Origins of cottage country: Loved by a biographer -- and few others
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 2 July 2005)

The most revealing fact in William Johnson's Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada, published today, appears on the last page. Harper, reports Johnson, "refused to be interviewed for this biography."

What? How is that possible?

Among experienced journalists, Harper will never find a more sympathetic biographer than Johnson. Like Harper, he yearns for an alternative to the Liberals, hates wasteful government and endorses many of the West's ambitions. Harper would have had every reason to expect his ideas to be quoted accurately by Johnson. Furthermore, the book was to be the first Harper biography, therefore a future source of data for many researchers. Rejecting an opportunity like this (while also making it clear that he didn't want his staff talking about him) carried Harper's media-phobia to the point of self-destructive paranoia. One result was to make Johnson's book far duller than it needed to be.

Yet this decision seems to follow from much else that Johnson tells us. The book's hero, despite the intelligence ascribed to him, shows little imaginative understanding of the electorate. In Johnson's admiring account, Harper acts out of principle and patriotism; and when Harper makes decisions some might call morally dubious (running against his Progressive Conservative mentor or rejecting Preston Manning), Johnson always sees Harper's side.

Even when Johnson criticizes Harper, he overrates him at the same time: "He exhibits a cold brilliance and a cold arrogance that are unattractive in a public figure." Cold, perhaps, possibly arrogant, and apparently unattractive to many. But where does Johnson find the brilliance? Certainly not in Harper's speeches, definitely not in any original policy initiatives. Harper has rebelled for many years against the Hey-Big-Spender system that traditionally governs Canada (under Liberals or Tories), but rebellion and brilliance are not equivalent. Besides, Harper has softened on the conservative issues that defined him.

Despite his hard work and ability, he doesn't understand, or doesn't accept, the place of emotion in politics. People tend to support politicians who make them feel comfortable. Occasionally, they vote for politicians who make them feel exalted. They do not vote, usually, for cleverness or efficiency. It's said that Pierre Trudeau could absorb a briefing book faster and better than anyone else in Ottawa, but there's no record that this skill won him a single seat. John Kennedy could set records speed-reading government papers, but that's not why he inspired a generation. Ontario voters put Jean Chretien in office and kept him there because they liked the guy, and trusted him not to mess things up -- a mistake, to be sure, but nevertheless a typical expression of feeling, the kind of feeling that Harper cannot evoke from citizens who do not already agree with him on fundamental issues.

Nor does Harper seem to understand that successful politicians learn to tolerate (and even encourage) collaborators whom they don't like. Trudeau endured at his Cabinet table several people for whom he had no feeling except disdain; they were the best he had and he got on with them. The same was true of Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker. No one could have failed to notice that Chretien barely tolerated Paul Martin's existence (and popularity!) while keeping up something like a facade of unity for a full decade. Chretien did it because it was good for Chretien and Canada. This is hard work, but essential in a leader.

Which naturally brings up the Hon. Belinda Stronach, who helped create the renewed Conservative Party that Harper leads. In a rare flight of metaphor, Johnson sees Stronach the negotiator as a character in classical drama, "the goddess who suddenly appears on stage from the wings to resolve the plot that mere humans could not untangle." Harper may well have considered her an idiot, but when she joined the caucus it was his job to make her feel at home. Her betrayal, which kept Martin in office, should be blamed on the leader she abandoned as well as on the leader she embraced. Johnson's narrative ends before the tie vote that saved Martin's government, but readers naturally will wonder whether it was preventable.

Bringing down a corrupt and arrogant Liberal regime is a worthy ambition, but it's not a career, it's not a program, and it's not the way Harper will win the hearts of the voters. To cast a Harper vote in the next election, independent voters will need better reasons than he's so far articulated, and better reasons than his admiring biographer has been able to find.

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