A gaffe, in reverse

The drug of choice among political journalists is the gaffe. It is either a trivial slip of the tongue — especially, in Michael Kinsley’s immortal definition, when a politician tells the truth — or some trifling but embarrassing incident: a dropped football here, a silly hairnet there, indicative of nothing in particular but invested with all manner of spurious significance by the media herd.

It’s nonsense, of course. The only significance of the gaffe is that it fits a narrative, or rather that a narrative can be made to fit around it. A politician’s campaign is failing. He eats an ill-judged banana. Therefore the banana-eating becomes a “metaphor” for the campaign, or even a “defining moment.” Defining him as … what? As a politician who eats bananas and loses elections. It’s entirely self-referential.

Something of the same phenomenon is at work with regard to Stephen Harper’s celebrated performance at the National Arts Centre the other night — only in reverse. Here, the media has inflated the importance not of a minor embarrassment, but a minor triumph. But in all other respects it functions exactly like a gaffe. A reverse gaffe, if you will.

Instead of a campaign bus with a flat tire, we’re now finding vast import in a politician who can carry a tune. And for the same reason: because it suits our professional need for narrative. The narrative the media had settled on for this week was of Ignatieff the stumblebum, the guy who couldn’t get anything right; in contrast, Harper’s exquisitely timed appearance seemed to confirm he could do no wrong. Why, he even sang on key!

So what? It has no meaning beyond that, tells us nothing we did not know about him before, sheds exactly zero light on his ability to govern the country. For God’s sake, we’re not picking a boyfriend here. We’re choosing a prime minister.

Well, no. It tells us a couple of things, neither of them particularly worth celebrating. One, that Harper really has lost any sense of shame. The old Harper would never have lowered himself to playing the organ grinder’s monkey for the tax-funded Ottawa elite. Perhaps it speaks well of him that he is not above such things — that he is secure enough to abase himelf — though I rather prefer a politician with a sense of dignity.

But it’s the weirdly rapturous reaction of the crowd, so over-the-top, so out of proportion to the actual event (People! It’s not like he sang the “Vissi d’Arte” from Tosca. Even Ringo couldn’t butcher that five-note tune) that I find most fascinating. It wasn’t so long ago that a chill would have come over that room when he walked on stage. I think what we saw that night was official Ottawa transferring its allegiance. Power, they can sense, is consolidating in Harper’s hands. Now it was time to kneel and kiss his ring.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.