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.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.