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Michael Ignatieff, We Hardly Knew Ye

09/26/2013 12:24 EDT | Updated 11/26/2013 05:12 EST

I must confess that there was an awful lot about Canada's 2011 General Election I simply didn't "get."

I didn't get why, beyond sheer fatigue with two back-to-back minority governments, voters suddenly saw fit to grant Prime Minister Harper a parliamentary majority.

I didn't get why Jack Layton -- in my analysis, little more than a run-of-the-mill, shrill-and-self-righteous NDP archetype -- was constantly being heralded as the most compelling and innovative leader his party had ever produced.

And I certainly didn't get why Michael Ignatieff, again, a perfectly ordinary if uninspired Canadian party boss, stirred such loathing his Liberals plunged to a historically unprecedented third-place standing.

On that last point, at least, I have one powerful ally who shares my incredulity -- Ignatieff himself. The ex-Grit boss recently penned a memoir entitled Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, that aims to deconstruct the former public intellectual's surprisingly disastrous second career. A fresh presence on drugstore shelves across the land, the book's been all the talk of the Canadian press over the last couple of days, providing, as it does, a fun opportunity to reevaluate the rise and fall -- okay, fall and greater fall -- of modern Canada's biggest loser and saddest sack.

If that seems a bit harsh, I encourage you to read the excerpt of Fire and Ashes that's been making the rounds lately, pulled from a chapter describing Ignatieff's mood in the days immediately following his defeat:

"I hadn't driven for five years, and so I went to renew my licence the day after the defeat. The photograph they took that day shows a person I now barely recognize: defeated, disconsolate and forlorn. The eyes -- my eyes -- don't focus."

And so on.

What makes a man sink to such lows where he can't even take a decent driver's license photo? Well, Jon Kay at the National Post thinks the Iggy story was a classic case study in the naivete of believing "the inventory of accomplishments and distinctions we build up over the years will act as a psychological buffer once our star fades later in life." In Ignatieff's case, the dangerous assumption was that decades as a brilliant bigshot on the international what-to-do-about-Hertzegovenia circuit would give him enough pride and dignity to survive the cruelties of First World electioneering. Instead, writes Jon, "It simply raised him to a higher level from which to crash down."

Not exactly Jon, counters fellow Postie Matt Gurney. He thinks Igg's fall was more like a steady bounce down the stairs than a crash per se. After all, writes Matt, let's not forget that the professor's entire five-year political vacation was basically dominated by non-stop failures, beginning with his loss to Stephane Dion in the 2006 Liberal leadership race, followed by "brutal trials by fire of partisan politics, attack ads, media scrutiny and attacks, a series of gaffes and climb downs, and lousy poll numbers." So let's tone down the Shakespeare.

Mr. Dead-eyes himself has no shortage of opinions on this debate either, as you might expect. Ignatieff's been endlessly interviewed as of late on what Maclean's Aaron Wherry calls "The Michael Ignatieff Explanation Tour," including a quite long and articulate interview with Wherry himself.

"Were you naive when you got into this?" asks Aaron as his opener, before proceeding to basically repeat the same question over and over for much of the rest of the thing.

Iggy's response is basically "yes." His list of variables whose power he underestimated in 2011 is legion: attack ads ("without precedent in Canadian politics"), the state of the Liberals ("I think I underestimated the structural weaknesses of the party"), the Prime Minister's popularity ("people weren't tired enough of him"), and even the unfolding of time itself ("wow, this is happening really way too fast"). Yet does he regret running for prime minister overall? "Oh, no, only that I didn't get there." It's one of the weirder byproducts of our culture's cult of self-esteem that while you can admit to making dozens of small mistakes all you want, acknowledging they collectively formed one giant one remains taboo.

In any case, as the armchair coroners in the press find occasion to dig ever-deeper into the entrails of poor Iggy's political corpse, it's worth remembering that all things considered, the guy didn't really do that bad.

The Liberals lost soundly under his leadership, to be sure, and it's clear the Tory attack machine's case against him -- that he was too snobby and too American to lead the country -- resonated well with a populace who rarely reject appeals to anti-Americanism and tall poppy syndrome. Yet by any standard, 2011 was also one of the weirder races in Canadian political history, with a revolutionary outcome that owed mostly (as is so often the case in this country) to the unpredictable idiosyncrasies of Quebec.

Had Quebec not done what it did -- namely, impulsively swap all of its entrenched Liberal and Bloc incumbents for a motley crew of untested NDP neophytes -- who knows how different things could have been. Had outcomes been more consistent with the last, oh, seven decades of Canadian political precedent, it'd have been the Libs that would have benefitted from the fall of the Bloc and the Tories in the province, and plausibly squeezed out the NDP with a narrow second-place seat tally overall.

It's also worth pondering how much blame can be leveled against the helpless fact that Ignatieff was the first Liberal boss since John Turner (the party's previous worst leader) who was neither born in Quebec nor an MP from a Quebec riding, while Montreal son Jack Layton was endlessly celebrated for his his native patois and familiarity with the neighbourhood.

Considering all the recent headlines suggesting that Quebeckers are not always the most, shall we say, gregarious to outsiders, it's a fair question to ask, and one that could provide Ignatieff with at least a modium of comfort the next time he's at the DMV.