William F. Buckley once said he’d rather be governed by the first 400 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty at Harvard University. In 2011, the people of Canada made a similar choice, and Michael Ignatieff has been rootless since then. Today, it’s reported that Ignatieff will stop living part-time in Toronto and return full-time to Harvard, where he was teaching when this whole strange adventure began.
“Doomed enterprises,” Cormac McCarthy wrote, “divide lives forever into the then and the now.” Not always forever. It’s harder to blame Ignatieff for returning to Harvard than it is, in retrospect, to blame him for leaving it in the first place. I get Buckley’s point, but any entity governed by the Harvard faculty would at least have more interesting CPAC than we do. Its president is the historian Drew Gilpin Faust and its faculty includes Henry Louis Gates, Ryuichi Abe, Philippe Aghion, Stephen Greenblatt, Jill Lepore and Steven Pinker. I bet nobody reads his questions from cue cards during question period down there. When Alan Dershowitz does “The Jackal,” watch out.
Why did he ever “leave” Harvard for politics? I read Ignatieff’s most recent book on his political adventures, I swear I did, but it’s still not clear. What’s clear is that the selling proposition that was put to him by three Liberal emissaries from Toronto was that he would return to Canada with the goal of becoming prime minister. That was the point of their recruiting campaign, stated baldly at their first meeting with Ignatieff (at Harvard, natch). His denials between 2004 and 2006 were disingenuous. His adventure in high Liberalism after Paul Martin’s defeat featured one genuine insight — the late-2008 coalition offer put forward by Stéphane Dion was an idea that would not have worn well, even if it had succeeded past the first week — and not a lot of success.
He is free to return to Harvard and to the United States, where even his book about Canadian politics won more generous reviews than it did here. “The best book about what it feels like to be a politician since Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes,” David Brooks wrote in the New York Times. Some claims are so audacious, one can only congratulate the guy at the receiving end of them.
“In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with,” Ignatieff once wrote in a widely noticed mea culpa, but not as much as everyone else should be culpa on Iraq. One wishes him plenty of fun.