"Iggymania" won't be sustainable

Thursday, April 13, 2006

In their eagerness to identify a frontrunner in a Liberal leadership that has so far been distinguished mostly by who is not running, the national media appear to have settled on newly-elected MP Michael Ignatieff. Iggy, as he is known to both friend and foe, declared his candidacy last Friday.

On the surface, Ignatieff seems to have all of the necessary qualifications for the job. He’s not identified with either the Chretien or Martin factions of the party. He has an international profile as both an academic and a writer. And, perhaps most importantly, he has Adscam deniability. Still, the enthusiasm displayed for Ignatieff’s candidacy by many reporters and commentators is downright embarrassing.

Allan Fotheringham explicitly endorsed Ignatieff after having lunch with him, apparently because he is anxious to demonstrate that he is still able to “invent” political leaders. “Why should not Canada, the best of all countries, have not as leader an international figure who can demonstrate the best we have?” wrote Fotheringham.

Even further down the journalistic credibility scale is Leah McLaren’s piece in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail. She writes that “no one is arguing with his personal appeal. The professor whom the British press dubbed ‘the thinking woman's crumpet’ is nowhere near past his sell-by date. Excellent communication skills, glistening international credentials and an earnest intellectual idealism – along with what one organizer described, sighing, as ‘those smokin' blue eyes’ – have combined to make him easily the most stylish Canadian Liberal to come along since Pierre Trudeau…. It's not just all those fancy letters after his name. The guy's got sex appeal…. But will Liberals across the country be willing to abandon their crullers in favour of a crumpet? For the sake of all the thinking women and stylish gay men in Toronto, let's hope so.”

It’s not only columnists (who are expected to be opinionated) that are suspending their critical faculties as they write about Ignatieff. Reporters are now getting into the act. A CP article published in The Toronto Star on March 30 contained the following gem: “The acclaimed scholar, author and one-time journalist modestly declaimed any right to be compared to Trudeau, the late philosopher king of Canadian politics. But, in a speech to an overflow crowd of about 250 students at the University of Ottawa, the cerebral, rookie Toronto MP presented himself as the thinking-person's candidate, an intellectual with strongly held beliefs on human rights, national unity and the merits of a strong central government.”

The more that a candidate is puffed up by the media, however, the easier it is for that candidate’s opponents (either inside or outside the Liberal Party) to burst the bubble. Ignatieff is in for a big surprise if he thinks that he’s going continue to receive the kind of kid glove treatment that he’s had from the media so far. Indeed, there is so much that could damage his chances lurking just below the surface that he may not even make it to convention.

Take, for example, his unpopular stances in favour of the war in Iraq and Canadian participation in ballistic missile defence. The aforementioned CP article notes that “as a Harvard professor… he had the luxury of voicing his personal views without worrying about public opinion or the potential impact on national unity of involving Canadian troops in a war that was particularly unpopular in Quebec. ‘Now that I'm an elected politician I'm deeply aware of those responsibilities,’ he told reporters.” But, saying that he might have taken a different position on the illegal invasion had he been Prime Minister hardly inspires confidence in his judgement, does it?

Ignatieff is also on the record as defending “coercive interrogation” which, he writes, “might include forms of sleep deprivation, disinformation and disorientation, like keeping prisoners in hoods, that would produce stress”. After all, he has said, “an outright ban on torture and coercive interrogation leaves a conscientious security officer with little choice but to disobey the ban.” He has gone to great lengths to rationalize these positions and to silence those who have criticized them. But, the words are out there and people will make their own decisions about what they really say about Ignatieff’s fitness to lead.

The other issue that will dog Ignatieff is the fact that he has lived outside of the country for most of the past thirty-five years (something that Fotheringham dismisses as a “growing myth, repeated and repeated”). But, Ignatieff’s longterm non-residency is well-established, and it’s made all the more noticeable due to the fact that his writing consistently refers to Americans as “we” and “us”. In 2000 (the beginning of a five year tenure at Harvard), he wrote the following: “I am writing about the rights talk of a country of which I am a citizen, but in which I have not resided since 1969. In some sense, these lectures are my attempt to catch up with the turbulent history of my country in the very years I was abroad. So it may read oddly to those who lived these years in Canada, who fought or watched the battles described in these pages. To them, this book may seem like a report by a visitor from a distant planet. I want to alert readers that I am a Martian outsider.”
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