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Into the Fire: Academic Emerges From Political Plunge Enlightened

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It’s been said that no one loses an argument in their memoir. This refers to the timeless tendency of people to recall events in their lives in ways that are flattering to them — a tendency that’s especially pronounced among politicians.

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Photo: Harvard University Press

However, in his memoir “Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics,” Michael Ignatieff not only loses arguments, but he occasionally obfuscates, evades and calculates. Ignatieff even describes in considerable detail how he got trounced in a critical election.

“Fire and Ashes” is a strikingly honest book by a man who left a successful career as an academic, author and journalist to run for political office in Canada. He won a seat in Parliament, captured the Liberal Party leadership, and almost became prime minister. But he then suffered a decisive and apparently political career-ending defeat.

Ignatieff decided to write about the ordeal, hoping his defeat can help others pursue more productive political careers. While Ignatieff’s loss was personally and professionally painful, it also inspired him to reflect on “this politics, this brutal game, this dramatic encounter between fate and will, malignity and nobility.” Crushing failure provided him with a unique perspective that he describes candidly. “I’ve earned the right to praise a life that did not go so well for me,” he writes.

“Fire and Ashes” is a blunt and provocative book that does not seem orchestrated to help Ignatieff relaunch his political career. Rather, it’s a harsh critique of contemporary democratic politics and his own highly flawed participation in it.

Before running for office, Ignatieff had successful careers as a professor, historian and writer, primarily in the United Kingdom and United States. The son of a Canadian diplomat, Ignatieff was born in Canada but moved frequently as a boy and young man. He has an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto and a doctorate in history from Harvard University, where he currently teaches. He has written 17 books; worked as a documentary filmmaker and newspaper columnist; and has taught at the University of British Columbia, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

While teaching at Harvard in 2004, Ignatieff was approached by several Canadian political operatives who urged him to return to Canada, run for a seat in the House of Commons as a member of the Liberal Party, and prepare to run for party leader. They said they wanted Ignatieff to rebuild the Liberal Party, which was then headed for defeat, and eventually become prime minister of Canada.

Ignatieff’s electoral prospects were complicated because he had not lived in Canada for 30 years. While maintaining an emotional connection to his homeland, his career took him abroad. But he proudly recalled his father’s diplomatic work for several Canadian prime ministers, especially Lester Pearson, and he admired intellectuals who entered politics such as Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, the Czech Republic’s Václav Havel and Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes.

So he returned to Canada and set his sights on Parliament. Ignatieff acknowledges he’s not certain why he decided to plunge into electoral politics, surmising that patriotism, opportunity, family responsibility and ambition were all factors. “I want to explain how it becomes possible for an otherwise sensible person to turn his life upside down for the sake of a dream, or to put it less charitably, why a person like me succumbed, so helplessly to hubris,” he writes.

In January 2006, Ignatieff ran for and won a seat in the House of Commons representing the Etobicoke-Lakeshore district, which is outside of Toronto. Eight weeks after winning a seat in Parliament, he announced he would run to become leader of the Liberal Party, narrowly losing the race to Stéphane Dion. Disappointed, Ignatieff joined Dion’s leadership team. As Ignatieff puts it, he “wiped the frown off my face and fell in behind the new leader. I applauded his speeches, gave advice that was mostly ignored, never raised the flag of discord and bided my time.” When Dion led the Liberal Party to defeat in 2008, he resigned and Ignatieff ran to replace him and won.

As head of the Liberal Party from 2008 to 2011, Ignatieff tried to rebuild and re-energize the centrist party that had dominated Canadian politics for most of the 20th century but had been steadily losing support to the Conservative Party on the right and the New Democratic Party on the left. He tried to fashion a policy agenda based on environmental stewardship, international leadership, strengthening the social safety net, protecting the economy from systemic risk, and fighting for greater equality.

Ignatieff turned down an opportunity in December 2008 to form a coalition government with the New Democratic Party that would have made him prime minister. He thought the move would be viewed as unseemly and cynical because the opening came after an election in which the Conservative Party won more seats than either the Liberals or the New Democrats. He focused instead on trying to revive the Liberal Party, but his party was browbeaten in the 2011 election, with Ignatieff even losing his own seat.

Ignatieff left politics and returned to academia. He now teaches at the University of Toronto and Harvard and wrote “Fire and Ashes” to make sense of a turbulent political career that began with great hope and ended in crushing defeat. “I pursued the flame of power and saw hope dwindle to ashes,” he writes.

The most important lesson he learned from his brief but packed political career, Ignatieff says, is that it’s essential to know why you are going into politics. He muses on his possible motives: enjoying the perks of the job, acquiring power and fame, settling old scores, and proving himself to everyone who said he would never be successful. Ignatieff concludes he entered politics because he thought his parents would have wanted it, but adds that this was a mistake. “You can’t lead a political life to live up to your parents,” he writes, declaring that a sense of mission and vocation are necessary for a consequential political career.

Successful politicians, he believes, need a narrative to incorporate their personal ambitions into a broader story about their country. “A compelling narrative allows you to present yourself to the nation and party and gives you standing, a foundation from which to argue and promote positions,” he writes. “Without a narrative that defines the messenger as one with the audience he wants to reach, no message can get a hearing.”

Ignatieff says the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, launched an aggressive campaign to define him as an opportunist who returned to Canada just for political power, labeling him with such phrases as “Just Visiting” and “He Didn’t Come Back for You.” Ignatieff says this line of attack was both cynical and effective. “He [Harper] didn’t attack what I said. He attacked my right to say anything at all. He denied me standing in my own country,” Ignatieff writes. “Standing has become the primary area of combat in modern politics. You no longer attack a candidate’s ideas or positions. You attack who they are.”

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Photo: Harvard University Press
Michael Ignatieff left a successful career as an academic, author and journalist to run for political office in Canada.

Ignatieff argues that winning candidates need to secure their standing because it gives them the authority to make their case and get a fair hearing. Standing will not guarantee success, but it is necessary to be competitive. “You have to go out and earn it, face to face, doorstep to doorstep, phone call by phone call,” he says.

Ignatieff notes that Italian politician Niccolò Machiavelli understood the importance of good fortune (“Fortuna”) 500 years ago and his insights remain true today. “Politics plays itself out beneath the gaze of a fickle goddess. Practical politics is no science but rather the ceaseless attempts of wily humans to adapt to what Fortuna throws in their paths. Its basic skills can be learned but they cannot be taught,” the author writes. “What we call luck in politics is actually a gift for timing, for knowing when to strike and when to bide your time and wait for a better opportunity.”

Ignatieff observes ruefully that some of the greatest classics of political theory were written by those who had only modestly successful political careers, such as Machiavelli, Cicero, Edmund Burke, James Madison and Max Weber. This convinces him that theoretical acumen is more often linked with political failure than success. Book smarts only takes you so far in politics, he says, adding that successful politicians are usually adaptable, cunning, intuitive and respond decisively to changing circumstances. They also have “the noble capacity to lead, to charm, and to inspire.”

Unvarnished candor is not possible in politics, Ignatieff concludes. “In politics calling a fact a fact can be the equivalent of pulling the pin out of a hand grenade,” he wrote.

Politics, he says, is “unlike any word game you have ever played,” and that “freely expressing yourself is a luxury you can’t afford. Your language, like your personality, becomes guarded.”

Those entering politics should set aside some of their idealism and recognize that spontaneity doesn’t work. “In the strange kabuki play of a press conference or interview, candor is a temptation best avoided. Be candid if you can, be strategic if you must. All truth is good, the African proverb goes, but not all truth is good to say. You never try to lie, but you don’t have to answer the question you’re asked, only the question you want to answer,” he advises.

Ignatieff argues that politicians also must be perpetually on their guard and aware that their personalities will change as they deal with the onslaught of attention from the press and public.

“As you submit to the compromises demanded by public life, your public self begins to alter the person inside. Within a year of entering politics, I had the disoriented feeling of having been taken over by a doppelganger, a strange new persona I could barely recognize when I looked at myself in the mirror,” Ignatieff recalled. “I had never been so well dressed in my life and had never felt so hollow. Looking back now, I would say that some sense of hollowness, some sense of a divide between the face you present to the world and the face you reserve for the mirror, is a sign of mental health. It’s when you no longer notice that the public self has taken over the private self that trouble starts…. You become your smile, the fixed rictus of geniality that politics demands of you.”

Ignatieff laments the harsh partisanship that now infects politics, as elected officials adhere to the party line and rarely meet or speak with members across the aisle. “Partisanship divides an already divided society and turns adversaries into enemies. An adversary has to be defeated, while an enemy has to be destroyed. You cannot compromise with enemies. With adversaries compromise is possible. An adversary today can become an ally tomorrow,” he points out.

Ignatieff complains that this new era of the permanent campaign forces politicians to try to define and even demonize members of other parties rather than search for common ground. He calls for civility, which he describes as the recognition that your opponent’s integrity and sincerity is equal to your own.

Trying to end his book on an upbeat note, Ignatieff hopes his failures can help others who are contemplating a similar career path. Those who want to wade into the tinderbox of politics should do so with passion and fearlessness — and should have a private life that they can return to if they fail, he suggests.

“Don’t be afraid to take the plunge and don’t be afraid to fail. If you can free yourself of the idea that failure is a disgrace, you won’t be crushed by it and you won’t be spoiled by success either. Strive for success and don’t allow any excuses for failure, but above all learn equanimity,” he writes. “Since Fortuna largely determines political careers, you have no reason to rail at fate if she turns against you. Don’t make the mistake of supposing you control your fate. That’s called hubris.”

“Fire and Ashes” is a rich and rewarding book that will stay with you long after finishing it. Ignatieff raises many far-reaching questions about modern politics, including the central question of failure. Can pragmatic, problem-solving centrists survive and prosper in an era of hyper-partisanship, polarization and permanent campaigns? Can a politician advocating unspectacular themes such as community and stewardship stir voters enough to win elections? Recent electoral results are not encouraging.

But Ignatieff strives to remind readers that politics need not be a blood sport. “Politics is not war; it is our only reliable alternative to it,” he writes. He adds that answering the call of public service is more important than success or failure in elections. But everyone should be aware that things can go badly. “Knowing that you can lose is the best guarantee that you can stay honest,” he writes, reminding us that in politics, as in sports, most careers “eventually end in tears.”


About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 27, 2014