(From now through the end of the campaign next week, I’ll be with the Liberal tour. Regular reports should appear here irregularly.)
As the bus passed the strip malls of suburban Laval, word reached Media Bus #2 of some excitement at one of the national networks. Apparently there was a video clip, recorded in Halifax from whence we had just arrived, of Mr. Dion. Apparently it made Mr. Dion appear rather silly. Apparently the network would be airing the clip at the top of its primetime politics show.
The bus arrived at tonight’s venue. Inside a banquet hall a few hundred partisans had gathered for another of these made-for-TV rallies. They seemed notably enthusiastic. When some of the tour techs arrived on stage and erected the Liberal-branded backdrop, they were greeted with a prolonged ovation.
A detailed description of the clip is soon being passed among reporters in the room. The initial reaction is that the Liberal campaign is ruined.
Mr. Dion appears at approximately the same time the clip is being shown to a national audience. He arrives hand-in-hand with his wife, waving and smiling, accepting hugs and handshakes. It takes him two minutes to reach the stage. The crowd is chanting his name and clapping in unison. Three dozen Liberal candidates await him on stage.
Dion, speaking mostly in French, is talking loud and fast. He is not quite in flight, but he seems eager for this. And the crowd is jumpy, pleased with any opportunity to cheer his presence. Dion talks over a heckler and when the shouty gentleman persists, the crowd simply decides to drown him out, forcing him to retreat. The Liberal campaign is tight for time—eager to get back to the plane for a strictly scheduled departure—but Dion seems almost to linger on stage.
And while all of this is happening—as Dion appears only to be raging against the proverbial dying of the proverbial light—messages from the beyond are coming in. People with access to television have seen the clip. And the consensus has turned entirely. Now it is not so much the pivotal, pathetic pratfall of a clumsy candidate who was doomed from the moment he appeared. Now it is a low point in the history of journalism. Cross words and unflattering adjectives are being swapped.
Back on the bus, someone pulls up the clip on a laptop. Those who see tell those who haven’t what they saw. Interpretations vary. There is some debate over who said and heard what and how. More messages from afar. The Prime Minister has reacted. Indeed, the Conservative tour delayed its departure from wherever it was so that he might.
On the bus and then on the plane, the discussion continues—who said what and why and what, whatever the answer to those questions, this means for the fortunes of the two men who seek to lead the country.
All of which may come down to one question: what does this matter?
What does this matter on a day when the war in Afghanistan was reported to be nearly lost? What does this matter on a day when an officer of Parliament reported that the government of Canada had under-reported and seemingly even sought to obscure the cost of that war? What does it matter when the stock market dropped another several hundred points this afternoon? What does it matter when the finance minister confirmed the fears of those who worry about their jobs and their homes? What does it matter when new questions are being asked about the government’s handling of a listeria outbreak that killed 20 people?
What does it matter, ultimately, at a time such as this, in a circumstance such as this, at a moment when the public is faced with a choice such as this?
And, if the answer to any of the above is that it doesn’t matter, what are we then to make of those who tell us it does?
The flight back to Toronto tonight is boozy and loud. Fifteen hours after the day began, everyone—crowded in small groups, leaning over seats, standing in the aisle—seems engaged in some animated discussion or another. Whatever this matters, however this matters, tonight it seems improbably important.