It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but well wishers still stop me on the street to encourage my candidacy for prime minister of Canada. No amount of protest on my part – I’m happy with my current job, it’s increasingly unlikely I could obtain even a plurality in the House of Commons, etc – dissuades their enthusiasm.
From now on I’m going to refer these good people to Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes, his account of returning to Canada to enter politics and his subsequent bid to run the place. I really liked it, and would have finished it in one sitting if not for the usual nonsense that interrupts one’s happy reading.
Some memorable points (though not necessarily the most important. E.g. he writes well about persuasion, but go read the book yourself):
- The most underrated skill in politics? Listening. “Often, listening is all you can do… People will accept you cannot solve their problems if you give them all of your attention, looking into their eyes, never over their shoulder at the next person in line.” (If you watch clips of JFK in action, he was very good at shaking hands and looking back as he continued to the next person, as if to indicate he was only reluctantly moving on. The first few seconds of this one below give the idea.)
- “…nothing prepares you for the use of language once you enter the political arena… You leave a charitable realm where people cut you some slack, finish your sentences, and accept that you didn’t quite mean what you said. You enter a world of lunatic literal-mindedness where only the words that come out of your mouth actually count.”
- ” Every community wants recognition of its own distinctiveness but is reluctant to grant it to others… Once you see a country as a sustained, everyday act of will, you understand why politicians matter.”
- “…the two national debates on television, one in French, the other in English…” (NB that’s “in French” not as in “subtitled in French,” but as in en français.)
- He also makes a few references to the country’s enormous size. Duh, right? Well, I once got my own introduction to Canada Big while driving from Seattle to Boston. I’d taken Route 2 (highly recommended) to the edge of Lake Superior, then decided to drive around the lake on the Canadian side (less recommended) before re-entering the US. “Hey,” I thought, “maybe I should check out Ottawa!” and asked a motel clerk at a lakeside town how long the drive was. “I think it’s about fifteen hours,” came the reply. I did not check out Ottawa.
And this story made me chuckle:
My father loved government but he steered clear of party politics, and the stories he told laid bare the difference between the instincts of politicians and of civil servants like himself. He told me about taking notes at a meeting in 1944 between Prime Minister Mackenzie King and a deputation of women – Daughters of the Empire – who were concerned about the impact of pornography (Betty Grable pin-ups and stronger stuff) on the morale of Canadian troops. About a dozen women took their places in King’s office and each proceeded to tell him about the terrible effects of pornography. King listened patiently, then stood and went to each and shook their hands gravely, repeating that he had rarely been privileged to have such an important meeting. When the women had been ushered out and silence descended in the prime minister’s office, my father cleared his throat and asked Mr. King what actions he wished to authorize. “Get back to work,” the PM growled, and waved him out.