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On the night in question, I was at an event in Toronto honouring Senator Murray Sinclair. As it was getting underway, I received a text message from one of the Members of Parliament who had been at the very centre of it all.
“He should not have been out of his seat,” the text said. “This was a big error on his part.”
The “error” was an actual physical confrontation on the floor of the House of Commons, just like the ones they have in the Taiwanese Parliament. The “he” was the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau.
Until former Justice Sinclair spoke, everyone in the room stared at their devices, periodically shaking their heads in wonder. Ten observations, from afar:
1. The law: When the Prime Minister intentionally grabbed and yanked the Conservative whip – much like Donald Trump’s campaign manager recently did to a reporter – it met the Criminal Code definition of assault. When he elbowed an NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau, it didn’t. The elbow in Brosseau’s chest likely met the civil definition of assault, however. If she had later experienced bruising, things could have gotten quite complicated for the Liberal leader. Either way, if the physical stuff had happened off the Hill – in someone else’s workplace, for instance – charges, lawsuits and firings would have been the almost inevitable result.
2. The Internet: Live by social media, die by it. The Prime Minister has assiduously cultivated attention online, and especially internationally. When he took leave of his senses last Wednesday night, his actions became front-page news around the world. You cannot seek attention and then, having gotten it, complain that it is too critical. Many Liberal partisans are still doing just that, and they sound like the Conservative partisans they replaced. They sound pathetic.
3. The optics: The boxing photo ops are over. So, too, the earnest claims to being a feminist. The moment a man applies force in a way that it hurts a woman – inadvertent or not – it changes both, and the man is a feminist no more. If the country learned anything from the Ghomeshi trial, it is that.
4. The Liberals: This appalling episode has revealed the Liberal House Leader to possess a genial authoritarian streak. It has shown that the Liberal whip is in fully over his head, and wholly incapable of controlling his troops. It does not reflect well on the Speaker, either, because it is now apparent he does not oversee the Commons very well. And the Prime Minister? Well, what was once youthful and fresh now looks too-young and arrogant. In a matter of minutes, he did undid his good reputation with all but the most rabid Liberal partisan.
5. The NDP: As is their wont, they overplayed their hand, calling the elbow to Brosseau a deliberate criminal assault when any of the lawyers in their caucus could have told them it was not. Mulcair looked like the enraged father who was defending a daughter who had been manhandled, however, and it was an understandable response. Trudeau’s return to the scene of the alleged crime – to confront Mulcair, apparently, and toss around a few “F” bombs – wasn’t understandable at all. It was another huge lapse in judgment.
6. The Conservatives: If they’re smart, they will keep their cool, and stay above the (literal) fray. Referring the matter to committee was a shrewd move – it will ensure the controversy will be kept alive for weeks. Stephen Harper being in the House when it all happened? It’s a safe bet that he was smiling, somewhere, on Wednesday night.
7. The cause: Some Liberals will claim there was a need to invoke closure, and radically change the rules of the House, to ensure the right-to-die legislation met the Supreme Court’s deadline. That is spurious and false. One, a matter of conscience should never, ever be rushed. Two, Canadian physicians were given sufficient guidelines in the high court’s ruling, and are applying them. Three, the Bill was always going to be amended and delayed in the Senate. What, therefore, was the damn rush?
8. The footage: It is going to be replayed over and over. It is going to figure in the next election campaign. It is going to be as ubiquitous as the Zapruder footage. When you watch it, you cannot help but lose respect for any number of participants. It is bad.
9. The precedent: I worked for Jean Chretien back in February 1996, on the frosty day of the now-famous Shawinigan Handshake. That incident, and this one, are not analogous. Chretien faced a threat; Trudeau did not. Chretien was not the instigator of the confrontation; Trudeau was. Chretien used force with a man; Trudeau used force in a way that hurt a woman. The Shawinigan Handshake became a positive for Chretien. For Trudeau, this never will.
10. The contrast: Sitting there, listening to the extraordinarily thoughtful, kind, mature and reserved words of Senator Sinclair, I was struck by something else. I turned to my wife, a Liberal and a feminist, and said: “Senator Sinclair sounds like a Prime Minister. Tonight, the Prime Minister doesn’t look like a Prime Minister.”
Something changed rather dramatically, last Wednesday night. Per Buffalo Springfield, something happened, here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.
This much is true, however: for Justin Trudeau, none of it was good.
It can now be revealed: neo-Nazi Paul Fromm (and Your Ward News supporter) was going to use Parliament Hill for a press conference this week. And senior staffers at PMO and Justice stopped it.
In all the manhandling and elbowing of the past week, it was an easy story to miss. But the PMO and Justice folks didn’t. The minute they heard Fromm was trying to use a Hill press conference room to spread his venom, they swung into action and stopped it. A confirming report is found here.
They’ve had a truly shit week up there, and their boss deserves the shit he’s gotten, at home and at work. But his senior staff deserve kudos for their action in the Fromm case.
That, clearly, is what newly-minted Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leader Patrick Brown wants to do: make the “progressive” part of their name a reality again.
It’s fair to ask this question, however: has it ever been progressive in the past generation? In my view, it hasn’t really been that way since Bill Davis.
John Tory was a progressive conservative, but the Ontario PC caucus and membership sure weren’t. He wanted to bring them back to Davis – but they all wanted to get back to Harris. (And, to sue for peace, Tory let in the Landowners. Big mistake. Trojan Horse, etc.)
Tim Hudak was truthful, at least: he didn’t have a progressive bone in his body, and he let everyone know it. They voted accordingly.
Mike Harris? Well, we all know how that worked out. His ‘Common Sense Revolution’ was certainly the latter, but not so much ever the former. He won, sure. But when Ontarians saw what his revolution meant – Ipperwash, Walkerton, hospital closures, firing of nurses and massive social unrest – they were the ones who rebelled. His party hasn’t been in power since.
The Republicans are a good recent example of what happens when conservatives let red-meat ideologues – the Tea Party, et al. – conduct a friendly takeover. It empowers lunatics like Donald Trump, and it also simultaneously alienates the significant majority of voters who aren’t far-Right kooks. Like Nixon used to say: run to the Right to get the nomination. And, when you get it, start running back to the Centre.
I haven’t met Patrick Brown or spoken to him. I do know some of the folks around him, however, and they are scary-smart modern conservatives. If they are in any way representative of his thinking, I think it’s safe for the rest of us to assume that he is genuine in his quest to pull his party – kicking and screaming – into modern times.
That said, his party may like it where they are. And that, of course, will result in Patrick Brown being this decade’s John Tory – a man in sync with his times, but leading a party that decidedly is not.
Meet Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications to the President of the United States of America.
Or, as he was recently described in a headline in Foreign Policy magazine, an asshole.
That’s a quote. “Asshole.” Foreign Policy – that most revered and reserved of publications, the sine qua non of the U.S. diplomatic and bureaucratic classes, has called one of the most powerful unelected people on the planet an “asshole.” In a headline, too.
That’s not all. Foreign Policy also called Rhodes “an overweening little schmuck.”
In the days since the New York Times Magazine published a 10,000-word magnum opus about Rhodes, lots of other bon mots have been flung his way, too. That he’s an out-of-control egomaniac, that he’s a serial manipulator, that he’s an inexperienced adolescent – and, most ominously (for him), that he oversaw a Machiavellian conspiracy that “duped the American public into accepting a nuclear deal with Iran.”
That last one should give Rhodes and his boss and their respective lawyers pause, of course, because it nudges them perilously closer to what Dubya got with his imaginary weapons of mass destruction in neighbouring Iraq. You know: congressional hearings, threats of impeachment, an unrelentingly hostile media, a war-opposing African American in the White House, etc. etc. It was bad.
Obama and Rhodes are months away from the end of their tenure in the White House, however, so perhaps the Republicans and the press will give them a pass. The former is shortly heading off to write his memoirs and give pricey speeches, while the latter is heading back to what he did before. Which is, wait for it, writing short stories. (We’re not making this up. That’s what Ben Rhodes did, actually. He was a creative writing major when Obama recruited him to be a speechwriter on his 2007 campaign.)
But the Rhodes profile in the Times is a cautionary tale for political staffers everywhere, even in far-away Ottawa, Ontario. Because, in it, Rhodes gave writer David Samuels extraordinary access – and he was extraordinarily candid. Rhodes told Samuels, on the record, that the press corps are “27-year-olds…who literally know nothing.” He called the entirety of the foreign policy establishment – including Hillary Clinton – “the Blob.” He said he had created an “echo chamber” of talking heads who say “what we [have] given them to say.” He said some of his colleagues “can’t keep a secret for two hours.” He said – and, again, this is a quote – “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.”
Sound, say, like not a few “senior strategists” who have blown into town on the wings of someone else’s election victory, achieved unprecedented powers, and then frittered it all away with an ill-advised sit-down with someone like David Samuels?
It happens all the time. A senior staffer succumbs to the siren song of some scheming media inquisitor – You’re so influential! The bureaucracy and caucus respect you so! How did you get so close to The Leader? Was that your words I detected in that wonderful speech/policy/year-end interview? – and, inevitably, they come to profoundly regret it. The newspaper containing the profile piece thuds against their door early one morning, they shuffle to get it in their slippers, they scan it, they frown. They start frantically texting friends: “Do you think it’s bad? Does it create a problem for the boss? Should I demand a correction?”
Take my word for it, having previously taken a celebrated trip to the burn unit, myself: it’s almost always bad. It creates a problem for the boss. And a correction won’t undo the damage.
It doesn’t matter if the profile is highly critical, or highly laudatory, either. If it’s critical, the staffer will anger the boss, caucus and colleagues. If it’s too complementary – as in the Rhodes case – it stirs up jealousy and anonymous back-biting. Either way, it’s not good.
In the Harper era, few staffers would be foolish enough to agree to Rhodes-style profiling, so few ever did. The boss didn’t like it, at all.
In the Trudeau era, the press profile pendulum has swung wildly in the opposite direction: the new crew are big fans of behind-the-scenes stuff, to the extent that we know more about them than we do about most members of cabinet. No major decision seems to go unaccompanied by a subsequent tell-all about the strategic machinations that preceded it.
Is that ever a good idea? Well, ask Ben Rhodes. After the New York Times Magazine published – and after Foreign Policy started to call him an asshole – Rhodes disappeared. Vanished. His colleagues in the press office, meanwhile, started hand-delivering doughnuts to the media. Asked about what Rhodes said, White House press secretary Josh Earnest admitted that Rhodes would now “say it differently if he had the chance.”
Ben Rhodes won’t get the chance. He’s done like dinner. So, remember the cautionary tale that will forever be appended to his name, Ottawa staffers.
To make it easy, you could clip that Foreign Policy headline, and pop it in your wallet.
You know, the one calling the super-powerful, super-influential, super-smart advisor “an asshole.”