seen bodies. . . The idea that I’m a trigger-happy intellectual is as far from the truth as possible.” (His campaign has distanced him from his big-thinker reputation: “homme d’action” is how Quebec MP Pablo Rodriguez introduces Ignatieff before a speech at the Université de Montréal.)

Writing of the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin in his acclaimed biography, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, Ignatieff celebrated the intellect unshackled by partisan concern: “In a dark century, he showed what a life of the mind should be: skeptical, ironical, dispassionate and free.” Politics compromises that liberty, Ignatieff concedes: “In the exercise of leadership you have to be careful not to let personal experience and searing personal conviction drive you too far. You have to balance those convictions — which I will never abandon or lose — against a whole set of other interests.” Yet Ignatieff’s bold foray into the quagmire of constitutional talks with Quebec in the future suggests his convictions exceed his need for public approval. “He doesn’t feel the country,” Smith says. “Or it might come partly out of his enlarged ego. He might think that despite his incomplete knowledge of our recent history, he can simply come in and overcome all of the difficulties from above.” Smith observes Ignatieff has a pattern of “dreaming what can be done; when it fails he has a great collapse of belief and becomes deeply pessimistic or he walks away.”

A friend sees another pattern: “The leitmotif through his life is that he has never been entirely comfortable in any chair he sat in. Being a pure academic wasn’t happening for him. Being a pure journalist wasn’t enough for him, and accepting the disciplines and constraints of being a pure politician is demonstrably not very comfortable to him either.” That was evident during the October all-candidates’ debate in Toronto, when Ignatieff accused Bob Rae of having an indeterminate position on the Afghan mission. Rae countered with “I’m not the one who’s changed my mind three times in a week on the Middle East issue.” Ignatieff then turned the political personal. “You’ve known me for 40 years; you know that’s not true,” he said, upbraiding Rae for trying to do what politicians do: score political points.

Later that night, at his campaign’s after-party in a downtown bar, Ignatieff shows greater ease in the theatre of ideas. He becomes animated talking to a journalist who is writing about the current state of liberalism. “Have you read Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight?” he asks him, before offering suggestions on how the journalist’s article should be structured. “I wish I was writing that rather than running this campaign,” he says, trusting his audience to understand he’s joking. Or perhaps he’s already 150 miles ahead, just waiting for us to catch up


 
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