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Rex Murphy: The new Michael Ignatieff, fresh off the bus | Full Comment | National Post

In Canada on September 5, 2010 at 10:20

Rex Murphy: The new Michael Ignatieff, fresh off the bus

  September 4, 2010 – 9:10 am

Lars Hagberg / National Post

Michael Ignatieff is certainly getting something of a kinder press for going on the road this summer. If we go by some of the reviews, it’s the most successful tour since Jack Kerouac’s.

For any Canadian leader in this expansive country, a bus tour is just one predictable element in the retail work of politics. Real politicians, the visceral artists of the great game, are always on a bus tour — or its psychological equivalent. They’re the sort that can’t keep away from people. They’re on perpetual meet and greet. They see a trip to the mall as a potential mini-rally.

I’ve seen Brian Tobin in his political heyday. The former Newfoundland premier obliterated the distance between himself and someone he never met before just by his almost absurd eagerness to bridge it. That man barrelled after strangers as salmon go upstream. With him, it worked. It was who he was.

Most politicians, however, are more inhibited. For some, to force themselves upon strangers, to start touting their own program, asking — actually pleading — for support, is alien to their natures. Though they would never admit as much, they feel such directness is false and debasing. For them, campaigns are a purgatory.
There is only one cure for it. Get out there and debase. Start pleading and touting. Embrace purgatory.

So, good on Mr. Ignatieff for doing what, for him, doesn’t come with Tobinesque ease and skill. For defying the awkwardness that is inevitably attendant on anyone’s first real efforts at the political game.

Mr. Ignatieff comes to politics late, and he’s not a natural. So these exercises — études for an election — are necessary. He’s only going to get one shot at taking down Mr. Harper. He’s probably already learned that the so-called work of politics has a lot of hidden fun, and can be, in fact, a great source of unsuspected energy. Going in and out of the small towns and cities, meeting friendly supporters and respectful non-supporters (Canadians are almost saintly in their patience with visiting politicians), getting a taste for the sweep and variety of the people and their country, can really charge a person up.

Even the non-naturals in politics gather some special exuberance from those they meet, and from the whole loose dynamic of being on the road. Portugal Cove one day, Edmonton the next.

Ignatieff will be better in the House this Fall for being on this trip. Even if no one particular event or issue stands out from the tour, he’ll be stronger, more credible for having done it. He will have thickened his self-confidence.

Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff have a fair bit in common. Harper is, if such is possible, even less a natural politician than Ignatieff. Though he husbands a finite charm, he is not at ease or dextrous with those Tobinesque skills of ready communication, of self-projection when among strangers.

But Mr. Harper has by force of will and diligence acquired some of those necessary arts. He has bent to the task and probably, to his surprise, learned to like what he thought he’d dread. He’s also taken on some chores that probably made him wince: He’s bowed to the wardrobe consultants for campaign commercials — the blue sweater moment. I dare say his more dour ghost from Reform days rotated over that concession.

There’s example here for Mr. Ignatieff. The political game imposes its imperatives. And if he’s learned that politics is sometimes a real bit of fun, he’ll be a far stronger campaigner in an election looking ever more likely for this Fall.
National Post
Rex Murphy offers commentary weekly on CBC TV’s The National, and is host of CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup.

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