(The Commons returns with a 37th attempt to understand the Stephane Dion Era.)
In the early hours of the last day of his first campaign for Prime Minister, Stephane Dion stood on a makeshift platform in another haphazard campaign office, this one in Fredericton. Outside it was cold and damp. Inside, owing to the spotlights and a hundred supporters, it was just short of balmy.
His stump speech was, by this point, little more than a series of punctuation marks—every second sentence another sound bite demanding applause. And his performance that morning was altogether adequate. His voice rose where it was supposed to, the crowd cheered on cue. But then he got to what is easily his most popular quip.
“He may speak better English than me,” he said of Stephen Harper. “But I speak the truth in both official languages better than him.”
He had delivered variations on this line—self-deprecation twisted into a virtuous boast—maybe a hundred times. It was typically well received, the crowd laughing, then applauding. But this time, for whatever reason, in the final moments of a futile effort, the ovation was longer and louder than usual.
It cannot be said that Stephane Dion didn’t come as advertised. He was who we thought he was. Awkward, shy, thoughtful, generally ineloquent, perhaps a bit stubborn. When he beat a man of politics (Bob Rae) and a man of words (Michael Ignatieff) to become leader of the Liberal party, all of it was somehow part of the allure. He was celebrated for everything that would eventually be held against him. He was a new kind of something. A different way of doing things. He was on at least one occasion mentioned in the same breath as Bobby Kennedy.
And so maybe the lesson is that whatever we may say about change, what we really want is something we recognize.
It is impossible, of course, to completely isolate Mr. Dion’s struggles from the general confusion of his party. The easy comparison might be to the post-Clinton Democrats, the bumbling, yearning donkey that struggled to find voice and purpose after the thrill and frustration of the Bubba era. In the wreckage of Chretien-Martin, the Liberals found themselves with plenty to look back on, numerous opinions on where to go next and no agreement on what to do now. Everyone had an angle, a bias, a claim to unique experience or vision or insight. After a long leadership campaign, not even the front runner (Ignatieff) could claim unquestioned support from a third of the party. And so the party chose Dion, a minister to both Chretien and Martin, but a politician quite unlike either of them. A man who wrapped himself in green as much as red; who spoke with neither the small town pragmatism or Chretien, nor the vague dreaminess of Martin; a man who seemed averse to the very idea of politics.
The question immediately, in anonymous quotes and Conservative attacks, was one of leadership. Before he could even begin to go about trying to lead, he was defined as weak and cowardly, pursued by numerous rivals who, while they hadn’t been able to beat him in a year-long campaign, were apparently better, stronger, more deserving captains. For months he was mocked without riposte. Maybe a more archetypal politician might’ve been able to transcend this, might’ve reassured those who doubted his abilities. But, in Dion’s case, all that made him who he was only seemed to confirm what his opponents purported him to be. All that he supposedly stood in opposition to, he now needed to personify.
And so maybe the question is how we now define leadership. Or how we know a leader when we think we see one.
If it’s a matter of intelligence and experience, Dion would seem, by any objective standard, to have both. Commitment to country? Dion can claim to have almost single-handedly fought back the separatist forces in Quebec. Vision? Dion built his entire campaign on the theoretical ideal of a “better” future, on an issue—the environment—we all purport to worry about for the sake of our children. Humanity? Dion, traveling with his wife and adopted daughter by his side, spoke of bringing more women into politics and ending poverty.
At rallies he spoke of the economists who supported his carbon tax, the Nobel Prize winners who blessed his environmental policies and even the other party leader (Elizabeth May) who wanted him to be prime minister. If his primary opponent was, at his core, a cynic, often speaking directly to those who sneer at the last 50 years of Canadian history, Dion was the silly optimist. He spoke insistently of conviction and commitment and truth and trust. He finished each speech with a short explanation of his life in politics, the personal decisions and values that led him to here. He seemed fundamentally a decent man. In his own way, endearing.
On paper, then, he was a fine candidate. Not Lincoln, but hardly Mondale. Not Trudeau, but hardly Day. But, of course, politics doesn’t exist on paper. As much as some try to make it so, it is not fantasy baseball. It is visceral. As much about what we see and hear as it is about what we know and understand to be true.
Dion is thin and gawky. His smile is small and tight. He speaks with an accent. He is reported to have a hearing problem. He wears glasses. If this was high school—and in so many ways it still is—Dion would be a dork. A wuss. A loser. And in him, Stephen Harper, an old nerd now in a position to play the bully, found someone to push around.
When CTV decided—in the interests of journalistic responsibility, of course—to air tape of Dion struggling with an interviewer’s poorly worded experiment in verb tense, there were some who objected to the gratuitous ridicule. But then there were also those who found great meaning in the moment. As if it demonstrated the inherent risk of Dion. As if, in a fleeting moment of confusion, he might plunge the country into nuclear war. As if a misspoken word might ruin the stock market. None of which was really worth taking seriously, even when expressed by those who claimed to be speaking in the interests of seriousness.
But then there was something to this, at least inadvertently. Because we do not simply seek someone who is intelligent and committed and visionary and decent. We do not simply want someone who speaks of good ideas and a better future. We do not only want someone with a wife, a kid and a dog. We want someone to represent us. To flatter us. To make us feel good about where it is we live and who we are. Someone we can relate to, but someone who also stands for all that we want in ourselves. That means eloquence or at least charisma, however you define those things. Something to look up to. The same sort of stuff we look for in movie stars and baseball players and supermodels. Even if we’d never actually vote for a movie star, baseball player or supermodel.
And so maybe the question is this: Did we all just collectively take a pass on Stephane Dion because he talked sort of funny?
When it was all over, when he’d given his last stump speech and sung the national anthem, he departed the stage into the mob of well-wishers, bodyguards, cameramen and photographers. It had been 15 hours since he spoke in Fredericton and there was still a turkey dinner to enjoy with staff and reporters.
It took him several minutes to get outside the ballroom, another two minutes to get down the hall. The crowd followed and when he got to the elevators in the hotel lobby, he stopped to sign autographs. Many wanted pictures, so he patiently posed with whoever appeared at his side.
His handlers tried to move him along—”One more picture… One more picture… one last picture… absolutely last picture”—but he lingered for awhile. Shaking hands, sharing a few words, posing and smiling. The same routine, maybe more than a dozen times. Not until his wife took his hand and pulled him away did he say goodnight.