The Ignatieff Effect
So we're in the middle of a recession with unemployment on the rise. The news from around the world is even worse. The federal Liberals have a new leader who is well-liked by the national media and who is unknown enough that voters may project upon him their fondest hopes.
And... the Conservatives still have a four-point lead in the national polls and a ten-point lead outside Quebec?
How does that even happen?
A friend points out this data: in the 134 public opinion polls taken between when Stephane Dion was elected leader of the Liberals and the day the writ was dropped in the last election, the average result was:
Compare Dion's numbers to the new poll by the Strategic Counsel:
They're exactly the same.
Michael Ignatieff + a recession = the same result as Stephane Dion got.
I'm not sure if it's something Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are doing right or something that Ignatieff and the Liberals are doing wrong, but it's pretty amazing to me.
For further reading, might I suggest this fascinating biography of Ignatieff written by Michael Valpy -- no conservative he. My favourite passage was this section about Ignatieff's brother, Andrew. It's rare when close family members deliberately embarrass a celebrity -- one of the things that hurt Rudy Giuliani's presidential hopes was when his own kids wouldn't campaign for him, out of protest for how he treated their mother during their divorce. Andrew Ignatieff shares the Giuliani kids' frankness about his famous brother. I wonder how he would answer the poll if the Strategic Counsel had called him up:
"Before I started at age 12," he writes, "our parents sat down with my older brother and me. They said, 'Michael, you're the big brother, and Andrew is going to UCC for the first time. It's the first time he has ever been away. You have to understand you have to be good to him.'
"Michael was very sweet and he told me how wonderful UCC would be. Then we went to my Aunt Helen's house and again he was very sweet. My Aunt Helen [Ignatieff, the boys' in loco parentis in Canada] again impressed on him the importance of him looking out for me. Then we went to the school and he introduced me to all the masters in the prep.
"The next morning he said, 'How are things going? Did you sleep well?' I said, 'Yes, I slept well.' He said, 'How was the food?' I said. 'It was gross.' He said, 'Do you want to go for a walk?'
"We went for a walk, and he said, 'I want to make one thing absolutely clear to you. When we're at Aunt Helen's house or Aunt Charity's house [Charity Grant, their mother's sister], you can say whatever you want to me. But if you ever see me on the school grounds, you're not to talk to me. You're not to recognize that I'm your brother. You don't exist as far as I'm concerned. Do I make myself clear?'"
Not existing was for many years the sine qua non for Andrew in his relationship with both his brother and his father. For a 1992 article in Saturday Night magazine, he recounted to writer Sandra Martin his first memory of Ignatieff family life.
It is the early 1950s. The family is holidaying on Long Island. Alison Ignatieff is off to one side, sunbathing and reading. George and Michael are building a sand castle with turrets, moats and dikes to try to hold back the incoming tide. Pudgy Andrew is plunked in the middle of the castle, trapped and wailing, his distress escalating with each wave that washes over the walls and douses him with sand and sea.
Michael, wiry as a strand of tin, is shoring up walls to the magisterial commands of his father, and both of them are completely oblivious to Andrew's unhappiness.
"They were having the time of their lives and I was being ignored because I was fat and small and couldn't move around and I had sand in my bathing suit," he said.
It would get worse.
UPDATE: Some commenters point out that Ignatieff's treatment of his brother in high school isn't really relevant. It's true, we all do immature things as teenagers -- that's part of being a teenager. But here's another vignette from the same biography, when Ignatieff was in his late thirties:
In the August, 1984 — the summer of Michael Ignatieff's "good year" — there was a family gathering at the house in a village in Provence that George and Alison had bought in 1962 as their only permanent residence.
The older Ignatieffs were there. Andrew had flown in from the shanty barrios of Peru where he worked for the Canadian arm of Save the Children. Michael, Susan and baby Theo had come from London — making it the first time three generations of the family were gathered under one roof.
It was a taxing time. Alison had begun her descent into Alzheimer's. George, the all-powerful force in his sons' lives, was showing signs of frailty. There were raw emotions and difficult conversations as the family struggled with its psychological past, with the unfamiliarity of living together, with the pain of coming to terms with Alison's illness.
The sons' difficult relationship with their father came to the surface.
George, who had had no real childhood of his own, had little idea of what to do with fatherhood when it came to him. He could appear warm and affectionate, but found it difficult to convey his hopes and aspirations to his sons beyond declamations of grand dynastic expectations.
Michael said things that wounded his father. He accused him of crushing his mother's creativity and independence by taking over her life and making her subservient to his needs.
A year later, as Andrew would tell Sandra Martin for Saturday Night, he came home to Toronto from Peru for a visit, walked into a bookstore and saw the entire story of his family's summer laid out in an article Michael had written for the British literary magazine Granta.
Or, almost the entire story: Andrew had been written out of the script. He just didn't appear.
"I just remember standing there and my eyes filling up with tears in the middle of the bookstore," he said.
Not long afterward, Andrew quit his job in Peru to return to Toronto to care for his parents, while Michael's career continued to flower in England — as a television host, newspaper commentator, author and screenplay-writer.
In early 1989, he came briefly to Toronto to spell Andrew off as caregiver — "'once or twice a year, it's my turn" — and shortly afterward, Granta published "Deficits," a deeply moving account of a son looking after his mother, with a forensically detailed description of Alison's deteriorating mental state.
Said Andrew: "I came in one evening and my father was really upset, and I said, 'What's the matter?' and he said, 'Michael's written an article about your mother'"
There were family members — for example, Alison's sister, Charity Grant, and her brother, George Grant, and his wife, Sheila — who could never bring themselves to forgive Michael for having publicly exposed his intensely private mother.
That summer, George Ignatieff died. Andrew was with him. Michael was in France.