Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae are pals. Really.

They're former roommates, one-time rivals and lifelong friends. Both are cerebral, well-connected and from powerful Ontario families. It appears they want the same job. Who'll win this time?

During the 1968-69 school year, remembered for its anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and Trudeaumania, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae shared a cheap apartment at 618a Bloor St. West, above a shoe store near Honest Ed’s discount emporium, within walking distance of their classes at the University of Toronto. By all accounts, they cut quite a swath on a roiling campus. As sons of top-ranking diplomats, both had already lived abroad, and acquired a certain sophistication. They were outspoken and seemed destined for great things. But their similarities are perhaps less interesting in retrospect than the contrasts acquaintances from those days remember. They were intellectual rivals: Rae a left-wing activist, Ignatieff a Liberal centrist. Rae, whose father’s family had once been in vaudeville, was known for his sense of humour and piano playing. Ignatieff, descendant of Russian aristocrats, carried a bit of their brooding air about him.

Four decades later, they remain close friends. And with Ignatieff bidding for the Liberal leadership and Rae weighing his chances, they may soon be rivals again, too. If Rae does decide to run, which is by no means a sure thing, the two would inject the sort of personal and family history into the contest that will keep students of Canadian establishment lore fascinated through the run-up to the Dec. 3 convention in Montreal. They are formidable figures: bilingual, cerebral, well-connected. But they also lug liabilities — Rae as a failed NDP premier of Ontario, Ignatieff as a very public intellectual who backed George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq — that are conspicuous enough to put a leadership race that features them in danger of looking like a political baggage carousel.

Even if they can persuade Liberals to forgive their pasts, there is the nagging question of age. The inevitable reference point is the Prime Minister: Stephen Harper turns 47 on April 30, while Ignatieff is 58, and Rae is 57. Although neither lacks energy, any Liberals who feel a hankering for youth can’t be accused of mindless age discrimination. Recent history offers plenty of examples of parties languishing out of power and reviving when younger leaders, like Harper, take over. Among the case studies: Brian Mulroney was 44 in 1983 when his overhaul of the Conservatives put them on the path to two majority victories; Bill Clinton was 46 in 1992 when he yanked the Democrats to the centre to begin his two-term run as president; Tony Blair was just 41 in 1994 when he amputated British Labour’s hard-left tendencies and turned the party back into a winner.

Still, Rae and Ignatieff can’t be easily written off as too old or too controversial. They bring intellectual heft to the debate over the Liberal party’s future, along with the speech-making skills to sell their ideas. Their depth on foreign affairs is unusual in Canadian politics, which is typically dominated by domestic issues. This expertise is no surprise. After all, the old roommates are direct inheritors of the Pearsonian glory era of Canadian foreign policy. Bob’s father, Saul Rae, who died in 1999, had a storied diplomatic career, including a stint as ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. Michael’s father, George Ignatieff, held many key foreign posts through the same era, including UN ambassador in New York, before his death in 1989. They were peers, friends, and occasionally rivals, starting when they were — as their sons would be — students together at U of T in the 1930s. Both tried for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. George won.(It would fall to Bob to win the Rae family a Rhodes some 30 years later.)

The two families are entwined in other ways. Michael’s mother, Alison, a sister of philosopher George Grant, the author of Lament for a Nation, was close to both Bob’s mother and father. Her sister, Charity, was godmother to Bob’s sister Jennifer. Such bonds are a reminder of an era when circles of influence in Canada tended to be tighter. Ignatieff has described the links between the two clans as “a tribal friendship.” The two families’ roots, though, bear no resemblance. Rae’s grandfather was a gambler, who left his grandmother, Nell, to support the family by putting her children on vaudeville stages as the “Little Raes of Sunshine” — a unlikely start for Saul, the future mandarin. Ignatieff’s grandfather was a Russian count and adviser to Czar Nicholas II, who fled after the 1917 revolution; his youngest son, George, landed in Montreal as a boy refugee in 1928.

These are terrific family yarns, but what do they tell us about the two Liberal leadership hopefuls? This much at least: their fathers carved out prestigious careers, though not great wealth, starting from far outside the establishment. Provided with such privileged backgrounds, their sons have taken highly unorthodox routes to the place they now find themselves — wondering in late middle age if they still have a shot at becoming the next Liberal prime minister. On the one hand, they represent an old-fashioned sort of Grit pedigree. They went to the right schools, know all the right people, move easily among the lawyers, corporate heavyweights and policy-wonk academics that any aspiring Liberal leader must impress. On the other, they couldn’t be less conventional. Neither has spent any of his life, until very recently, building street cred with the party stalwarts who will arrive at December’s Montreal convention as voting delegates.

There was a time when Ignatieff looked more likely to follow a standard route into politics. He likes to remind Liberals, who still think of him as a Canadian who hit the big time in Britain and the U.S., that he knocked on doors for Lester Pearson’s party as a high school student in Toronto in 1965, and was a delegate to the 1968 Ottawa convention that picked Trudeau as leader. He went on to serve as a youth organizer for Trudeau in that year’s election. “I watched a great man become a great politician,” he reminisced in his speech to the Liberal policy convention last March that paved the way for his return, after five years teaching at Harvard, to win a Toronto seat in the recent election. Rae, though, was far from a Trudeaumaniac. The young socialist was quoted as griping at the time that Trudeau’s win was a triumph of “medium over message, style over substance.”

Tony Pargeter, who knew both Rae and Ignatieff at university, and even roomed for a summer with Rae above that shoe store, remembers the split over Trudeau as a sort of litmus test. “Mike was definitely mainstream Liberal,” says Pargeter, now retired after a long career in communications with Petro-Canada in Calgary. “Bob was certainly more to the left.” He remembers Rae as an idealistic “student radical,” while Ignatieff tended to be skeptical about blueprints for sweeping social and political change. Yet it was Rae who tried to get things done on a practical level. After studying in Britain, and coming home to complete a law degree at U of T, he threw himself into work at legal aid clinics and got involved in the labour movement. By 1978, he had launched a political career and was a rising-star federal NDP MP.

But Ignatieff, who had looked more like a politician-in-training during his Young Trudeauite phase, went away to become an author on human rights, globe-trotting hot-spots journalist, suave BBC interviewer, and finally a celebrity Harvard prof. “I’m the thinker, he’s the doer,” Ignatieff told University of Toronto Magazine a few years ago, contrasting himself and Rae before there was serious thought of either leading the Liberals. “If he had gone into the Liberal party,” he remarked about his old roomie, “there’s no limit to what he could have done.” That what-might-have-been tone made sense at the time: Jean Chrétien was running the Liberals, Martin was waiting in the wings, and the party succession looked like a lock.

It’s wide open now. With the top-tier possibilities — Frank McKenna, John Manley and Allan Rock — gone, the second-tier is sorting itself out: Belinda Stronach announced she wouldn’t run last week, Stéphane Dion and Gerard Kennedy said they would. Anyone jumping in has to view the task awaiting the winner as daunting. Few Liberals expect to bounce back into power easily, the way Trudeau did after the fleeting Joe Clark Tory minority of 1979. While the Liberals were far from decimated in the Jan. 23 vote, returning 103 MPs, many say the respectable size of their caucus belies a deeper malaise. But what exactly is the problem — policy, party structure, election strategy? They need a leader who can make a clear diagnosis, and offer a convincing prescription.

Ignatieff and Rae will have a lot of fast talking to do to convince Liberals who barely know them that they understand the party well enough to fix it. But, then, they are both uncommonly persuasive — at least in a certain sort of forum. As students they squared off in debates at U of T’s Hart House, and they still might be most at home pitching ideas on a campus. Rae recently earned rave reviews for his performance in a guest talk at the University of Victoria; Ignatieff attracted a turn-away throng of students to a wide-ranging speech at the University of Ottawa.

Politics, though, isn’t a lecture circuit. Ignatieff cut his teeth as a campaigner by winning his Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding, under intense media scrutiny. But his main claim to internal party respect might come from the advisers he has attracted, led by Senator David Smith, a legendary Ontario campaign maestro. Rae’s credentials as a campaigner are, of course, more extensive, but also more problematic. As a long-time NDPer, he fought Liberals first at the federal level and then in provincial politics. His defeat of David Peterson’s Ontario Liberal government in 1990 still ranks as one of the biggest shockers in the history of Canadian elections. And Peterson, who is now backing Ignatieff, evidently hasn’t gotten over it: last week he told Canadian Press that Rae would face stiff resistance from Liberals who in the past had to “go to war” against him. “It’s not a bit of a problem,” Peterson said. ” It’s a huge problem.”

Can Rae convince Liberals he fits in? Supporters point to his personal evolution since his deeply unpopular provincial NDP government was whipped in the 1995 election by Mike Harris’s Tories. Rae reinvented himself as the go-to guy for high-level inquiries, from working on the Red Cross tainted blood issue, to studying the state of post-secondary education in Ontario, to advising on constitutional issues in Sri Lanka and Iraq. He split decisively with the NDP in 2002, angry over how Svend Robinson, then the NDP’s foreign policy critic, took a high-profile pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel stand on behalf of the party. He also slammed the NDP for refusing to follow Tony Blair’s moderate example in shifting Britain’s Labour Party toward the electable centre.

Friends say Rae’s refurbished public persona reflects a restored private sense of purpose after his ego took a beating. He won power in Ontario at the worst possible time, just as the province was plunging into recession, but his initial high-spending policies made the situation far worse — fulfilling the fears of Ontario business leaders. When he was later forced to impose restraint to keep the provincial deficit from soaring out of control, he alienated his base. Being thrashed at the ballot box was the inevitable outcome. “At a personal level, he had to find ways of recovering from that,” said Pargeter, “and re-establish who he is and how he could continue to make a contribution.”

After politics, Rae became close friends with prominent Toronto libel lawyer Julian Porter. “Being premier forced him to understand the limitations of politics and political power. It’s very hard to change many things, so you’ve got to have a limited agenda,” Porter says, adding: “I sense that he now understands businessmen and business, and doesn’t approach them at all the way he might have 20 years ago.”

Rae would enter the race with an enviable core to his machine: his brother John Rae, executive vice-president of Power Corp., was Chrétien’s most powerful campaign organizer. But he needs far more than that. Ignatieff is out of the blocks faster, and gathered an impressive array of big-name Liberals behind him for his launch last week. Naming Harper as his real adversary, Ignatieff declared: “I am not running against my fellow Liberals — many of them are colleagues and friends.” It was hard not to wonder if he had anyone in particular in mind. His backers privately say they hope Rae will opt not to run, perhaps even become an ally. That would enhance an old friendship. The race will be more interesting, though, if Rae decides instead to revive an old rivalry.

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