Thoughts about thinking politicians

Whenever we seriously consider a political leader—or, for that matter, any public figure—one of the inevitable problems is to try to reconcile what they do with what we imagine they think.

To put it another way, we wonder how public actions are derived from private reflection. So when, for example, Stephen Harper declares that Canadian troops should exit Afghanistan by 2011, we’re interested in the policy, but also in how he came to propose it.

Did the Prime Minister base his decision mainly on an assessment of the situation in Kandahar and the capacity of Canadian forces? Or did he mainly make a calculation about how much sacrifice the Canadian voting public can be expected to accept?

It’s not that one justification would be right and the other wrong, or one motivation honourable and the other crass. It’s that the way he comes to his decisions, how he weighs the various factors, tells us something about the inner man. Partly, we want to know about what makes a leader tick out of sheer curiosity; partly we hope to gain insights into where we might be led next.

Of course we can never be sure. Sometimes true insight into an inner life only comes decades after death, with the publication of the subject’s letters or diaries. (And how, in the future, will we ever learn much about the true thoughts of today’s great leaders, since those old ink-on-paper lodes of private reflection just won’t be there for biographers to mine?)

If the inner life is evidently rich, our fascination with how it relates to the outer is naturally heightened. Pierre Trudeau continues to intrigue us partly because he came relatively late to the public stage; a complicated private life was apparently enough to fill up his years before ambition caught up with him.

Michael Ignatieff’s is that sort of story. He published so much in his long writing career before he entered politics that we have an unusually detailed map of what he was thinking about—his family, his country, the world—before he ran for office.

Prominent in those writings is Isaiah Berlin: A Life, his authorized biography of the Russian-born British liberal philosopher and historian of ideas who died in 1997, and whose life and work are now enjoying a resurgence of interest. And on this matter of the relationship between the private and the public, Berlin is an unusually interesting case study.

Here’s something Ignatieff wrote about Berlin in the first chapter of his admiring 1998 biography: “He is often criticized by activist friends for being more interested in inner experience than in public commitment. But that is the man: more curious about the varieties of human self-deception than realpolitik.”

From a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the present wave of attention to Berlin, there’s this observation: “…Berlin, who died in 1997, worried about his reputation for rhetorical brilliance. Was he merely a clever talker, a frivolous wit?” Apparently Berlin’s recently published letters expose him as full of self-doubt, worried that he might be “superficial, worthless, glaringly shallow.”

That even so great a public intellectual as Berlin wasn’t certain, in the end, if he had led a serious enough life is remarkable. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Ignatieff, in late middle age, surveying his impressive output, so many books and articles and documentary films, and still feeling unfulfilled. He must have thought about Berlin.

Finally he decided to radically alter the balance in his own life between contemplation and commitment, to veer away from Berlin’s course, and move from the private study into the public square.