Q&A: Michael Ignatieff on success, failure and his time in politics

’You live and learn,’ says former Liberal leader
Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff waves goodbye as he leaves the stage with his wife after speaking during the Welcome ceremony at the party’s biennial convention in Ottawa, ON Friday January 13, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Two years after the Liberal party he led was dealt its worst general election defeat—and he lost in his own riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore—Michael Ignatieff is attempting to make sense of it all with a book. Fire and Ashes is the story of how he decided to enter politics, what it was like to be a politician and how it felt when it didn’t turn out the way he, and many others, had hoped. Mr. Ignatieff and I spoke for an hour last week about the book and his experience. The following transcript has been edited and condensed.

Q: Were you naive when you got into this?

A: Well, the first chapter of the book is called hubris, so hubris is a form of naiveté in which you over-estimate your abilities and under-estimate the obstacles. And all I would say, as counsel for defence here, is that I don’t think anybody goes into politics unless they over-estimate their abilities and under-estimate the difficulties. Sure, there was a lot I didn’t know. A lot I didn’t know about the party. A lot I didn’t know about what had changed about politics since I had last been involved. I think I under-estimated the ferocity of the Conservative attack. I under-estimated the ferocity of attack within my own party. But you live and learn. And I think by the end of it I don’t think I was too naive at all.

Q: If you had to do it all over again would you stay Harvard?

A: No. You don’t go into this to have an existential experience, but it was an unforgettable experience. It changed me. I’m glad I did it. My regret is not that I did it, but that I didn’t succeed.

Q: In that first chapter, you talk about the men in black coming to see you and what they offered you and you refer to it as an “astonishing proposition.” And you say, “The idea was preposterous. Who did I think it was?” Doesn’t that almost confirm the things the Conservatives said about you? That you were “just visiting,” that “he didn’t come back for you”?

A: No, absolutely not. I’m a Canadian. I’ve always been a Canadian. I wouldn’t have even had dinner with these people if politics and Canadian politics wasn’t part of my life since as far back as I can remember. I came back because I thought I could do something useful. I could stop being a spectator in the stands and put on my skates and get on the ice. And the book also says, however, and I think this is just being honest, you don’t know who you’re doing it for until you do it. And then as you go out on the road and you see what Canadians want and what Canadians need, it begins to shape a sense of agenda and purpose that, frankly, nobody has before they go into it. That’s what makes politics so extraordinary. But the Conservative attacks—I spent five and a half years in the game, and they never once attacked a thing I said, they only attacked who I was. I don’t think that’s good for politics.

Q: The counter argument is that attack ads have always been around. 

A: No question and I think there’s good attack ads and bad attack ads. I think there are attack ads that attack the policy, attack the idea. But two things I think are new here. One of them is I can’t recall in Canadian politics a sitting prime minister attacking two successive leaders of the opposition out of election time with ad campaigns of this size and extent. So to the argument that it twas ever thus, I would say, yes, we took some pretty rough shots at Harper in the 2004, 2006 elections, so I don’t want to be pious about this, but I would insist the size, the volume, the intensity, the cost of these attack ads by a sitting prime minister against two leaders of the opposition in a minority government were without precedent in Canadian politics. And I oughta say, there was lots positive about politics. I don’t want to make my story about the negative ads. Because I would want to say is, look, as they were happening, I thought, what else is he going to do? Of course he’s going to do this. It’s not as if I was shocked. But I would say, for Canadian politics, it’s not a good precedent. And I really feel that.

Q: You’d watched Stephane Dion go through this and suffer those ads. Did you under-estimate how it could be done to you?

A: I think that’s probably true. And I think I may have been slow, in fact, to respond to it. At first, there was a kind of, I can’t take this seriously. But it began to percolate and have a huge effect on our standing in the country. I just felt I was being denied standing in my own country, which means something very simple: I could talk, I could speak, but no one was listening because everybody said, he’s just visiting. And I hope I’ve contributed something to the understanding of this process of denying people standing. And I’d seen it happen once before, with John Kerry and the Swiftboat attacks in 2004. Interestingly, I ran both the Kerry/Swiftboat attacks and the attack ads against me in my classes at Harvard in the spring and it was kind of emancipating or freeing to see them. I can laugh about it now. But at the time, when you turn on the Super Bowl, between the halves and see yourself on the screen, it wasn’t my favourite experience I can tell you that.

Q: If the party had had the money, what would you guys have done to respond? 

A: It’s a good question and I can’t do what’s called a retrospective hypothetical, a) because we didn’t have the dough, we really didn’t. They spent, I don’t know what the number is, but it was a very big number and it was just by a factor out of our reach. As you know, we went on a bus tour and I had a wonderful time doing that and I loved it, but we met maybe a half a million people across the summer, the reception was wonderful, I’d never enjoyed myself as much in politics, but you just can’t meet enough people to counter a major ad buy on the major commercial network every night of the week. So could we have done anything? The trap here is if you get hit with a negative, you reply to the negative and then you contribute to the problem that you’re objecting to. I mean, I hope, had we had $12 million, we would have said positive things about our vision of the country and shown me smiling in all kinds of agreeable and ingratiating ways (laughs)  . . .  I think the smart thing to do with a negative is to reply with a positive, but I don’t want to be pious. I can’t tell you what we would have done if we’d had $12 million.

Q: You talk about the period between September 2009 to December 2009, when it was particularly rough and you had to get yourself up for Question Period. How close did you come to quitting?

A: Oh, there was no question of quitting. You know, you’re in it, you’ve been chosen by your party, but I had a difficult time. Politics is a tough game. But would I change places with a trauma nurse in an emergency ward on a busy Saturday night? No way. There are lots of jobs in the world that are tougher than politics. And politicians and people who’ve done it need to remember that. Number two, the stuff that kills you in politics is not what the press are saying and it’s not the attack ads, it’s the mistakes you make yourself. So that’s what eats you up. You think, I shouldn’t have moved that non-confidence motion. It was a mistake, it was a tactical, strategic mistake, that did me damage. So that’s what eats you up.

Q: You write about your relationship with Bob Rae. How strained was that relationship?

A: We go back a long way, really a long way. It’s actually generational, I mean our parents were friends. And it’s kind of simple, he wanted what I wanted and both of us couldn’t have it. It’s not especially complicated. But I think of course it strained the friendship. It’s mostly in that 2006 convention that there was an issue. After that we served in the same caucus, he served under me as leader, there was no issue of disloyalty. And I never lost sight of the fact that if there was a big political lift to be done, he was the guy to do it. He’s just very able.

Q: I thought it was striking that he and the cab driver had the same comment, “That’s politics.” Is there some definition of politics that you arrive at from those two incidents?

A: It’s a good question. (long pause) It’s a phrase we use all the time in our lives. You don’t get a job, that’s politics. Or something completely unexpected happens, politics. You’re at the edge of saying something—politics is the word for everything that’s maligned, unfair, unwarranted and unjust in life, right? But equally the book’s trying to say politics is much more than that. And I lived that. I’m very struck by how [much] loyalty there was in politics, actually. I mean, the whole thing would fall apart if there weren’t. If it was just a pure Machivellian game of betrayal, no political party would hold together. Loyalty matters in politics. Loyalty is in fact the driving virtue of politics and what I’m saying to you about Bob is that, for all our disagreements, he was loyal to me as leader. And that counts a lot. I’m not saying he was happy, I’m not saying it was great, but we didn’t play politics when we were in formation together.

Q: You talk about timing. You came into this fairly late, all things considered.

A: You can say that again.

Q: Do you wish you’d come into it sooner?

A: Oh sure, sure. But politics is about fortune and fate. It really is. Those are the fancy words for it. The unfancy word for it is luck. I had some great luck at some times and bad luck at others, but you don’t choose your timing. You know, my game plan, such as it was, was to run in 2006 and serve in a Martin government for awhile and learn the ropes and do all that stuff and I had kind of an idea that it would ten years and you would learn stuff. I was aware, believe it or not, that I had something to learn here. But the stuff that was extraordinary, and in a way unprecedented, is the night of the election [in 2006]—that in some ways was the decisive moment in my whole story. The night of the election, we lost and Martin quit. And I was very aware that, wow, this is happening really way too fast. But I didn’t think I’d have another shot.

Q: But for all of luck and fate and fortune, how much could you have done differently that would have changed the story?

A: I think I underestimated the structural weaknesses of the party. You know, we’d been bleeding votes for awhile. I think I didn’t have a deep enough understanding of the weaknesses in the brand, in Quebec and elsewhere. How much could I have done differently? I think things might have been different had I won in 2006. I think I would have had a longer time to run in, longer time to work it, longer time to find my feet, get a clear sense how to do this. I think 2006. What could I have done? I mean, then you run that back. You think a better second ballot strategy or some complicated stuff like that which is all now history.Coulda, woulda, shoulda, none of it matters anymore.

Q: But for all the weaknesses of the party, you do still take responsibility as the man in front for everything that happened, no?

A: Oh, no question about it. And let me give you the flavour of that. I’ll never forget going into the caucus room after the defeat in May 2011 and seeing people in tears. Now what they were in tears about was that they loved the House of Commons. They loved doing the job. So it’s a very, very heavy responsibility to feel that you’re responsible for that much grief, that much sorrow. And they had real reason to be sorrowful because they were very good members of parliament. So you carry forever the sense that it wasn’t just that you lost. Personally, I lost my seat, I lost my job. It’s that other people who signed up with you and had supported you and shown you exemplary loyalty also lost and it’s very painful to see that. So of course I take responsibility for that. At the same time, I am not taking the rap for the party I inherited. I’m just not.

Q: You talk about the days after the election when suddenly everyone wanted to tell you they had voted for and everyone was being reassuring. But how is it to handle what amounts to personal rejection from millions of people? 

A: Well, if you define it as personal rejection you go crazy. You gotta get on a bus the next day, you gotta go out to the dry cleaner, you gotta get on a plane and stand in line with your fellow citizens and if you start thinking to yourself they’ve all rejected me personally, you’re not going to make your flight as it were. It’s difficult to fail. I wanted to put the word failure in the title of the book to say that this is a book about something we don’t talk about much in politics, or in life, which is failing. And I wanted to be as straight up about it as I could. And it takes awhile. I feel two and a half years later it’s kind of a distant memory now. But at the time it sure wasn’t. It was tough, it was painful. But again, it’s so important to emphasize that in the big scale of things, I mean, I just look at the dedication of the book. It’s dedicated to three people who died in the course of  . . .  their widows, their families, it never ends for them. For me, I’m back teaching. I go on. Life has been extremely good to me.

Q: Could you have beaten Stephen Harper?

A: I think so. Let’s grant him his due. He’s not prime minister for nothing. And I think he has maintained control of the narrative in a way that, I don’t like it, but it’s effective. And I think that, perhaps what one could say is that people weren’t tired enough of him then. Maybe they will be next time. But I want to make it clear, I have plenty of respect for him, as a politician, no question about it.

Q: Did you under-estimate his effectiveness as a politician?

A: To be frank, I may have done so at the beginning, I sure didn’t by the end.

Q: How does it feel to watch Justin Trudeau now?

A: I wish I had numbers like he did. That’s to his credit. You get a certain perspective on Trudeau when you walk down a street in Papineau with him. Just watch him switching between two languages, switching into a bit of Punjabi. It’s a tough working class riding in Montreal. It has a strong Bloc Quebecois vote. He looks really good when he’s there. I was very impressed by that and that leads me to think he’s a very skilled professional politician, under-estimated at your peril.

Q: You were hailed as maybe the next Pierre Trudeau and much was made of having the resume that you had and the stature that you had, is that stuff overrated?

A: Well, first, let’s just be very clear. I had a lot of hubris going into politics, but I didn’t think I was Pierre Trudeau. It’s like that scene in that famous presidential debate, Mr. Quayle, you’re no Jack Kennedy. I certainly knew, because I worked for Pierre, I knew Pierre and I knew what an extraordinary, once-in-a-century kind of person he was. On the resume question, I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I never thought and no politician should ever think that his resume or his life entitles him to a single vote. The great thing about democratic politics is you have to earn it and you have to earn it one vote at a time. And if you don’t have it they’re not going to give it to you. So Mr. Trudeau is going to have to earn it. And he’s going to have earn it one vote at a time. And he knows as well as anybody, the name will get you through the door, but it won’t make the sale. What I’m saying to you is he’s a professional politician, in a way, frankly, that I was not. That seems to me to be, that’s what matters.

Q: Is there a lesson there? You look at the men who got past you in the last election, Jack Layton, Stephen Harper, they’re career politicians. And that tends to be disparaged, that idea of a career politician. 

A: This is a complicated question. On the one hand, you have to have experience at the game. I mean, the leaders’ debates, each of them had done three or four debates, I’d never done one before. But let’s watch where that can lead you. You don’t want to have a political system that is closed off to outsiders. And I will always regret I didn’t have enough time to learn my trade, but I went in seriously.I was prepared to give the rest of my professional life to it and that’s I think right. But I also feel, very, very strongly, I went in at the age of 58, I’d lived a life, I thought I brought some stuff to the table. If the only people who can succeed in politics are people who go in at 25, that’d be too bad. That’d be a shame. Look at Mike Pearson. Mike Pearson was not a professional politician, he’d been out of the country for 25 years and I would rank him at absolutely the top among our list of prime ministers for legislative achievement.

Q: You talk about the contrivances and the frustrations and the complaints and the compromises that you have to go through in politics. How do you think voters will take that when they read this book?

A: When I talk about the contrivances, voters know all this. Voters are very sophisticated. In fact, voters don’t give federal politics much attention because they’ve got busy lives, but they have pretty good radar for authenticity, for can I connect to this guy. They know the moves of politicians the way they know the moves of hockey players. And they’re pretty good at detecting fakes. I don’t think they thought I was a fake, they just didn’t connect to me. I think Mr. Harper is not a fake. Mr. Harper is not, in my view, very likeable, I don’t like his policies, but he’s not faking it. What you see is, I think, what you get.

Q: But that element of contrivance to it. I wonder whether  [voters] like to be told that there’s something contrived about it.

A: All I can say in my defence is if I was trying to contrive, it didn’t work so well. I think it’s important to talk about what politics actually is because a lot of what my message in the book is very simple: politics presents a unique challenge of judgment. Which is you gotta show it the way it actually is and you also want to show it as being the noble vocation that I believe it to be. It’s both of those things. And I think the public knows that. Which is why people wept at Trudeau’s funeral, because they understand that. They also know that it’s a devious, treacherous game. They know both things, because both things are true.

Q: Do they want to hear their politicians complain about things though? I think back to that Dion ad, that featured you, in which Stephane says, This is unfair. And that seemed to me to be the crushing line in it.

A: I think that’s a good point. I’m proud that I came out of the stands, got on to the ice, put on my skates and if you do that you can’t complain if someone decks you with a hit. I mean, I feel some of the hits, I wish the ref had been looking as it were, but it’s unbecoming and also naive to complain. But I’m unrepentant about saying that there were some aspects of my time in politics that I thought were not good for democracy. It has nothing to do with me. What I’m saying is, is this democracy we want? Which is a different question.

Q: Do you think that your experience basically fits the experience of every MP? Or did you come at this from a very different place?

A: I’m sure some will say that confirms everything I always thought about that guy. But I hope they, particularly the lifers and the professionals, hear the clear expression of respect for the people who’ve made it their life’s work. I mean, you can’t sit through a Liberal caucus every Wednesday for five years, as I did, without coming out with a strong belief in the basic soundness of representative democracy, by which I mean what someone knows about Halifax or Gander or the Yukon or suburban Toronto, they really know, they know it. And you’d be a damned fool not to respect that. I hope nobody misses the fact that I think representative democracy can work. My concern is that parliamentary has been emptied out and representatives can’t do their jobs and don’t have a role. You know, what people forget is that it’s not merely that representatives go back to their ridings every weekend and pick up the gossip and hear stuff—and I think some of what they say is much more useful than any poll—there’s that side of it, but they’re also the side of they’re legislators. I can remember sitting with caucus colleagues in 2006, 2007, sitting in the justice committee, on a rainy Thursday afternoon, watching people from all parties do line-by-line and clause-by-clause on a justice bill. And that was the moment, in my entire career, when I thought, ah-ha, that’s what our job is. We’re legislators. Nobody talks about this but that’s what we actually do. That’s where we earn our living. And it’s important. If you get clause-by-clause wrong, somebody does more time in the slammer than they should. It’s not about commas and semi-colons, it’s about the lives and liberties of our fellow citizens. And we’ve kind of lost touch with—it’s all gong show now.

Q: But you had an opportunity as leader, conceivably to start making some of those changes? Did you do enough when you were here to start to try to fix things?

A: Of course not, of course not. There’s no question. I think that the current leader is taking some steps that I support and that I didn’t do. But let’s also remember what we did do. We fought a government that was twice held in contempt of Parliament by the Speaker. I could have rolled over, many times, in front of the Harper juggernaut and we went into an election in 2011 that I knew the timing was not perfect because I knew it was unconscionable to roll over on a budget after the government was held in contempt by the Speaker. And why was he held in contempt by the Speaker? Because it was our party that fought to have disclosure of documents. So on crucial issues about defending the prerogatives of parliament, I think we were actually on the side of the angels. I was holding a caucus together. I think sometimes I may have actually held the reigns a little tight. I think in different circumstances I would have done differently. But the burden making parliament work falls mostly on the prime minister. And he, for obvious reasons, it makes his life easier to run it this way.

Q: But will it ever transcend? You were a leader, you know that control is a huge aspect of it and it’s a huge benefit.

A: No, there are things that I think the public doesn’t pay much attention to, but which we really could change the rules on prorogation, we really could restore to parliamentary committees the right to choose their own chairman and dictate their own agenda. We really could prevent and make impossible dumpster bills. Those are three quite specific changes that don’t necessarily make it impossible for a prime minister to have the prerogatives that he has to have to make his government work  . . .  I think we can do better is what I’m saying.

Q: When you were here, you had an ability or a willingness to be introspective and talk about the experience of politics, did you feel that you ever fully inhabited the role of a politician?

A: I think by the end I did—2010, 2011. I mean, it’s slightly ironic, I never had so much fun in politics as the last 35 days of the campaign. I had a wonderful campaign, enjoyed it from beginning to end, and got clobbered, so what do I know here? What I think is wrong is to think of me as kind of Hamlet-like, questioning the role. No, I was in the role. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was I made some mistakes, I had some problems, we didn’t have resources, but did I want to win? Did I want to succeed? Did I want to become prime minister? Did I inhabit the role to the best of my ability? You betcha me. But me being me, let me make it more complicated. I think anybody who fully inhabits the role ought to have his head examined. The role is impossible. Even Harper, I think. Anybody has moments where you think, gawd, this job is impossible.

Q: Impossible how?

A: Well, just the range of demands. The need to be on show all the time. It’s a demanding role. Again, remember what I said earlier, it’s no more demanding than being a trauma nurse on a tough Saturday night in emergency or a fireman. This is not about feel my pain. But it’s a complicated, demanding, professional role and there are moments where you’d be crazy not to look at it and say, wait a minute. And let’s be honest, politicians are doing this all the time. Their wives or their husbands are coming to them and saying, this thing is swallowing up our entire personal life. Or their kids come to them and say, dad or mom, I haven’t seen you for three weeks. Those are moments when you have to step away from your role and ask yourself, what the hell am I doing to my life? That’s what I mean. You can’t inhabit a professional role like politics if you’re Hamlet like, I don’t know whether I want to do this. You have to do it and you have to do it with full tilt, but at the same time you have to watch that it doesn’t take you over and turn you into something you don’t want to be.

Q: Let’s presume he reads it. What do you think Stephen Harper takes away from this book?

A: It’ll confirm everything he ever thought about me, I’m sure.

Q: Do you think he would see any of himself in this?

A: I have no idea. I hope he will see professional respect combined with complete political disagreement.

Q. Because there aren’t too many people who get to lead a political party.

A. And I think one of the things I believe in as a morality in politics is something I say somewhere about the distinction between enemies and adversaries. It’s a subtle distinction, but a vital one in politics. . So I regard Mr. Harper as an adversary. I disagree with him, but I have respect for his skills. I don’t wish him well politically (laughs), that’s carrying charity too far. But I, better than almost anybody else in Canada, know that he’s not prime minister for nothing.

Q: How would you like to be remembered by the public?

A: Oh, I have absolutely nothing to say about that. Really nothing. You just leave that to the folks.

Q: Any regrets?

A: Oh, no, only that I didn’t get there. I mean, that’s the thing about politics. You can do things for people. You can get home care for families that need it. You can give them some tax relief. You can strengthen our health system. You can get us an energy policy. And the fact that you don’t get a chance to do it is the part of it you regret. I don’t regret doing it. I just regret not getting there.