Bob Rae resigned from Parliament last week, and in doing so concluded a 35-year political career that achieved so obviously little, yet has been so slavishly celebrated, it's hard to read the coverage without feeling pranked. There's a thin line between polite revisionism and outright fantasy -- Rae's apologists crossed it long ago.
"The Best Prime Minister Canada Never Had," gushes John Duffy in the Globe and Mail. A "senior statesman in the Commons," glows Susan Delacourt in the Toronto Star. "An exemplary parliamentarian" fawns the Ottawa Citizen. It's a tad much.
Rae was undeniably an accomplished politician, in the literal sense that he hung around a long time and held a bunch of different jobs. But to the extent a statesman is someone with an agreeable legacy of wise achievements, he was about the furthest thing from it.
The man was a raving, doctrinaire socialist, for starters. I know that label's been so overused it's starting to fit Orwell's famous definition of "fascism" -- "no meaning except insofar as it signifies something not desirable" -- but Rae did take the title pretty darn seriously.
In 1990, a few months before he became the first NDP premier of Ontario, Rae participated in a public debate with libertarian economist John Ridpath regarding the comparative "morality" of socialism versus capitalism, defending the former against the latter. A few weeks later, on the eve of his election, he published an editorial in the Globe and Mail entitled "A Socialist's Manifesto" in which he further decried the free market.
"Capitalism's ability to 'deliver the goods' economically has been much exaggerated," he wrote. "As a moral system, it utterly fails to enlist people's will to a shared freedom, to justice, equality, to community, or to love."
It's been said that not being a Marxist in youth is a sign of heartlessness, but c'mon, this was a guy in his mid-40s. To have been a dogmatic adherent of the 20th century's most discredited economic theory so late in his own life (let alone the Eastern Bloc's) -- raises more than a few questions about Rae's supposed braininess. Which is probably why you don't hear much about it.
Economic ignorance does certainly help explain his ruinous rule as premier of Ontario, however, a five-year financial terror that far exceeds the mildly "tumultuous" euphemism preferred by more affectionate biographers.
In the only position of real responsibility he ever held, Rae presided over a government that saw unemployment jump from six to nine percent, piled up more debt than every previous premier combined, and turned the country's hub of job creation into the welfare capital of Canada. It was a caricature of leftist excess best embodied by his so-called "Rae Days" -- fake holidays that had to be invented simply to get the province's overpaid bureaucrats (whom he himself overpaid) off the job to trim a few bucks from the ballooning deficit.
Rae's excuse for all this -- he was too "distracted" by constitutional negotiations with Ottawa to provide leadership during Ontario's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression -- would have been more convincing had said haggling actually produced something other than the ghastly Charlottetown Accord, which ended up being decisively rejected by voters in nearly every province. So much for his "good" work.
In the 1995 provincial election, Rae's NDP plunged from first to third, and it'd be nice to believe this traumatizing experience with socialism-in-practice provoked his subsequent rebirth as a Liberal moderate. But the evidence suggests it had more to do with Israel.
Rae's background is sympathetic, coming, as he does, from a Jewish family that initially denied its Jewishness to be "upwardly mobile" in a bigoted era. Always a pro-Israel progressive, it's clear the visceral anti-Zionism and even anti-Semitism of the far-left in the aftermath of 9/11 hit him, and his Jewish activist wife, particularly hard. In 2002 he penned an angry editorial for the National Post under the headline "Breaking company with the NDP" in which he singled the party's anti-Israel posturing under Svend Robinson as the sole reason theirs was no longer "a vision of social democracy worthy of support." It was a perfectly sensible motive for moving on, but also a considerably less complex one than the press' subsequent summaries of "ideological disagreement" would imply.
Rae's ensuing transition from Dipper boss to head Liberal was never smooth. In the only federal leadership race he ever contested, it took him three ballots to muster 28 per cent support before being forced out entirely. In those days, most Grits were savvy enough to grasp the obvious hypocrisy in insisting the Liberals and NDP were too distinct to merge, while simultaneously entrusting their leadership to a man whose very existence proved the opposite. When Rae was eventually installed as acting-boss-for-two-years, the party swaddled him in a straightjacket of rules forbidding any merger talk lest his one-man existential crisis spiral further out of control. But it did anyway, as the bevy of wither-a-merger? editorials that accompanied his ascension can readily attest. He leaves a party that still hasn't provided a convincing answer to the question he provoked.
Bob Rae was undeniably a grandiose figure in modern Canadian politics. And he doubtless was, as many journalists insist, a charming and generous man -- at least to that tiny sliver of humanity who knew him personally. But from the only perspective that actually matters in a democracy, that of the voters and taxpayers, Rae left gallons to be desired. He routinely lost elections, he was wrong about far more than he was right, he was constantly feared and distrusted, and his one shot at power produced unbridled disaster.
None of that seemed to matter much in the rarefied world of Canada's eastern establishment, and Rae got to win the Order of Canada and be chancellor of WLU, and run a bunch of royal commissions and all the rest of it. But facts are facts and history is history and hopefully someday his legacy will be written by someone with a little respect for both.