Peter Donolo and the Curse of the Mummy's Hand

The Liberal Party of Canada has spent six years faithfully adopting the method of a Hollywood Egyptian emperor

It is always interesting (well, to geeks anyway) to see how a prime minister’s communications director decorates his office. They spend so much time shaping someone else’s identity that it’s instructive to see how they express their own. Kory Teneycke had three laminated political posters — a vintage Reagan Morning In America; a PM for PM poster from Preston Manning’s unsuccessful run for leader of the Canadian Alliance; and a Libranos parody poster (Chrétien and Gagliano photoshopped into a Sopranos family shot) from the Ezra days of the Western Standard — along with a World War II morale poster with the slogan, Attack on Every Front! Francie Ducros had only a huge map of riding-by-riding results from the 1995 Quebec secession referendum. Peter Donolo, famously, decorated his office with huge posters from classic Hollywood movies. (Even older Ottawa veterans than I will be needed to remember what the movies were.)

I don’t know whether Donolo has seen The Mummy’s Hand, a jaunty little Universal horror flick from 1940, but I’m going to bet he did. I have been thinking a lot about that movie’s opening sequence lately, as I contemplate the mess the Liberal Party of Canada — not only Michael Ignatieff, but the whole organization — has gotten into. The Mummy’s Hand opens with a long vignette about erased memory. So, lately, has the Liberal Party.

As I’ve pointed out before in a column, Michael Ignatieff is the fourth Liberal leader since Jean Chrétien retired in 2003: that’s four in six years (if you count Bill Graham, and you should, because he was interim leader for about as long as Ignatieff has been leader). Before that, how long did the Liberals take to go through four leaders? Thirty-five years, from Trudeau to Chrétien (counting Herb Gray). And before that? Eighty-one years, from Wilfrid Laurier to Lester Pearson. So the rate of churn, if we can put it that way, at the top of the Liberal party has accelerated beyond anything in its history.

With that rate of change comes a loss of personal memory. Jean Chrétien had been a Member of Parliament for 23 years (and out for four) on the day he became Liberal leader. Paul Martin had been an MP for 15 years. Stéphane Dion for 13 years. Ignatieff for three years, kind of, depending how you count it.

With that loss of personal memory comes a loss of institutional memory. Each new Liberal leader has seen fit to substantially purge his predecessor’s office. Ignatieff’s people held most of Dion’s in perfect contempt. Dion’s replaced Graham’s, who had conceived their role as one of filling in and hadn’t prepared for the long haul. Graham’s filled the vacuum when Martin’s board gave up. Martin’s board purged Chrétien’s staff (precisely one person, Paul Corriveau, worked in a political role in both the Chrétien and Martin PMOs.UPDATE: I’m told this excellent point  is, unfortunately, not very close to being true. Sorry ’bout that.)

The Mummy’s Hand opens with an extended vignette set in Egypt 3000 years ago. The crown prince, Kharis, discovers the secret of eternal life, but he is found out by the emperor. For his impertinence Kharis is buried alive in a secret location. Then the slaves who buried him are murdered by other slaves so the secret will never get out. I do not believe the Universal Pictures scriptwriters were offering management advice, but the Liberal Party of Canada has spent six years faithfully adopting the method of the Hollywood Egyptian emperor.

Ignatieff is a rookie who has been advised by rookies as he tries to lead a party whose bywords have been chaos, constant upheaval, and a stubborn eagerness to prove to the Canadian people that they were wrong to vote against the Liberals in 2006. Ignatieff, like Dion, has preferred to re-offer policies from the late decadent phase of the Martin era (Kyoto, Kelowna, pink books, daycare, doubling the Canada Council budget), apparently hoping they will do better this year than they did in the last two elections.

Donolo is a popular glad-hander with the Chrétien crew’s keen understanding that hierarchy matters in an organization under pressure. The endless supply of bright twentysomethings who work for Ignatieff had better brace themselves: they are about to get jobs, with defined responsibilities. (A Chrétien-era staffer asked one of the bright twentysomethings what he does for Ignatieff. “I apply a political lens to everything,” he was told. “Ah,” the staffer recounted to me later, “so he means he does nothing.” That’s over now.)

Donolo’s arrival is no guarantee of a miracle. What matters most to a staffer’s success is the leader he works for. Paul Martin’s board, in the end, amplified Martin’s personality rather than correcting for it. Dion attempted a shakeup, bringing in Johanne Sénécal a year into his tenure, but she had no mandate to change the rest of his office and she could not change the way he thinks and behaves. The leader of the Liberal Party is still Michael Ignatieff, and the absurd gong show that surrounded the leaked-and-denied-but-true-yet-unready news of Donolo’s hiring was pure Ignatieff. But Donolo corrects, if only partially, for the constant failure of the last four Liberal leaders: he has seen a Liberal win, and he does not think the lessons from that time are beneath his contempt. He knows what victory looks like. That makes him the freshest possible face in a party that has become deeply dependent on forever re-enacting the habits and attitudes of losers.