Nobody who was there will ever forget the day Jean Chrétien came back to politics. It was a perfect sunny day at the edge of summer in Toronto. An eerie quiet reigned over the G20 media centre. The only action worth mentioning was a technical briefing on agriculture policy by the Japanese deputy chargé d’affaires. Suddenly an ominous burbling sound emanated from the fake lake. Without any more fuss, the 20th prime minister of Canada rose up out of the water, dressed in a navy two-piece as if for lunch at Hy’s.
A watching cameraman opened his mouth in a silent “O” of surprise, only to discover that a golf ball had somehow wedged itself between his teeth. Pierre Trudeau rowed past Chrétien in a canoe, wearing a buckskin jacket, and offered to lend a hand.
“Thanks,” Chrétien replied. “I got this one.” He leaned over, pulled a two iron from a boulder, and strode to shore on the necks of protesters.
Perhaps understandably, the predominant tone in coverage of the event was astonishment. The Globe banner read “Second coming? Or t’ird?” The New York Times was more sober. “Retired Canadian statesman essays comeback, water sortie.” On page six. The Toronto Sun might best have captured the nation’s mood with “Shawin-again?!”
But Chrétien’s return to active duty became inevitable from the moment Michael Ignatieff ruled it out. “I’ve seen a lot of strange things,” the Liberal leader had told a Canadian Press reporter only that morning. “This is a crazy business. But there’s only one thing I know for sure: Jean Chrétien’s not coming back. That’s just not on.” At that point, not even garlic and silver bullets could stop the old man’s rise from the political graveyard.
Ignatieff did not have a surfeit of political skills of broad renown, but he had mastered the art of making things happen by insisting they wouldn’t. The man was a reverse oracle. “Ignatieff rules out coalition,” one headline read. The next, a few weeks later: “Ignatieff open to coalition.” He was for a carbon tax before he was against one. He explained why there was no point firing political staffers, then fired some. He cancelled so many foreign trips—to the Middle East, to China—that he wound up owing Air Canada frequent-flyer points.
But now that Chrétien was back, the same columnists who’d been tormenting Ignatieff (precisely the same columnists who tormented Stéphane Dion, two years earlier, by wondering why the Liberals didn’t let Ignatieff run the show) decided it was safe to indulge some second thoughts. Too bad about Iggy, they said. Of course he was confused. There was so much to be confused about.
In May 2009 he avoided a snap election and we said he was weak. In September 2009 he tried to force a snap election and we said he was foolish. We complained he had no substance. When he capped the Montreal thinkers’ conference by delivering a speech that amounted to an election platform, we ignored it. Then we complained he had no substance. God, that guy was fun to cover.
The best part was that whenever we pushed him, he stepped back. It made him fun to push. Between the Conservatives and the press gallery, we got so good at forcing Ignatieff to change course that the RCMP changed his code name to “Skinner Rat.”
When Ignatieff finally embraced the notion of a coalition, it was another challenge for the press gallery. A union of Liberals and New Democrats, after all, would combine everything an Ottawa political journalist holds dear: it would be complex, hypothetical, untested, and cribbed in large measure from overseas. What’s not to like? Come to think of it, those are all the things we liked about Ignatieff too, at first. But now one complex hypothetical had come out in favour of another, and that’s supposed to be our job, dammit, so now of course we were against it. Against them both.
So when Chrétien rose glistening from the chlorinated waters we were ready for him. The craggy face of experience! Those eyes—lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes! First the once-and-again Liberal leader had to merge the two parties. Jack Layton had spent two years demanding a merger. Now that the Liberal was in favour, he was against it. No matter. Chrétien snapped him in two and tossed him aside like a rag doll, then bellowed in horrible triumph: “Playtime’s over. Get me Broadbent.” Within six days the two wily old operators had built a coalition. On the seventh day they rested, gnawing on the bones of vanquished foes.
It was all so exciting, at first. Just like old times. Chrétien still had all his old moves. Friday afternoons were for golf, Tuesdays for the ritual humiliation of intellectuals. Even Harper couldn’t lay a glove on him at first. The Conservatives ran ads saying Chrétien would raise taxes. The Liberals ran ads saying, “You’re damned right I will. I need the money.”
But by November the gallery had grown weary of this new-old Liberal leader. A few of us wrote columns wondering how Paul Martin could be coaxed back. Others demanded that the merged NDP and Liberals unmerge. One day Chrétien grew bored, flew to Toronto and sank back beneath the waves of the fake lake. Stephen Harper was still prime minister. That’s how these stories always end.