Musings —10.16.2014 05:13 PM—
Rudy Giuliani’s second term was not going well. It was a disaster, in fact.
He’d been diagnosed with cancer. His signature tough-on-crime policy was rounding up more hot dog vendors than bad guys. He was confrontational and combative. He informed his wife he was dumping her at a press conference. His numbers stunk. Even without term limits, he wouldn’t have been elected NYC dogcatcher.
And then, 9/11 happened.
The attacks on New York City, and New Yorkers, dramatically changed the political fortunes of Rudy Giuliani. Standing at Ground Zero, reassuring New Yorkers and the world, Giuliani was stoic, strong, serene. In three short weeks, his personal popularity shot up more than 40 points, to an extraordinary 80 per cent.
New Yorkers wanted the term limits law lifted, so he could run again. Oprah Winfrey called him “America’s mayor.” The Queen gave him an honourary knighthood. Time Magazine named him person of the year.
But before 9/11, as one writer put it, Giuliani had been a bum. On that day, he became a man. And on the days that followed, he became a hero.
Such is the transformational nature of disaster – war, terrorism, public health crises. It happens a lot, when you think about it.
Before 1939, Winston Churchill was isolated and marginalized, a period he himself called “the wilderness years.” And then World War Two broke out, and Churchill would go on to literally led the world in a collective struggle against fascism and Nazism.
Closer to home, Trudeaumania faded when Pierre Trudeau started acting on his pledge to build a “just society” – legislating (appropriately) multiculturalism and bilingualism. But when the October 1970 crisis struck, Trudeau’s resolute refusal to negotiate with FLQ terrorists – and his willingness to impose the War Measures Act – dramatically boosted his popularity. Gallup found that 90 per cent of Canadians approved of his leadership during the crisis.
In Ontario in 2003, when SARS struck, the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves was intensely disliked. There had been the Walkerton disaster, soaring energy prices, and a ministerial expense account scandal. But when SARS hit – ultimately claiming 44 lives – Eves’ calm, reassuring approach put the PCs back in contention.
At the time, I was (full disclosure) the chairman of the Ontario Liberal war room effort, and was witness to an extraordinary event: a huge, overnight rise in the PCs polling numbers. Simply because Health Minister had held a press conference, and showed people how they should wash their hands, to avoid SARS’ spread.
Other examples are legion. A politician is reviled and headed to certain defeat, and then something happens – a war, a terrorist attack, a public health crisis – and everything changes. What once seemed impossible becomes possible.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands at the precipice of such a moment, with twin challenges facing him and his government. On the one hand, there is his (appropriate) decision to lend modest military support to the international coalition against the serial murderers who make up ISIS. On the other, his government’s (as-yet unseen) response to the metastasizing Ebola crisis.
As is always the case, a leader’s political opponents become mostly marginalized in such moments. Both NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader have said they oppose any military action against ISIS, and both may well come to rue the day they did so. There is no other criticism they can make, now, without sounding indifferent to the fate of Canadian men and women deployed to a battleground.
Meanwhile, neither man can say much about the burgeoning Ebola scare without sounding like they are fear mongering, or worse. So they will say little, if anything.
People come together in times of disaster, in times of war and terror. They set aside their differences.
And – as Messrs. Mulcair and Trudeau likely know too well – sometimes they set aside certain politicians, too.