The Commons: 'I didn't get there'

Michael Ignatieff shows that politics is a matter of time and timing as much as it is personality and policy

After a nice story about Michael Ignatieff’s willingness to listen, the man’s disembodied voice filled the room as a montage of still images hovered on screen—little moments when it must’ve seemed he was bound for a better fate.

The soft-focus retrospective continued as the voice intoned about the vastness of the land and the vastness of the party. A few dozen young people then bounded on stage. These, explained a young man and a young woman at the lectern, were some of those inspired to join the Liberal cause because of Mr. Ignatieff. He was duly described in fawning term. Indeed, the politician they were here to honour sounded like a fine one: passionate, caring, courageous, substantive, generous. A good listener. A visionary. A man blessed of a devoted wife. It was announced that a scholarship would be created in his name.

Shortly thereafter the man was welcomed to step forward and explain himself. Here the Liberal party has gathered to discuss the extent to which it can be described as “dying.” And so here it would hear from the man who (at least nominally) put it in this place.

On initial viewing, he seems better for the experience—both for having done it and now for being done with it. He bounded on stage and shook hands with those he’d inspired and hugged those who’d spoken on his behalf. As he did when he was doing it, he spoke with a certain degree of distance.

“It’s one of the things I loved about political action,” he said. “Going down those snowy streets in Etobicoke-Lakeshore in 2005, 2006, with some of you. I thought knocking on doors was a Socratic dialogue, I would leave no argument unanswered … We must’ve done 50,000 households that campaign. I learned to love it.”

He gushed about the sight of 3,000 partisans. He mocked the idea of the party’s demise. He did that thing where he bends at the knees when making a particularly emphatic point so that he disappears behind the lectern.

He thanked the candidates who’d stood with him and the caucus that remained and the interim leader who succeeded him. He told a story about a cow.

Gripping the lectern with both hands, he turned on Stephen Harper. “Over the summer I heard the Prime Minister, Mr. Harper, say at one point, in a triumphant moment, Canada is now a Conservative country,” he recounted. “Who does he think he is? He doesn’t have the right to say that kind of thing.”

Then he turned that around on his own party. “But let’s be honest. He has no more right to say this is a Conservative country than we have to say it’s a Liberal country,” he ventured. “There isn’t a Conservative country or a Liberal country. There’s only a country. And we have to be worthy of it.”

This seemed something like precisely the point. Not that it gets the Liberal party any closer to figuring out what to do about it.

Mr. Ignatieff proceeded with a review of the general bromides his party was supposed to stand for—fairness, unity, equality and so forth. But standing before these 3,000 Liberals was a walking, talking symbol of the conundrum that now confronts them. A man with his quirks, a man who can sound like the tourist his opponents made him out to be, but a smart, talented man not obviously cursed by some grotesquely fatal flaw. A man who one could imagine, in the abstract, having become prime minister if things had been somehow different. But a man who led the Liberal party, the most dominant political institution of the 20th century, to the worst electoral defeat in its history. A fine example that politics is a matter of time and timing as much as it is personality and policy.

“All through my political life, I’ve imagined, as I’ve talked to any audience, I’ve imagined that there’s someone out there just the way I was when I was 17,” he said. “When I heard Lester B. Pearson for the first time. When I stood in the crowd and heard Pierre Elliott Trudeau talk.”

He was putting himself in lofty company, but there was some humility to come.

“I’ve always imagined that there is someone in the crowd who looks at me and thinks, ‘I could do what he does. And I could do it better.’ I don’t know who you are. I don’t know where you are. I don’t know if you’re a young man or a young woman. But I know you’re out there.”

He leaned on his right elbow and stared down the crowd, scanning from left to right. “I didn’t get there. God knows I tried. I didn’t leave anything on the table. I gave it everything I had. But I didn’t get there. But I’m telling you, you will get there.”

The crowd cheered for awhile and then he rejoined the appeal.

“Never give up. Never give in. Never settle. Never let them define you. Never let them take you prisoner,” he said, this as much about him as it was about some future person. “Fight for what you believe in.”

He switched to French, then back to English for his finish.

“I didn’t get there. But you will. And when you do, everything I tried to do will be worth while. Thank you.”

He looked down, then back up to wave his goodbyes. He didn’t linger long before leaving the stage.

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