On the retirement of any significant public figure, there’s always the temptation to declare the “end of an era.” But the thing about Bob Rae, who announced today that he’s stepping down as an MP after 35 years in politics, is that he never managed to make an era his own.
It often seemed that he would. When Rae became the first NDP premier in Ontario in 1990, his stunning upset victory appeared to mark a political watershed for the province. Instead, NDP rule proved to be only a five-year interregnum through tough economic times, which ended when his party went down to horrible defeat in the 1995 election.
But Rae reinvented himself. Emerging as Canada’s go-to guy for high-level inquiries, he worked on the tainted blood issue, studied the state of post-secondary education, even advised on troubled Sri Lanka and Iraq. Out of office, he finally, decisively split with the NDP in 2002. In the process, he showed increasingly centrist instincts by criticizing his old party for failing to follow the example of Tony Blair’s success in pushing Britain’s Labour Party toward the electable, moderate middle.
By the time he joined the federal Liberals in 2006, the fit seemed, if not natural—he had been an NDP premier, after all—then at least plausible. He bid for the Liberal leadership that year and lost to Stéphane Dion. But Rae’s verbal skills were on full display. An hour or so after Dion’s triumph at the Montréal convention, a veteran Liberal organizer told me, shaking his head, that he couldn’t believe Liberals had passed on a guy with Rae’s rare abilities when it came to delivering set-piece speeches or improvising comments on the fly.
Liberals had two more chances, had they really wanted him, to change their minds. But they went with Michael Ignatieff and then Justin Trudeau. So it was Trudeau who stood beside him in the foyer of the House of Commons today as Rae, who turns 65 this summer, took questions from reporters on his departure.
It was fascinating to hear which aspect of Rae’s story dominated the question-and-answer exchange. Not his party-switching past. Not his thwarted federal leadership aspirations. Not any of his policy interests, for instance, establishing stable government in fractured nations (the subject of his book Exporting Democracy). No, most of the questions sought, one way or another, to draw Rae out on the low tone of debate in Ottawa these days, the bitterness of partisan divides.
Of course, he obliged. But listen to exactly what he said: “I think things have become nastier and I think they’ve become more rote. In the old days, there were lots of insults. Mr. Trudeau’s father and I occasionally, even when I was a young kid in the House of Commons, used to exchange comments. But at least they had the benefit of being relatively spontaneous.”
It’s telling that what Rae regrets most isn’t that talk is sometime mean, but that it’s “rote.” He’s nostalgic, when he thinks back to sparring with Pierre Trudeau, not about better manners, but about more “spontaneous” language. This seems exactly the right way to think about it. We often bemoan the way Stephen Harper’s Conservatives refuse to pass on a chance to level a partisan attack in the House. But imagine if those attacks sounded witty, conveyed the personality of the MP uttering them, or at least had the ring of human discourse rather than dull recitation.
Not every politician can rise to the rhetorical challenge. Rae could. Recent examples come to mind. Early last year, when he was interim Liberal leader and still mulling another bid to become the real thing, he invited the media in for a rip-snorting speech to his caucus. (Compare it with Harper’s miserable recent speech to the Tory caucus, also with media in the room, when he tried to quell unrest over the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy fiasco.) Rae’s account that day of his record as Ontario premier, which was still threatening then to thwart his federal aspirations, managed to be defiant without sounding too defensive.
When he finally decided not to challenge Trudeau last June, surprising many, his reflections to the media on the outlook for the third-place Liberals was what you’d hope for from a veteran capable of distancing himself just a little from the fray, yet retain the perspective of a partisan.
“Even if you look at the assessments of public opinion, and you penetrate that a little bit and talk to people about what they want to see—do they want to be forced to make a choice between the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement?” he said. “I don’t think so. I think this phony, divisive polarization, which both Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair are specializing in, is bad for the country, bad for the world. They don’t represent Canada at its best. I think the Liberal party needs to get its act together.”
That was just Rae musing aloud—no need for notes. Not many on the Hill can match him for stringing together interesting sentences. If he didn’t quite put his stamp on any era, he did, for many who were listening, establish his as one of the most compelling voices across several.