Do you love Canada?
The intent of the reporter’s question, caught and reproduced in sound-bite format totally divorced from its context, was unclear. It could have been a trick question — a chance for a ‘Gotcha’; or a soft toss — a chance to hit one out of the park; or even a genuine enquiry — as unlikely as that seems.
The tone of the Conservative Leader’s response was, as always, careful, measured, thoughtful. And, as too often, awkwardly expressed.
Well, I said Canada is a great country. You know, all of us who get involved in public life spend a lot of time away from our families to go across the country, probably get in many ways the most rewarding experience you could have, you know. It’s not tourist travel, you don’t see all the hot spots and all the great sights but you get a real sense — the kind of traveling I’ve done, especially the last seven or eight months ““ you get a real sense of Canadians, where they live, who they are and what their challenges are. And I think the country has unlimited potential. That’s why I think it would be so exciting to take over at this point in our history. But I think it’s necessary to make a change if we’re going to realize that potential.
Later that day, Paul Martin gleefully and glibly announced his love for Canada in both official languages. He had no trouble playing to the crowd, with the predictable result: turning the expression of what might have been a genuine sentiment into a political cheap shot. We could always count on the then-Prime Minister to behave like a politician.
Contrariwise, during that 2005/06 election campaign it wasn’t clear whether Stephen Harper even had a ‘politician’ mode. He was the political reverse-Midas, transforming legitimate indignation into self-righteous anger, standard glad-handing into awkward interactions, carefully considered opinions into cautiously phrased caveats, spontaneous wit into badly timed jokes. Even his self-deprecating humour had an edge. We were told that he could talk policy, alright, but could he speak comfortably about, you know, his feelings?
Harper certainly failed his early test to emote on demand and, just over five years later, not much has changed in that regard. He often looks uncomfortable when interacting with people. But did anyone ever wonder whether Laurier or Diefenbaker or Pearson could talk comfortably about their, you know, feelings? Not likely: back in the day it wasn’t part of their job description, not part of our expectations.
As yet another federal election wraps up — with a guy who has no realistic chance of forming the government out in front on the question of leadership — we might spare a few minutes to think about what it is we want, expect or require in the person who is Prime Minister. Not that what we want necessarily drives our vote, since that decision is made in the midst of a messy melange of local riding issues, local candidates and party positions, among others. Party leadership is only one of many factors.
As elsewhere in life, there are all kinds of leaders: the inspiring visionary; the strong, silent manager type; the warm and fuzzifier; the unnerving intellectual.
Through the magic of television, we are blessed or cursed with more-visible leaders than ever before. Between elections we see them posturing in the Question Period cockpit, tossing around rehearsed short snappers during staged and informal scrums, speechifying to partisan crowds in other parts of the country, and holding forth at carefully stage-managed public events. With this continual if superficial exposure, it’s easy for us to think we know who they are as people.
Ah, but the campaign is different, right? Absolutely. During the election campaign we see them posturing in interviews, tossing around rehearsed short snappers during the debate, speechifying to partisan crowds in all parts of the country, and holding forth at carefully stage-managed campaign events.
With no direct contact with these men, it’s hard not to let our judgement about leadership be tainted by our feelings of affinity with the public persona we see. So Harper’s sweetly reasonable persona doesn’t look natural; Ignatieff looks irritated; and Duceppe looks “angry all the time” in the words of a Tim McGraw song. Only Layton looks relaxed and cheery, getting cheerier by the minute.
What we know of these men is what we get through the media and the spin/counter-spin of carefully crafted advertising. What we see is coloured by our own attitudes, expectations and style preferences. It warrants a certain caution; it warrants a focus on the fundamentals. And how each plays to the microphones is not fundamental. Is it?
Do you love Canada? Gotcha.