A ’Tim Hortons prime minister’ hits the golf course

What does Harper’s appearance on a Buffalo, N.Y. news channel say about who he really is?
the editors
A ‘Tim Hortons prime minister’ hits the golf course
Mark Blinch/Reuters

How have the leaders of the free world been spending the summer?

For U.S. President Barack Obama, summer has proven to be a relentless series of negotiations, bluffs, threats and deadlines as he worked to cobble together an agreement between Republicans and Democrats over an extension to the U.S. debt ceiling, and two widely divergent visions of the future of Washington.

British Prime Minister David Cameron continues to face devastating questions over his personal involvement with the principals in the phone-hacking scandal that has riven the media empire of Rupert Murdoch.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, leaders of France and Germany respectively, have battled to keep the entire European monetary union afloat in the face of potentially crippling credit defaults in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy.

And Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper? Well, he went minigolfing. In Buffalo, N.Y.

Last week it was reported, to universal surprise, that Harper turned up at the Broadway Driving Range and Miniature Golf Course in Depew, N.Y., just outside Buffalo (“The nicest course in western New York,” according to its website) for a round of minigolf. The course owner told local media Harper was in town on a family trip to visit friends. “A brush with greatness,” is how Buffalo’s NBC-TV affiliate reported it, taking pains to describe Harper as “one of the world’s most powerful leaders.”

Regardless of how regional television anchors may characterize him, Harper has certainly had a very good year. Judged by our economic and political stability, Canada has become the envy of the developed world. And May’s federal election marked the stunningly successful culmination of Harper’s decades-long goal to evict the Liberals from their roost as Canada’s natural governing party. If anyone has earned a round at western New York’s nicest minigolf course, it’s Harper.

For most Canadians, however, the outing may be more significant for what it says about Harper as a person, rather than as national leader.

Despite his electoral success, this country has often struggled to understand Stephen Harper the man. The public consensus that has grown up around him, cultivated by his political and media adversaries, is that he’s a cold-blooded automaton, carefully and cynically calculating his opportunities for success while plotting his opponents’ downfall.

Publicists from the Prime Minister’s Office have tried mightily, with varying degrees of success, to soften this image—providing evidence that he’s really just an ordinary person with ordinary interests. To this end we’ve been treated to many tightly scripted insights into his private life, including such things as his love for cats, Beatles music and hockey. He recently made a comedic cameo appearance on the television show Murdoch Mysteries. But these efforts at emphasizing his ordinary qualities frequently seem to come across as stiff and practised. For better or worse, many Canadians remain curious about what the Prime Minister is like in his unguarded moments.

For these surely offer the most revealing view into the personality of any leader. Remember the day former prime minister Jean Chrétien grabbed a protester by the neck and threw him to the ground? Never mind his carefully crafted image as le petit gar from Shawinigan, we saw in that moment the bare-knuckles Chrétien in all his back-alley feistiness.

So perhaps the minigolf episode can provide us with our equivalent view of the Harper behind the veil. It certainly appears to be entirely unscripted and unpublicized. In fact, PMO communications’ staff told Maclean’s they found out about the minigolf game the same way we did: from local news reports and grainy digital camera stills taken by passersby.

This, then, is presumably the authentic Harper. What’s he like? He appears to dress rather stiffly: black slacks and a buttoned long-sleeve shirt are hardly traditional minigolf attire. He is polite to regular folk: he signed autographs for two teenage minigolfers. And he considers minigolf—the most plebian of summer pastimes—to be an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon with his family. You might say it all seems rather ordinary.

When Harper first came to power in 2006, this magazine noted that he was unlike any other Canadian prime minister of the modern era, in that he had no claim to membership in any elite—be it the law, academia, wealth or power. For being “spectacularly ordinary,” we dubbed him “the Tim Hortons Prime Minister.” Now, as Harper prepares to lead a majority government for the next four years, it seems we can expect more of the same. The real Stephen Harper is identical to the packaged and scripted version. His ordinariness is no act.