The Seductive Call of Politics
by Steve Paikin
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|Political Life through a Series of Interviews
by Stephen Knight
The inescapable truth about life in politics, it seems, is that it's a lot like fame. At least, that's the distinct impression one gets reading Steve Paikin's The Life: The Seductive Call of Politics, a collection of reflections and anecdotes from current and former Canadian politicians about life before, during and after public life. When you're famous like, say, a movie star, you have wealth, power and access. When you're a politician, many of Paikin's interviewees suggest, you also have power and access and, perhaps to a lesser extent, wealth and fame.
Paikin, host of TVOntario's Studio 2 and Diplomatic Immunity and an unabashed political junkie, gets his subjects¨everyone from Bill Davis to Lyn McLeod and from Audrey McLaughlin to Brian Mulroney¨to concede that life in politics is a tremendous ego gratifyer and that there's no comparable high available in the private sector. "Steven, let me tell you something," former Ontario premier Davis tells Paikin in a 1986 interview, referring to his post-politics position as a senior partner in a prestigious law firm, "This job on the most exciting, interesting day can't touch being premier of Ontario on the dullest."
And yet, most of the subjects imply that politics seems to be mostly about winning elections. After all, anyone can run for elected office. That doesn't mean anyone can win, but it does mean, theoretically at least, that the competition¨and it is fierce¨is open to anyone; male or female, jock or nerd, 10th-generation citizen or landed immigrant, rich or poor. And almost all of the politicians profiled admit that the thrill of an election campaign and the bonds forged among campaign workers make the experience invaluable.
That's no doubt the case, but what's disappointing¨and, to be fair to the author, it might not have been part of the mandate of the book¨is the lack of candid discussion of how the modern electoral process, dominated as it is by television, resembles the advertising business, and how politicians have become virtual commodities. In fact, many of the so-called backroom boys in politics are current or former advertising executives.
The reality seems to be that governments of all stripes spend taxpayer money, at best, arbitrarily and, at worst, negligently, in an effort to maximize their odds of re-election. The only thing to be decided is what "brand" we'd like to choose, and ad execs know a lot about brands. Would you like your government to have a red label, a blue label or an orange label?
Having spoken to so many former politicians in the course of writing the book, it's a surprise that no flaws in the system or possible suggestions for improvement are brought forward by Paikin or his subjects, especially when there seems to be such a formidable gap between ordinary citizens and those who govern them. Having said that, however, it should be pointed out that Paikin's interviews with the high-priced, seemingly all-powerful pollsters in the ŠBackroom Boys' chapter are fascinating precisely because their insights seem so pedestrian.
Got a problem in a pre-election poll? "Go neg," say the experts, referring to the now-commonplace practice of attacking one's opponent in TV commercials. They're right, of course, because it works. But it's the electorate who suffer as the level of discourse is degraded by ad hominem attacks. Alas, policy statements don't make for sexy television.
Apart from being a collection of anecdotes, The Life serves as an abridged history of modern Canadian politics. Paikin has included chapters on, among others, crusaders, trailblazers, accidental candidates and backroom boys. Trudeaumania, the FLQ crisis, the constitutional referenda, the Common Sense Revolution, etc¨Paikin's interviewees have all played varying parts in the modern political history of Canada and all have different stories to tell of how they got bitten by the political bug.
Liberal stalwart Herb Gray, for example, later Canada's first Jewish federal cabinet minister, got an early taste of politics as a Grade 2 student in Windsor in 1938. Gray and some of his classmates chanted for David Croll in his re-election campaign for mayor, while another group of students were led in a chant for his opponent, Colonel E.S. Wigle. Before becoming mayor of Windsor, Croll was the first Jewish cabinet minister in Canadian history. Gray, it seems, was imprinted early to The Life.
In each chapter, Paikin builds on a subject's story before leaving us in suspense and beginning with another. In the Childhood Dream chapter, for example, Paikin starts with Tom Long, then skips to Tony Clement, then Anie Perrault, then Jason Kenney, then repeats the pattern. It's a handy, if occasionally distracting, way to pace the book. He also offers plenty of insights, such as when he concludes that most of the so-called accidental candidates are women: "A much higher percentage of men seem to plan their entrTe into politics," he writes. "Not so for women," which leaves readers plenty of room for speculation as to why.
Though Paikin's breadth is impressive¨he spoke to nearly 100 Canadian politicians while working on the book¨his depth is a little troubling. For all the appeal of holding public office and the nobility of changing the world, the politicians on display here give us precious little analysis of the workings of our government, the guts of democracy.
Readers want to know¨at least this one does¨what's so seductive about the call of politics, apart from fame, ego-gratification and power, which are all, in the end, closely related. Maybe that's all there is. After all, most of the politicians, when asked to list their most memorable moment, refer to the night they got elected. That's all well and good, except isn't winning an election a mere step in the process of changing the world? It seems that the winning of elections has become as important an end as improving the lives of the governed. It could even be inferred from the numerous discussions here (in which the heavy reliance on polling is very evident) that winning elections is the single most important thing in political life.
Armed with a thorough understanding of media and politics and a measure of fame, one can't help but wonder if Paikin himself is feeling the seductive call of The Life. ˛
Stephen Knight is associate editor of Canadian Hockey Magazine