Categories for Musings
As I type this, a big sign from the 2008 Obama presidential campaign hangs above my head.
Around my office, there are no less than a half-dozen Obama campaign posters on the walls. They are still there, and they are easy to spot.
The precise moment at which Barack Obama broke many progressive hearts, however, is just as easy to ascertain: it came in June of last year, when it was revealed that the U.S. government – aided and abetted by the “Five Eyes,” the governments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom – were literally spying on millions of their own citizens.
Obama’s response was swift and brutal. He stripped Edward Snowden, the source of the revelation, of his passport and charged him with espionage. He dismissed Snowden “a 29-year-old hacker.”
A 29-year-old hacker he may have been, but Snowden’s claims were not made without proof. He gave tens of thousands of backing documents to journalists.
The U.S. government and the Five Eyes listened on millions of phone conversations. They surveilled Internet records – everything from instant messages to emails. They mapped locations using cell phone data. They tapped into Google and Yahoo’s data centres to collect information on users.
And the targets of all of this surveillance activity? Not criminals or terrorists or hostile governments: just citizens. Millions of law-abiding citizens. You and me.
That all of this was illegal is beyond dispute. Our constitution, like the American variant, is full of many high-sounding words about “liberty” and “freedom,” and how you and I possess inalienable “rights” to ensure that we remain free and liberated.
But, as Edward Snowden’s appalling case suggests, we are neither. Tellingly, the post-Snowden response of Barack Obama – who came to power with a pledge to “strengthen whistleblower laws,” quote unquote – was not to rein in the shadowy agencies that had broken the law. His first response was to render the whisteblower a criminal, and destroy his life.
Oh, and he called those who toiled at the agency that coordinated the illegal spying “patriots.”
Conservatives, when they are in power, justify the curtailment of constitutional liberties with dark warnings about threats to our safety. That is, violating liberties in the name of protecting liberty.
Progressives like me are just as bad. When in power, we seek to abridge individual freedom by claiming to be acting in furtherance of the collective good.
None of it is new, either. More than 250 years ago, no less than Benjamin Franklin dryly observed that “the populace are never so ripe for mischief as in times of most danger.” And if there is no danger, make it up and say there is: after all, there are still plenty of teenage Gmail accounts that remain unseen by terrorist-seekers at the NSA.
So, will my former champion, Barack Obama, read this column, and its earnest plea for our constitutions to be worth the paper they are written on?
No need. The NSA likely tracked my keystrokes, intercepted my email to editors, and provided the president’s staff with a copy long before this morning’s paper hit the streets.
Welcome to the new era, where our “freedom” is gutted in the name of, you know, “freedom.”
You wanted “independent” Senators? Well, you got ’em.
And this one in particular – my friend Senator Downe – knows where the bodies are buried around Parliament Hill. He’s not to be trifled with.
Per my grandmother, be careful what you ask for, you just might get it, etc. etc.
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.
The Supremes just handed Stephen Harper a winning theme for his base. Get ready to hear a lot about “judge-made law” and “unelected judges” in the coming months.
And my view: the Supreme Court should not ever be deciding who sits on the Supreme Court. If that isn’t a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is.