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Michael Ignatieff, the intellectual who wanted to be a politician

The lessons of a Harvard professor’s failed bid to run Canada

Canadian Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff waved goodbye after announcing his resignation as party leader  in May 2011.

AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson

Canadian Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff waved goodbye after announcing his resignation as party leader in May 2011.

In the acknowledgments of his new memoir, “Fire and Ashes,” Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff thanks an aide who kept reminding him, “You’re living the dream.”

Ignatieff’s dream was to become leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and become prime minister. It was the stuff of intellectual fantasy everywhere: a chance to walk straight into the halls of political power and put your ideas into practice.

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Ignatieff, when he announced his campaign in 2005, was among the best-known intellectuals in the world. A famed journalist in England, he became head of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights in 2000 and a prominent writer on politics and foreign policy for top American magazines and journals. After living abroad for more than 30 years, he was commissioned by three Liberal Party hands to return to Canada and become party leader and, if the Liberals won the most seats in the national election, prime minister. “They wanted me because I had name recognition and was untainted by the corruption scandals that had driven the Liberals from office,” he said.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, Ignatieff delivered the Liberals to their lowest electoral fortune in the party’s 144-year-old history. He resigned from parliament later that week and soon after announced that he was headed back to Harvard. There, he is teaching two courses, one called “Meeting the Demands of the Political Life.”

His new book is his first public reckoning with a defeat he has faced forthrightly. “I set out to become prime minister and I failed,” he told me. Indeed, Ignatieff admits in the book that he was a poor politician. He writes of the difficulty he had in keeping his mouth closed, in hewing to the party line, in connecting with average voters.

In doing so, he revealed much about the possibilities and limits of men and women of ideas submitting themselves to the whims of the electorate. Policy wonks and the media might welcome these candidates for their potential to bring ideas from the ivory tower to political life. But in the end, the choice is up to voters—and, as Ignatieff learned firsthand, the very same virtues that can be an asset in the academy often turn out to be just the opposite in the eyes of the public.

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Ignatieff always saw himself as naturally suited to politics. His father was a powerful Canadian diplomat and prime ministerial aide, and his grandfather and great-grandfather were influential in Imperial Russian governments. Ignatieff was involved in politics briefly as a youth, but then he took a different path.

Canada's Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and his wife Zsuszanna Zsohar left the stage after addressing supporters following his defeat.

REUTERS/Adrien Veczan

Canada's Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and his wife Zsuszanna Zsohar left the stage after addressing supporters following his defeat.

After teaching briefly in Canada, he moved to England in 1978. There he gained fame as a journalist. Debonair and eloquent, he had telegenic looks that made him a natural broadcaster. Amid an earlier generation of liberals that had seen American power misused in the terrible war in Vietnam, Ignatieff emerged as a leading voice among “liberal hawks,” arguing that Westerners could not leave Bosnians and Rwandans to die. He was an advocate for the wars in Kosovo and Iraq, citing them as necessary humanitarian ventures. He also helped formulate the doctrine that the international community bore a “Responsibility to Protect.” “The disagreeable reality for those who believe in human rights is that there are some occasions—and Iraq may be one of them—when war is the only real remedy for regimes that live by terror,” he wrote in 2003.

Ignatieff’s books and essays won awards, and in 2000 he became head of the Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights. A frequent writer for The New York Times Magazine and The New York Review of Books, he was listed by Foreign Policy magazine in 2005 among the 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world.

In October 2004, three Canadians visited him in Cambridge. They wanted him to run for the Liberals and, eventually, to become PM. “Why did anyone think my political writing qualified me to become a politician?” he asks in “Fire and Ashes.” “I’d always admired the intellectuals who had made the transition into politics—Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru, Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, Carlos Fuentes in Mexico—but I knew that many of them had failed, and in any event, I wasn’t exactly in their league.”

Still, he agreed. The Canadian media were enthralled by his return. “Michael Ignatieff is a man of ideas—a commodity of which today’s Liberal Party is utterly bereft,” a columnist wrote in Toronto’s National Post. The Liberals had been the single most successful party in 20th-century Western politics, leading the country for 69 of 100 years. But in 2004, after 13 consecutive years in power, a financial scandal had hit that had badly tarnished the party and its new leader. The Liberals were desperate for a way to rebrand themselves, and Ignatieff seemed just the man for the job—a “bracing tonic for the Canadian body politic,” as one writer put it.

The chapter in his book describing his return to Canada is called “Hubris.” Even today, however, Ignatieff doesn’t seem to understand the brazenness of his plan. He had not lived in Canada in three decades. He was still well known there, he tells me. “I’d always been a Canadian, and I’d always seen myself as a Canadian.” To think that Canadian voters who’d always lived there would see him that way, though, was an astonishing assumption.

During Ignatieff’s 2005 campaign for parliament, his writings haunted him from the outset. Protesters jeered that he supported the war in Iraq, endorsed torture, and was anti-Ukrainian. Most politicians have to answer for their earlier words and behavior, but as a former pundit, Ignatieff was unusually vulnerable in having a voluminous, inerasable written record behind him.

Though Ignatieff never shook those accusations, he won a seat and, within four years, became Liberal leader. But as soon as he took the helm, in 2009, he faced a barrage of devastating attacks that destroyed his chances to become PM. The Conservatives ran a series of ads portraying Ignatieff as a carpetbagger. He was “just visiting” Canada, the ads said. They featured him referring to Americans as “we,” suggesting that he had a weak Canadian identity, at best. (In our conversation, he did the same thing.) “Why is Michael Ignatieff back in Canada after being away for 34 years?” they asked. The ads quoted him as describing himself as a “cosmopolitan,” saying the only thing he missed about Canada was Algonquin Park, and calling the Canadian flag a “passing imitation of a beer label.”

Ignatieff instantly sank in the polls, and he never recovered. The ads were effective because they contained a large amount of truth. Ignatieff disputes that. At the same time, he admits that the only reason he returned to Canada was to lead it. Unlike some politicians, he didn’t spend years in parliament working his way to the top.

In the May 2, 2011, elections, the Liberals suffered an unprecedented defeat, with “seats falling like ninepins,” as Ignatieff puts it. After losing his own electoral district, Ignatieff resigned as Liberal leader the next day, and retired from politics weeks later. “I had sacrificed my standing as a writer and thinker to enter politics, and now that I had been defeated, I had lost my standing as a politician,” he writes in “Fire and Ashes.” “Defeat invalidated me as a politician but also as a writer and thinker.”

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That wasn’t true for long. Within weeks, Ignatieff took posts at both the University of Toronto and Harvard. “I needed a job, and it was all I knew how to do, frankly,” he tells me. He has resumed writing, arguing in The New York Times in September that the United States needs to be prepared to act alone in stopping the Syrian government.

Looking back, Ignatieff admits he should have anticipated the carpetbagger charges and known more about the dismal state of the Liberal Party. “I can’t believe I was so naive,” he says. “I should have asked a lot more questions before agreeing to come home.”

To others, Ignatieff fell prey to more than just individual problems; he stumbled into the difficulties faced by any intellectuals who venture into electoral politics. “The things prized in academia—independence of thought, bold ideas, speaking out—are not the things that necessarily make a good politician,” says Joseph Nye, a professor at the Kennedy School. Caution and a willingness to follow party orders are critical in politics, but they go against everything academics have been taught. Ignatieff cites another problem: “Intellectuals are good at seeing the big picture,” he says. “But they are not so good at process.”

In the United States, only a handful of scholar-politicians have enjoyed success. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was a professor at Harvard and MIT, policy wonk, and writer in popular journals before becoming a New York senator in 1977. He maintained a reputation as an iconoclastic thinker on issues from auto safety to welfare reform to government secrecy, a model “of what the Founding Fathers thought the Senate would be about,” according to Ted Kennedy. Similarly, Newt Gingrich was a historian at West Georgia College before entering Congress, and has referred to himself as “the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson.” He has always seen himself as a revolutionary based in ideas, and successfully led a challenge to liberalism and the welfare state.

As both Ignatieff and Nye acknowledge, to make a successful transition from academia to politics, timing is essential. Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren, for instance, ran for Senate and won at a moment when Americans were skeptical of the banking system and ready for an expert with critical views. “There’s the counterfactual of if Warren had run in, say, 2004, whether she would have been as successful as she was after the recession hit,” says Nye.

Ignatieff¸ by contrast, ran for office years after the “moment” for his biggest idea had passed. A writer for Canada’s This Magazine argued that “the Iraq War sank Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals”; that may have been simplistic, but it was undeniable that by 2011 the interventionist ideas Ignatieff were best known for had become politically toxic. Though Ignatieff, while in office in 2007, said he had been wrong about Iraq, he stuck by his position that Western military power was needed around the world to save lives. In 2010, after Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowed to pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan, Ignatieff called for them to remain, saying Harper wanted to “cut and run.” Canadians had strongly opposed both the Iraq War and President Bush, and they were weary of fighting in Afghanistan. In the election, voters overwhelmingly rejected Ignatieff’s position.

Ignatieff doesn’t see it that way, but he concedes that his timing was off. “An intellectual may be interested in ideas and policies for their own sake, but a politician’s interest is exclusively in the question of whether an idea’s time has come,” he writes. “When politicians blame their fate on bad luck, they are actually blaming their timing.” The ideas themselves, he still believes, were not the problem. “I thought content mattered. I thought the numbers in a platform should add up,” he writes. “Ours did and theirs didn’t. But none of it mattered.”

Today, Ignatieff is rebuilding his life, regaining his confidence. Though he writes candidly about feeling like “an embarrassment both to my former political colleagues and to my new ones at the university” after the 2011 loss, his byline has begun reappearing in familiar, high-profile places, making the case for liberal interventionism.

As a politician, Michael Ignatieff is finished. And he is a humbler man. But as a thinker and a teacher, he believes in his liberal ideals more than ever. Perhaps even more so, since he is now espousing them as one who entered the political ring and, by his own account, suffered a knockout and lived to tell the tale. “I entered politics with a lot of baggage and I paid full freight for it, but it’s better to have paid up than to have lived a defensive life,” he writes in “Fire and Ashes.” “A defensive life is not a life fully lived.”

Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and The Christian Science Monitor.

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