Who am I — and what am I doing here?
Remember that one? I sure do. Eighteen years ago this week, Admiral James Stockdale entered the political history books when he led off the U.S. vice-presidential debate with that quirky question. As Ross Perot’s Reform Party running mate, Stockdale wasn’t particularly well known — and certainly not as well known as his Democratic and Republican challengers, Al Gore and Dan Quayle.
For his candour, Stockdale was lampooned as a slow-witted poltroon on Saturday Night Live — and pretty much everywhere else, too. But he and Perot went on to win 19% of the popular vote, one of the biggest independent-ticket showings in U.S. history.
To me, Stockdale’s pithy question neatly sums up a lot of politics. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, despite the many years they’ve been in public life, still aren’t particularly well-known by the Canadian public. While we may see them in the media every day, and while their parties spare no expense to get us all to like them, neither leader is terribly familiar to millions of Canadians.
As with the beleaguered U.S. President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Harper and Ignatieff are seen — fairly or not — as isolated and remote from the people they serve. Like someone else once said, they’re all enigmas, wrapped in a riddle. We don’t know them in the way we want to, or at least in the way they want us to know them.
So, in Harper’s case, we deny him his much-coveted majority. With Ignatieff, we decline to give him a shot at minority government. Obama, meanwhile, is heading inexorably towards a mid-term comeuppance.
The successful politicians I’ve had the privilege to work for — former prime minister Jean Chretien, premiers Dalton McGuinty and Gord Campbell, Toronto and Ottawa mayors Mel Lastman and Jim Watson — all had pretty different policies and approaches. But all shared the same ability to connect with voters. They all gave people the sense that they were regular folks, too, and that they understood the challenges Joe and Jane Frontporch face in their daily lives.
Each one of those politicians also came from very modest backgrounds or very big families. Some experienced personal tragedy when they were growing up. My hunch is voters have the ability to sense all of that, and gravitate toward the leaders who they think have a better understanding of their lives.
While we’re on the subject, I guess Stockdale’s immortal question — Who am I, and what am I doing here? — applies to me, too.
How, you might ask, did a dirty rotten Liberal like Warren Kinsella get into a fine, small-c conservative institution like the Sun? Why is his latte-sipping, Volvo-driving, UN-loving, One-World-Government secular humanist mug staring up at me from the pages of the conservative paper that has been conservative the longest? And, while we’re on the subject, has Peter Worthington recovered yet?
Like Admiral Stockdale, I’m not entirely sure how I came to be here. After all, as Jean Chretien’s attack poodle, as someone once called me, I’m not exactly a key component of the Sun’s target demographic. I’m a Liberal, for Peter’s sake!
I am, however, an opinionated loudmouth, and the Sun Media folks apparently see some value in that. They’ve asked me to type a column for them a couple times a week — and, unlike every other paper I’ve opinionized for, they haven’t tried to tell me what to say.
And, when their TV network gets up and running in the spring, they want me to do the talking head thing there, too. It won’t be dull, but it might be fun.
Who am I, then, and what am I doing here?
Good questions. Guess we’re about to find out.
— Kinsella is a lawyer, consultant and Liberal Party spin-doctor. He blogs at warrenkinsella.com