Playing against type - Macleans.ca
 

Playing against type

Was this a fluke, or the dawn of an era of a more human, more likeable Harper?


 

Playing against typeIt could have gone so badly. If Stephen Harper had hammed it up, he might have looked like a phony politician executing a cheap publicity stunt. If he had, on the other hand, shrunk from the moment, appeared too uncomfortable, then the episode might only have reminded Canadians that their Prime Minister isn’t the easiest guy to warm up to. If he had chosen a trickier song for his surprise appearance on stage at last Saturday’s National Arts Centre gala, he might have looked as if he was trying to prove something. Nobody likes a show-off.

But the Prime Minister fell into none of those traps. Instead, his rendition of With a Little Help from My Friends—Harper accompanying himself on piano, with a trio of Ottawa bar musicians and one global classical music superstar backing him up—turned out to be arguably the lone unqualified example of an image-burnishing master-stroke in his political career to date. The question is whether it was a one-time fluke, or a signpost marking this as the night when a blurred political persona came, quite unexpectedly, into focus. Could it be that Harper had stumbled on a way to be himself and be likeable?

At the very least, the choice of repertoire was inspired. Paul McCartney and John Lennon wrote the song in 1967 expressly for Ringo Starr to sing, deftly limiting themselves to the few notes within their drummer’s very modest vocal range. But the tune is more than merely easy. “It’s not just any pop song,” says Queen’s University music professor Kip Pegley. “It has so much cultural capital. It’s off of Sgt. Pepper, so it’s got that album’s clout, and yet it’s so vulnerable. It’s the perfect song to reach as many people as possible.”

Respectable as the memorable first track on a landmark record; but hardly weighty—it’s a Ringo number, after all. Beloved, of course, by boomers; but, like the rest of the Fab oeuvre, newly resonant with younger consumers, thanks to the recent release of the Beatles: Rock Band music-video game and the band’s entire catalogue on digitally remastered CDs. Harper was plugging into a live current in culture, one that arcs across generations. At the same time, sung in the voice of a man who usually comes across as so guarded, the lyrics took on a comic poignancy. “I need somebody to love,” he sang with a wry glance at the black-tie crowd. They laughed, but in a sympathetic way.

It helped that Harper’s long-standing love of the Beatles is familiar as a standard line in profiles of him. The song could be accepted as genuine homage, not grasping opportunism. Yet the favourite-band bio tidbit has never attached very firmly to the popular view of the politician. At least, not until his NAC turn. His defining characteristics—tough, analytical, controlling—are hardly Beatles-esque. Where there’s been an evolution in how he’s seen, the change hasn’t done much to soften him, unless ideologue to strategist counts as softening.

It’s not as if he and his tacticians haven’t tried to graft the personal Harper onto the political. From his key early speeches after he returned to politics to unite the right, he has constantly highlighted his average-guy credentials. Middle class, two kids, loves hockey—it all reads reassuringly on paper. Unfortunately, Harper is decidedly not a guy-next-door type. He’s given over his entire adult life to vaulting political ambitions, tinged with hard-core ideological convictions. And he can be ruthless. Last fall, it’s worth remembering, he first tried to financially ruin the opposition parties. When they fought back, he suspended the democratically elected Parliament to prevent his own fall from power. He’s not so Ringo-like.

Every previous effort to make him appear unthreatening or fun-loving was either an outright failure or only a partial success. Any politician risks looking goofy in costume. But has there ever been a more wince-inducing sight than Harper in a leather vest and cowboy hat? A forced family photo op can’t possibly convey the real feeling between a parent and child. But that one where Harper stiffly shook his son’s hand while dropping him at school was a ready-made caricature of chilly reticence. The sweater vest he donned for TV ads during last fall’s campaign was instantly recognized as contrived anti-chic.

And yet, through all the miscues, something real about Harper kept coming through. Just look at the numbers. Pollster Nik Nanos’s regular opinion survey on political leadership finds Harper not only chosen by more Canadians as the most competent federal leader, by a 36 per cent to 26 per cent margin over Michael Ignatieff, but also as most trustworthy, by a yawning 31 per cent to 14 per cent edge over the Liberal leader. The advantage on competence can be credited to Harper’s no-nonsense political style; the solid trustworthiness rating reflects a public reading of his underlying character.

Harper has lasted long enough now on the national stage that his image has taken on shadings. Different traits were on display, Nanos observes, in several different, but equally positive, prime-ministerial outings over the past few weeks. Statesmanlike at the G20 in Pittsburgh. Prudent as he argued in Ottawa against an early election as the economy recovers. Engaging when he sat down at the NAC’s Steinway grand. “There’s a level of nuance there that over time Canadians are being exposed to,” Nanos says. “He’s conveying that he’s a complex man, which is very different from what people thought of him in 2004.”

In fact, “complex” doesn’t quite capture Harper’s variable quality. Sometimes he presents outright contradictions. After famously scoffing during last fall’s campaign at “rich galas,” this autumn he scores big at one. Although he’s often professed a reluctance to use his personal life in politics, last fall’s Tory platform document was lushly illustrated with Harper family photos. His party doesn’t worry much about dividing lines between personal outing and partisan opportunity. His NAC appearance was described afterwards as a favour to his wife, Laureen Harper, the event’s honorary chair. Rather than being satisfied with viral YouTube viewing and media coverage, though, the Conservatives explicitly politicized the performance by posting video of it on their website—exactly as they would their latest attack ad aimed at Ignatieff.

It would have taken real restraint for Tory strategists to let the moment have a life of its own. They’ve been trying so long, after all, to humanize Harper, and suddenly there he was—recognizably himself and yet somehow nicer. Charisma is beyond him. But a certain wry, self-aware humour, he proved, at least this once, is not.


 
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Playing against type

  1. Why does Geddes so often have an undertone of sheer pettiness. Phrases like 'charisma is beyond him' – as if Geddes is final arbiter on charisma- terms like 'at least this once', and the presumption that if you prefer to keep your family life a low profile it means that you must pretend they do not exist. It all seems so petty.

    • Do a google image search on John Geddes (I kid you not) – this is the first hit you get (http://jaydixit.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/… Is speaks to one clear fact: Geddes IS charisma.

      The evidence?
      -When Geddes turned 18, they gave him a Nobel peace prize for all the ladies he would surely make very happy.
      -Geddes once solved the Israel-Palestine crisis, dressed as a Nazi holding a cartoon of Muhammad.
      -It is against the constitution for Geddes to run in elections, because he would win in every seat and Canada would become a dictatorship.
      -The washboard was invented by taking imprints of John Geddes' abs.

      The votes are in, John Geddes IS the final arbiter on charisma.

      • I stand corrected.

        • Actually JG is merely giving us the benefit of his, i presume, considered opinions. You and HH on the other hand are reacting like a couple of Harpermania groupies. " How dare he say our guy doesn't have charisma; who does he think he is"? Never mind that most reasonable observers would agree with Geddes. Harper as Trudeau; Harper as Obama? Get real! Don't despair boys, Harper may not have charima but he can bang out a tune and put the boots to his political opponents. It's admittedly not much, but it is something for you to fawn over. Fawn over harper if you will, just don't be so juvenile when someone else desides not to.

          • I'm surprised at the read on the article here. Don't see it as anti-Harper at all. Quite the contrary.

  2. "Respectable as the memorable first track on a landmark record.."

    Yes it was a landmark record, one of the greatest ever and yes a very memorable track but no, it was not the first track, so I guess not so memorable for you.

  3. Yo-Yo Ma was caught earlier this year, pretending to perform live at Obama's inauguration. This time the canned music came from Canada's PM. "Won't Get Fooled Again" should be the next refrain.

  4. I'm sure Mr Harper can be personable, but he is also a very shrewd politician. Was the sweater vest a peek at his softer side, or a calculated attempt to soften his image?
    Like it or not, "image" is a big part of the game and if Stephen has the cojones to belt out a tune, then well done, I say.
    The thing is, this excellent piece of showmanship should not give him a free pass on addressing concerns about his government. We deserve better than being told he's won Finance Minister of the year when we question the huge discrepencies in Jim Flaherty's numbers. What happened to transparency and accountability? Kevin Page? The list goes on.
    Mr Harper is lurching towards being outright dismissive when anyone raises concerns with his government and/or leadership.
    He may belt out a good tune, but I need good government, not a song and dance

  5. What is this? So many people see this as a such a great thing, a light attempt at Harper being the guy next door… Seriously, everthing this dictator does is calculated to the nth degree. His hypocrisy knows no bounds… 1 year ago he trashed every person who performed and attended this same event. So it's ok to show up and pull off this stunt. The man has cahones, that's for sure.

    What amazes me is that Canadians have such a short memory. This is what happens when the opposition is so impotentent. It's embarassing…

  6. I'm surprised at the read of this by commenters above as an anti-Harper piece…

    I thought that this piece, just like Geddes' piece in May 2005, is quite pro-Harper.

    "And yet, through all the miscues, something real about Harper kept coming through." Viz., that the 'real' Harper is one that many Canadians like and even trust.

    The PM's darned interesting. More interesting, to my mind, than the guys on the other side…

    "The advantage on competence can be credited to Harper's no-nonsense political style; the solid trustworthiness rating reflects a public reading of his underlying character."

    That's a solid compliment. If I were in the Conservative war room, I'd be forwarding this article around.

    • Here's the May 2005 piece.
      http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=200505

      Okay, maybe "pro-Harper" is stretching it a bit. But it certainly presents the PM as an interesting — even fascinating — study in Canadian political leadership.

      I just don't see these as articles that make the PM look bad. On the contrary, it makes him look like someone you might want to keep around for a while as head of the government…

  7. I'm surprised at the read on the article here.

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  8. This is a balanced article by Geddes. But the overall presentation by Macleans Magazine on Harper's well planned gig comes off as being over the top, to the point of being nauseating!! Macleans has lost its objectivity and its credibility. It will loose subscribers.
    Yes, charisma is beyond PM Harper as it was way beyond PM Mackenzie King. Yet, King ruled Canada largely unchallenged from 1921 to 1948 except for PM Bennett's one term, 1930-35.
    A dull and drab King looked good in comparison to both Arthur Meighen, an uptight, intellectual, arrogant Conservative aristocrat ( I am smarter than everyone in the room type) and PM Bennett, a bombastic, self-made millionaire who bought the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1927 and then ran King out of office in 1930 with his stupid promise to end the depression overnight.
    Harper's strengths are two fold. His unwavering sense of confidence that comes from his Christian fundamentalist beliefs and values. He is right and they – the opposition and his critics – are wrong! Mackenzie King had the same attribute and it came from his embracing of theosophy! And he spoke with his mother via a clairvoyant!
    Two, Harper has remarkable communications skills. His populist-inspired strategy of communicating directly over the heads of Canada's federal and provincial political élites ( he avoids the national media) goes over very well with Canada's working middle class who feel they are hard-pressed and overworked.
    Harper's weakness comes from his excessive partisanship à la Brian Mulroney!! This is demonstrated by his decision to equate his Conservative Party with the government of Canada by the adolescent trick of making out government stimulus cheques under the logo of the Conservative Party and signed by himself of his Cabinet ministers and MPs. This is truly juvenile and it undermines the much needed distinction between government and party.

  9. This is a balanced article by Geddes. But the overall presentation by Macleans Magazine on Harper's well planned gig comes off as being over the top, to the point of being nauseating!! Macleans has lost its objectivity and its credibility. It will loose subscribers.
    Yes, charisma is beyond PM Harper as it was way beyond PM Mackenzie King. Yet, King ruled Canada largely unchallenged from 1921 to 1948 except for PM Bennett's one term, 1930-35.
    A dull and drab King looked good in comparison to both Arthur Meighen, an uptight, intellectual, arrogant Conservative aristocrat ( I am smarter than everyone in the room type) and PM Bennett, a bombastic, self-made millionaire who bought the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1927 and then ran King out of office in 1930 with his stupid promise to end the depression overnight.
    Harper's strengths are two fold. His unwavering sense of confidence that comes from his Christian fundamentalist beliefs and values. He is right and they – the opposition and his critics – are wrong! Mackenzie King had the same attribute and it came from his embracing of theosophy! And he spoke with his mother via a clairvoyant!
    Two, Harper has remarkable communications skills. His populist-inspired strategy of communicating directly over the heads of Canada's federal and provincial political élites ( he avoids the national media) goes over very well with Canada's working middle class whose members feel they are hard-pressed and overworked. The new middle class of the 1990s and 2000s is far more socially and fiscally conservative than its post 1960s predecessor.
    Harper's weakness comes from his excessive partisanship à la Brian Mulroney!! This is demonstrated by his decision to equate his Conservative Party with the government of Canada by the adolescent trick of making out government stimulus cheques under the logo of the Conservative Party and signed by himself of his Cabinet ministers and MPs. This is truly juvenile and it undermines the much needed distinction between government and party.