Peter C. Newman, having just been asked why Michael Ignatieff never became prime minister of Canada, muses.
“He was an impressive man,” says Newman, as he waits to go on to a Sun News talk show. “But he was the wrong man.”
The wrong man. That, in sum, is the verdict you are left with when you read — as I did, quickly — Newman’s impressive new book, When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada.
Ignatieff was brilliant, erudite, accomplished and decent.
And, mostly, the wrong man.
The wrong man to lead the once-great Liberal Party of Canada back to power, the wrong man for his time.
Newman concedes that there is no joy in any of this, for him or the country.
“I’m a Liberal,” he says, wearing his trademark fisherman’s cap, and a bit of TV makeup. “And I believe that all of the things that make this country great — Medicare, and so on — happened under the Liberals. But … ”
The word hangs there, but he doesn’t have to finish. Everybody knows the rest of the story. From the Jean Chretien majorities to the Paul Martin minority and then ignominious loss. From Opposition status, to now, in a distant third-place perch in the House of Commons. Little money, few members, and no power base left. Led by a former New Democrat nearing his 70s.
“Fifteen thousand members,” Newman says, marveling.
“In a country with many millions of people, the best the Liberal Party can muster is 15,000? That’s terrible.”
And so it is. Newman’s newest book — he’s written more than 30, all of them about power and the powerful, and going back as far as John Diefenbaker — is a tough one for any federal Liberal to read.
It makes the case the so-called Natural Governing Party commenced its downward slide in the Trudeau years, with its casual neglect of Western Canada. The descent continued apace in the ’90s, Newman writes, with the appalling and treasonous behaviour of Martin’s loyalists — Newman calls them “thugs” — against Chretien.
“Under Dion,” he says, waiting to go on Charles Adler’s show, “800,000 Liberals stayed home on voting day. And under Ignatieff, it was even more.”
The book he intended to write, back in 2006, wasn’t the book that he published in 2011.
When he sat down with Ignatieff at his Etobicoke constituency office, Newman recalls, it seemed that the former Harvard professor was on an upward trajectory no one could stop. Not even Conservative Leader Stephen Harper.
Ignatieff was going to be prime minister.
But Harper, as Newman memorably observes in his book, has the eyes and mind of an assassin. He measured Ignatieff, and he found him wanting. So, too, would the country.
“There was no connection,” Newman says. “He couldn’t connect with voters.”
Newman is kind to the Ignatieff loyalists — Ian Davey, Jill Fairbrother, Brad Davis, Mark Sakamoto, Alexis Levine — who helped propel Ignatieff into the Grit leader’s chair. They were passionate and full of ideas, he observes, and utterly devoted to their man.
When Ignatieff cruelly dismissed most of them, Newman suggests, and replaced them with mercenaries — Peter Donolo, Pat Sorbara and others — he made a mistake. He should have stuck with the young people who got him to where he was.
True enough. Newman is now well into his 80s, and is perhaps the greatest-ever chronicler of our nation’s public affairs.
He’s asked if the Liberal Party of Canada can ever come back. Can it ever recapture past glories, and be as exciting as it was under Trudeau, or as successful as it was under Chretien?
He reflects a long time.
“I don’t think so,” he says, with no enthusiasm. “I think it’s over, now.”
And with that, Newman gets up and ambles into the TV studio, to relate a bit of history that, to some of us, is exceedingly sad.