03.22.2014 08:47 PM

In Sunday’s Sun: of nice guys and politics

That old political saw – you know, nice guys finish last – isn’t always true. (Sometimes they finish second.)

But this much is always, always true: In politics, if you’re never nice to those below you, you will pay a very steep price.

Cases in point, departed Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, and departed (as of Sunday) Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

Flaherty is now contemplating a fat salary on Bay Street, and adding up his gold-plated MP pension. His legacy will be that he played against type. He spent like a socialist in the post-recession period, and his budgets were never quite as slash-and-burn as some of us expected them to be.

Redford, still reeling from a caucus mutiny, will be in the political burn unit for the foreseeable future. But when she emerges, she will be fine. She’s a respected lawyer, and highly employable. Her legacy will be that she was tireless in promoting Alberta’s energy sector – and that she won the PC leadership, and the subsequent election, when no one thought she would.

Flaherty and Redford had several political victories. They achieved high political office. They should be leaving political life with many singing their praises.

But they aren’t.

Flaherty and Redford, whatever their successes, shared one fatal flaw: they acquired reputations for being impatient, intolerant or irritated – or any combination thereof – with those below them. They came to be seen as not particularly nice people. Which, in turn, hurried their departure from the political stage.

In federal Conservative circles, stories about Flaherty’s temper and temperament are legion. Just before his sudden resignation last week, in fact, one Conservative very close to Prime Minister Stephen Harper told this writer about how disliked Flaherty was by Hill staff and many of his colleagues.

Flaherty had a bad temper, the Harper loyalist said, and he did not ever hesitate to rain opprobrium on those below his station. He could be, and frequently was, “very nasty to those with less power,” said this veteran Conservative.

Redford, meanwhile, was all about the big picture – but not so much about the little people. That, more than anything else, is what forced her to offer her resignation.

Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid captured this sad reality in a withering assessment of Redford, written minutes after she conceded defeat on Wednesday afternoon.

Wrote Braid: “She neglected the everyday things — the connection with regular people, the concern for frugality in her work, the building of friendships in her party and caucus, the small gestures of respect, the kind attention to people she was forced to cast off.”

The Herald veteran continued: “She never seemed to realize — and her resignation speech gave no sign she’s starting — that to do the big stuff, a leader has to get those small things right.”

Can a leader lead by being nice to everyone, all the time? Of course not. Every politician of note loses his or her temper. Every politician has bad days, like everyone else.

But the ones that do well – Jean Chretien, Jack Layton, Ralph Klein, Brian Mulroney, even Stephen Harper – do well unto others.

When my dad was dying, for example, my mom and I got a call from Stephen Harper. We talked about fathers. Even though I had been highly critical of his politics, Harper could not have been nicer to my family. We won’t ever forget that.

When I worked for Jean Chretien, meanwhile, I noted that he always entered – or attended – fancy political dinners in the same way: through the kitchen. He’d stop in the kitchen and thank all the staff, and talk to them and pose for pictures.

Around Ottawa, the cab drivers and messengers and secretaries all supported Chretien first – because he was nice to them.

As they reflect on why no one is lining up at the microphones to lament their departure, Jim Flaherty and Alison Redford might also contemplate this:

In politics, nice guys don’t always finish last. But guys who aren’t ever, ever nice?

They always do.

.

56 Comments

  1. MississaugaPeter says:

    Alison Redford was not like that in high school (Bishop Carroll) and university (undergrad at U. of A.), nor was Gerard Kennedy when I met him over 25 years ago (lived with the same Basilian Fathers at the U. of A.).

    Sadly, it appears that some smart and decent people become very self-absorbed and arrogant when they have spent time in politics.

  2. Lance says:

    Speaking of fathers, mine always said that true character or lack thereof was shown by how you treated people who didn’t possess authority or were subordinate in some way. Also, a great piece of advice on dating he imparted was that a woman could often tell the type of man you were by how you treated the waiter or waitress, especially when orders go wrong.

    I have heard that Dalton McGuinty was one of he ones that treated staff well, too; same with Ralph Kline.

  3. Mark Morabito says:

    Brilliant. Full Stop.

    • Mark Morabito says:

      I meant to ask……what do you think of the fact that two female Premiers’ (Dunderdale / Redford) have been forced to resign mid term due to lack of caucus support. I feel these two female Premiers resigning back to back is shocking from a precedent perspective in the Canadian context. Is it a coincidence Warren?

  4. Mark says:

    “Flaherty is arguably the greatest finance minister this country ever had”

    Would this be the same Jim Flaherty that first denied that Canada was going into a recession; then denied that the government should do something about it; then, when the opposition forced his hand, did as little as possible; then, finally, after doing as little as possible, spent millions on “Economic Action Plan” Ad trying to convince Canadians that they really did do something about the recession?

    Would that be the Jim Flaherty that you’re talking about?

  5. Fraternite says:

    More and more it seems to me that I should be voting for good people who exhibit decency in their personal lives, and less and less do I find myself caring about policy and platforms.

    Character matters, and I’m increasingly thinking it matters the most.

  6. Iris Mclean says:

    Will Ferguson’s book, Bastards And Boneheads comes to mind.
    A jolly good read IMHO.
    http://www.amazon.ca/Bastards-And-Boneheads-W-Ferguson/dp/1550547372

  7. e.a.f. says:

    Wouldn’t consider Flaherty “the best finance minister” but given the times, the party, the leader, he did the best he might have done. He might have been better if there had been more money allocated to other things, but then, he was part of the Conservative Party.

    Flaherty left a long time ago. Its just his body, which is leaving now. You only have to look at the body language in Parliament. It maybe that people don’t like people with bad tempers, however, I’d rather have a competent asshole in office than an incompetent “nice” person. Of course people did like Chretien. Never voted for him, but like him.

    What gets people to the top of the pile is usually something in their personality which works well on the way up but doesn’t work to keep them there. Its like a person attarked to someone who is very career orientated and decisive. Once they are married, not so much. They spend too much time at work and they don’t ask for their partner’s opinion.

    Redford, if it had been a man, who would have cared. Like Stevie did take that plane load of “friends” to Israeli and his limo to India. If you compared Redford’s travel expenses to that of other premiers, it wouldn’t have been that much different. Alberta simply has another set of values.

    There is a story, from Texas, from back in the day. During an election, for governor, one candidate–male was quite rude to another candidate–female. It cost him the election. The woman, a Democrat got elected. Back in those days it simply was not on to be rude to a woman like that.

  8. Ian Howard says:

    Politics largely dictates policy, your behavior is a matter of personal choice.

  9. Gordon says:

    The best kept and most unfortunate secret in politics is that it is a business full of disagreeable people. It would crush a lot of people’s childhood dreams to find out just how unpleasant some people in elected office are. Warren’s piece is salient. The chickens do come home to roost for the petulant, and there is a political graveyard full of fallen MPs, MPPs, mayoral candidates etc to prove it. That’s not to say there are not nice people involved in the process. It is just unfortunate that tyrannical behaviour and mean-spirited attitudes pervade the ranks of all major parties.

  10. Joe says:

    One of the great misconceptions in politics is that you have to please all the people all the time. Too bad that in real life that never happens and when you tread on someone’s toes they will likely call you nasty names. Remember Ralf Klein’s words to the effect that you can call him all the dirty rotten names in the book and he will still do what he thinks is right.

    That being said Alison Redford was tossed not because she treated her underlings with disdain but because she had a tin ear politically and all the ethics of a Law and Order defense lawyer. Promise one thing then do the opposite was standard practice for her. One simple example should suffice; she wooed the unions to support her then took away their bargaining rights. Then of course there was the elitist vs populist divide of which she remained on the wrong side. Albertans are very egalitarian at heart and like their politicians to be simple folk. I fondly remember bumping into Peter Lougheed one day and having a pleasant conversation as he waited for some dignitary. Then there was the time my then 5 year old son spotted Don Getty and yelled, “Hi Don” Don walked over and shook my son’s hand and exchanged pleasantries with my family. Ralf Klein was cut from the same cloth according to the legions of people who met him. Alison Redford does not have that common touch and as such never really grokked Albertans.

  11. Tiger says:

    Don’t know enough about Flaherty or Redford to judge them. Although Flaherty has always been very pleasant when I’ve run into him as an ordinary delegate at conventions, so I’m slightly skeptical about the stories about him being disliked.

    Agree with Kinsella’s main point, that how you treat staff and people working for you, whether party or other service workers, matters a good deal and says a lot about you.

    Shows up in Kipling’s poem that always gets cited:
    “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    ‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch, …
    If all men count with you, but none too much; …”

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