Senator Romeo LeBlanc looked around.
It was Spring 1993, and LeBlanc was sitting in a room on Parliament Hill, surrounded by a half-dozen Liberal Party staffers. I was one of them. We called ourselves “the task force,” which we hoped sounded bland. We wanted to avoid being called what we really were, which was the first Liberal Party war room.
LeBlanc was our much-loved boss, and no less than James Carville had personally advised us on how to set ourselves up. Carville had told us what LeBlanc was about to remind us: war room stuff isn’t for the faint of heart.
“Okay guys,” LeBlanc said, softly. “Here’s what I have explained to [Liberal leader Jean] Chretien. The kind of work we are engaged in – the kinds of things we are doing – are going to result in one of you losing a limb. It’s inevitable. If you can’t accept that, you’re in the wrong [expletive deleted] line of work.”
It was true, too. In every war room in which I have volunteered since 1993, someone has indeed lost a limb. It’s just the nature of the work. Doesn’t matter if you are a Grit, Tory or Dipper. It happens.
War roomers do quick response. They chase (or attempt to manufacture) controversy. They continually attempt to attract attention in a crowded news environment.
It’s risky business, you might say.
Me and my war room pals have lost plenty of limbs, over the years. First happened to me in ’93, front-page national news, over my interest in a reporter’s tape of Kim Campbell saying something dumb. Happened again in 2000, with Barney the dinosaur being deployed to mock Stockwell Day. Right wing went crazy over that one.
Provincially, too. Happened infamously in 2007 (with a cartoon about baking cookies), and many times since. Not just with Yours Truly, either. Happens in every campaign, to every war room, pretty much.
Our Grit war rooms may have helped out a little, when we won in 1993, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007, and 2011. Took a few risks, won.
Because it’s risky work, smart war roomers usually insist on not showing up on any flowcharts. The wiser ones aren’t keen on having a title. In particular, they insist on keeping their tactics away from the leader or the candidate at all times. Protect the boss, always.
Now, over the past few days, I lost yet another limb. It was in all the Toronto papers. Even the paper that gives me space has gotten in on the act. Cartoonish guy Andy Donato – who has previously likened progressives to Hitler, and done up cartoons suggesting battering women is funny – did a cartoon poking fun at Yours Truly.
It was plenty amusing getting a civics lesson from the likes of Donato. But I was fair game.
On a slow news day, I’d criticized an opponent in an ongoing municipal election campaign. I used a strong word – too strong.
What was the criticism about? Well, it drew attention to the fact that a major candidate effectively wants to eliminate transit service to a big part of Canada’s largest city. The area is home to a lot of new Canadians.
I regretted my choice of words, which I did all on my own, with no help from anybody. Apologized to the candidate in question, and he graciously accepted same. I then limped away from the blast radius.
But the issue I was raising, and the candidate I was critiquing, aren’t really the point, here. The point is that, when the media consistently won’t focus on an important issue, war rooms have to. They have no choice.
So, get ready for Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair’s war room folks to be pushing every and any Justin Trudeau mistake, going back to when the Grit leader was in high school. (That’s why he’s cleverly written a quickie autobiography, by the way: to beat the Tory war room to the punch.)
And, get ready for Trudeau’s gang to be stirring up memories of the Senate spending mess and the Sona election fraud case and quite a few other scandals, too.
Most of all, get ready for quite a few war roomers to be hobbling around on crutches by election’s end. When the stakes are this high, when the very keys to 24 Sussex are up for grabs, it’s going to get nasty. My guess: by January, the war rooms will be going full bore, 24/7.
And take it from this grizzled survivor of the very first Canadian political war room: war room work remains risky work, riskier than ever before.
Inevitably, you lose a limb. I did, this week. But that’s okay.
They grow back.