The martyrdom of Stéphane Dion
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 19 April 2008)

Hasn't Stéphane Dion suffered enough? After spending 17 months as an ineffective Liberal leader, he's been more reviled than any Canadian since Brian Mulroney.

In The Globe and Mail, demonstrating that Dion is a disaster for his party, Michael Valpy searched his imagination for flaws he could add to the already thick anti-Dion indictment. He came up with an accusation unique in the history of political writing: Dion suffers from inadequately aged skin! Valpy charged him with looking "untouched by life ... A too-smooth face."

Michael Adams, renowned pollster, went further, assuming the role of psychosexual social analyst. "This man has to be more masculine," declared Adams. "He has to think about how to be more masculine." Even for a pollster, that was insolent. Still, Adams tried to help. He suggested Dion be photographed doing something physical -- and, if possible, tell jokes. As for the Globe's Jeffrey Simpson, he delivered the kiss of death: Dion is "a well-meaning, intelligent man," wrote Simpson, words indicating that the date of the execution is about to be announced. Simpson suggested that Dion should promise to raise the GST to the level originally established by the Mulroney government. He could thus frustrate potential assassins by committing suicide.

But in the highly popular sport of Dion persecution, Chantal Hébert of the Toronto Star has established herself as unquestioned champion. Her critique may be less baroque than what Valpy came up with, less Freudian than the notion floated by Adams and less condescending than Simpson's dismissal, but she's more persistent than any of them. In January, she wrote that Dion would be the leader to watch this year and nobody can complain that she hasn't watched him. She's relentless. Dion is to her what militant Islam is to Mark Steyn.

She clearly believes you can't write too often about him. In 2008 alone (and the year is still young), she's written 11 Dion columns, each of them either judging him harshly or predicting further catastrophes in his future. She's like someone at a party who keeps returning to the same subject while her friends scream for mercy. Her column has become the journalistic equivalent of that drive-you-crazy theme Ravel repeats in Bolero.

In Hébert's opinion, Dion leads a weak, divided and close-to-mutiny caucus. He's always outfoxed by the Prime Minister. He's at war with his brain trust (she used the singular) and now may well be the most disposable federal Liberal leader in recent Quebec history. "There is no doubt that the vast majority of Liberals in Quebec would rather go with someone other than Dion as their leader in the next federal election."

He's failed to capitalize on the rise of federalist support, he fumbled the Afghanistan issue, he made nothing from the Chuck Cadman affair and two of his candidates ran badly in the recent byelections. Yesterday, discussing whether the Liberals should force a summer election, Hébert pointed out that Dion's personal standing is at a dismal low, a fact loyal Hébert readers did not receive with great surprise.

The subject of Dion so excites Hébert that her metaphors run wild, as in: "The Manley Report will almost certainly bring Dion to a crossroad. He will likely have to decide whether to put some water in his wine or stick to his guns."

When there's no bad news about Dion, Hébert revisits the past. On Monday, with nothing fresh to say against him, she argued that his decline began when he failed to capitalize on the government's green program, precisely the point she made at length in her Nov. 28 column.

Hébert's editors obviously love her obsession. Last month, they headed one of her columns "Dion a dead man walking in Quebec?" That was a reference to what Alain Dubuc wrote in La Presse, and Hébert was of course delighted to quote.

All of this raises a humanitarian question. "Canadian values," as the Toronto Star likes to put it, demand that we firmly oppose the use of torture. Given that principle, how can Canadian journalists permit the torment visited upon this one hapless citizen? We can't. I'm preparing my brief to the torture committee of Amnesty International.

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