Mountains of youth

Michael Ignatieff has recruited a cabal of irrationally eager twentysomethings

Mountains of youthHe wore bow ties in university. It was something he picked up in private school, when wearing a long tie was required during the day and dressing up meant something different. In college, as a columnist for the student newspaper, it became a trademark. For that matter, it came in handy—at six foot six he has a hard time finding ties long enough that the skinny end slips neatly through the loop underneath the wide end.

For what it’s worth, he thinks bow ties are “cool.” And “whimsical.” And Lester B. Pearson wore one too. “I also don’t think,” he says, admonishing himself, “that I should ever, ever compare myself to Pearson.”

Perhaps not. Though sitting in a coffee shop a few blocks from Parliament Hill, a place he often comes to write, speaking in a deep voice that seems incongruous with his baby face, it is difficult to say how Adam Goldenberg should limit his ambitions. He is, at present, writing speeches for the most celebrated public intellectual to ever seek leadership of this country. He is, on a daily basis, helping assemble the public words of the man who might be, if today’s polls hold true, the next prime minister of Canada. And he turned 22 last week.

“I did not see myself doing this when I was in university,” he says, less than a year removed from Harvard. “But if you’d asked me when I was in university what the coolest possible thing I could be doing a year out would be, this is the answer I’d give you.”

Ottawa is a place that subsists on the young. Great hordes of twentysomethings in dark suits and skirts—the unnaturally ambitious, irrationally eager and ever-willing. They fill offices and staff campaigns and scurry after cabinet ministers. In December 2006, the young disciples of Michael Ignatieff stood amid confetti and discarded signs in downtown Montreal, hugging and sobbing at the sudden end of their candidate’s leadership run. Two and a half years later, they are in change. Or at least in the vicinity of power.

Trevor Harrison, the legislative assistant helping plot question period strategy, is 22. Marc Gendron, the “chief technology officer,” responsible for adapting the party of the 20th century to the realities of 2009, is 24. Gosia Radaczynska, the woman charged with “online strategic communications,” the one talking about the “safe environment” they’ve found for creativity and innovation, is 26. David Ritchie, the guy plotting Ignatieff’s travels, quoting Marshall McLuhan and enthusing about the design and purpose of town hall meetings, is 24. Each speaks with a certain reverence for the work and to the man they’re working for—a man who must often seem to embody so many of the things that delight those too young to concede to cynicism.

“The seeming sense of purpose probably comes from many or all of us knowing that we are, and have to act and prepare like, a PMO-in-waiting,” explains Harrison via email. “If we want to get to the next level, if we are going to win the next election and each help in our own way to make Michael prime minister, it all depends on how we work now, day after day. The example we set for ourselves and for each other isn’t presumptuous, but it has to be expectant.”

Paul Zed, the 52-year-old former MP acting as Ignatieff’s chief of staff, volunteers to testify on his young charges’ behalf and proceeds to speak in the sorts of tones for which emoticons have not yet been invented. “I have never seen a smarter, brighter, more dynamic group of Canadians in my life,” he humbly observes. “They’re phenomenal. They really are.”

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Genius is fleeting and youth is abundant. There were bright, dynamic young Canadians who believed in Stéphane Dion too. There are still bright, dynamic young Canadians who believe in Stephen Harper, Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe, even Elizabeth May. For now though, Iggy’s kids enjoy a unique moment. Theirs is the possibility of something entirely new.

If there is an obvious curiosity it is Goldenberg, his head bobbing above the crowd as he walks through the foyer after question period. Growing up in British Columbia, the son of two doctors, he read Ignatieff’s writing on human rights in high school and signed up for the Liberal party at 14. Having skipped Grade One, he left for Boston at the age of 17. His first seminar was at the Carr Center for Human Rights, then helmed by Ignatieff.

He became a columnist for the Crimson, Harvard’s daily campus newspaper, penning sentences like “Harvard has long worked to ensure that America’s ruling class hasn’t been especially stupid” and tossing off words like “codswallop.” After graduation, he went to Rome to work with the UN’s World Food Programme. He returned to work with Ignatieff’s local campaign in Toronto last fall and then, while contemplating law school, was convinced to stay and assist with Ignatieff’s leadership campaign. When that became moot, Goldenberg came to Ottawa.

He is now the only full-time speechwriter Michael Ignatieff has ever had. “I don’t presume to take credit, really, for what he says now because the ownership belongs to him. By the time he actually says it, I’ve helped shape the draft, I’ve helped organize some of the thoughts, I’ve helped come up with some of the lines, but when I do I don’t venture far from what I’ve been given by him,” he says. “If I were he, I would certainly be uncomfortable with somebody shaping my words when my words are what have defined me for my entire life. So I have to approach that with the utmost respect and reverence, deserved respect and reverence.”

There is probably something unusual about someone so apparently smart speaking about politics in such tones. He is very much still the student, learning from Ignatieff’s revisions and frequent ad libs, but studying too, he says, the words of John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, Jean Chrétien, René Lévesque and Adrienne Clarkson. He sometimes talks and gestures like the man whose voice he must by now know better than his own. And in between repeated assertions of how “cool” it is to be doing what he does, he speaks in long, artful sentences of the sort you’d expect from a young man of his occupation. “My ambition has always been to sort of take whatever talents I have and to put them into the service of people who are trying to change the world,” he offers at one point. And he seems very much to believe it.

Near the end of one conversation, he launches into a soliloquy of sorts—about walking to work and seeing the Peace Tower, about service and ideals and respect. Ignatieff, he says, stands against the cynicism that is so often everywhere else. “My day to day is motivated by that belief on his part and that I think everyone in our office shares, that sense of motivation,” he says. “And that is something that I could not have imagined, perceptively, until I started doing it, started being a part of it. It’s a really special thing.”

He says so with all the bravery of a young man courageous enough to wear a bow tie in college.

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