The Refiner's Fire

By Brooks, David | International New York Times, February 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Refiner's Fire


Brooks, David, International New York Times


One personal take on what it really feels like to be a politician shows politics as a hard and noble calling.

In 2005, Michael Ignatieff left a teaching job at Harvard to enter politics in his native Canada with hopes of becoming prime minister.

He quickly came to understand how politics is different from academia. In academia, you use words to persuade or discover; in politics, you use words to establish a connection. Academia is a cerebral enterprise, but politics is a physical enterprise, a charismatic form of athletics in which you touch people to show you care.

In academia, the goal is to come up with a timeless truth. In politics, timing is everything, knowing when the time is ripe for a certain proposal. In academia, the idea is to take a stand based on what you believe; in politics, the idea is to position yourself along a left-right axis in a way that will differentiate you from your opponents and help you win a majority.

In academia, a certain false modesty is encouraged; in politics, you have to self-dramatize a fable about yourself -- concoct a story to show how your life connects to certain policies. In academia, you are rewarded for candor, intellectual rigor and a willingness to follow an idea to its logical conclusion. In politics, all of these traits are ruinous.

Naturally, Ignatieff found the transition to politics more difficult than he imagined. He started his career well enough. He was elected to Parliament. Within a year, he was a deputy party leader and, within a few years, he was leader of Canada's Liberal Party.

But he was in over his head and the victim of inexorable historical trends. He was not an effective opposition leader. In his first national election, he and his party were crushed. Ignatieff even lost his own parliamentary seat. It was a humiliating failure, which ended his political career.

Fortunately, he did not return with empty hands. His memoir, "Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics," is the best book about what it feels like to be a politician since Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes."

Ignatieff was first invited to run for office by some backstage power brokers, even though he hadn't lived in his country for 30 years. He agreed but wasn't initially sure why he wanted to do it beyond some vague sense that it would honor his parents.

He was betrayed by old friends. He endured unearned and lofty condescension from political columnists. …

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