Heroes and Windbags

A search for political meaning, from Machiavelli to Weber and beyond

Long ago, when Pierre Trudeau arrived as prime minister and Liberal Party leader at 24 Sussex Drive, he met the fabled Liberal political wizards gathered at his dining room table. Recalling his Conservative father’s rants about the terrifying Liberal machine, he asked the admen, pollsters and plotters before him, “Is this all there is?”

Michael Ignatieff probably should have asked the same question when “the Toronto Three”—two Bay Street lawyers, Alf Apps and Dan Brock, and film producer Ian Davey—made a pilgrimage to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to ask him to come to Canada to replace Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, whose government, Brock reported, was “heading for a train wreck.” Ignatieff labelled his visitors the “men in black.” As they disappeared into the night, he quickly began to take their invitation seriously.1

One wonders why.

Although Ignatieff had left Canada in 1978 and his last contact with the Liberal Party was during Pierre Trudeau’s 1968 campaign, his mind immediately turned to other intellectuals who made the transition to public life—Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru, Carlos Fuentes of Mexico and Václav Havel of the Czech Republic—and to that fabled spring of 1968 when to be a young Liberal in Canada was Heaven. Those memories were misty, and his long absence in Britain and, more recently, the United States had made him focus on the concerns of empires past and present rather than the constitutional follies and quotidian concerns of Canadian politics. But in his teens he had openly professed his goal to become Canada’s prime minister. Now, at last, he had his chance. Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics tells the remarkable story of how the Harvard professor became Liberal leader, missed the chance to become prime minister in 2010 and suffered a devastating defeat in 2011 when Canada’s most successful political party finished third with only 34 seats. It is an astonishing tale with many unexpected turns.

There is, however, a problem with the initial setting. Recalling the conversation with the men in black, Ignatieff claims that Martin “had just survived being defeated in the election of June 2004 and was heading toward collapse.” In fact, Martin had won 135 seats in the election, 36 more than Stephen Harper’s newly created Conservatives, and the Liberals had gained considerably on the united right during the last week of the campaign. Things got better for Martin immediately after the election. An SES poll, taken in August 2004 just as the Torontonians planned their trip to Massachusetts, revealed that the Liberals stood at 38 percent in the polls compared with 36 percent in the election and the Tories had fallen to only 26 percent. Columnists were speculating about a sullen Harper’s possible resignation. Martin, like Jean Chrétien before him, was having more trouble with his party than with Canadian voters.

Martin knew that he had not won over his enemies within the party, but Ignatieff’s memoir shows that Martin had more of a problem with his friends than he imagined. The men in black were not angry Chrétien supporters. Apps, an early conservative (but still Liberal) critic of Trudeau, had backed Martin against Chrétien in 1990 and stayed out of Canadian politics during the Chrétien ascendancy. Brock had worked for John Manley, and all three supported John Manley’s ill-fated leadership bid. John Geddes of Maclean’s later reported that Davey had left the Manley campaign when others refused to heed his advice to hit frontrunner Martin harder. The clumsy dismissal of Manley from the inner ranks of power by Martin’s team irritated Manley and his supporters and they became Martin critics on the right.

Whatever the polls said, the men in black believed that in the corporate world and on editorial boards the Liberals were in deep trouble, partly because of the Quebec sponsorship scandals that refused to go away and partly because American neo-conservatism and security fears were fraying the ties that bound the North American economy. When Liberal members unexpectedly rose in thunderous applause as Chrétien announced that Canada would not join the American war on Iraq, Manley, the minister responsible for Canadian-American border relations, clapped politely at first, then became visibly disturbed and finally sat down.

Ignatieff recognized why he would appeal to those who stood aside from the Chrétien-Martin wars and to others troubled by the deterioration in Canadian-American relations after Iraq. On the one hand, he possessed impressive credentials as a public intellectual, the author of a seminal historical work on the history of penitentiaries and a well-received biography of Oxford intellectual Isaiah Berlin. More recent publications such as Empire Lite: Nation Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan and The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror attracted attention and international recognition. On the other hand, Ignatieff’s arguments that the United States was an exceptional and necessary empire that was justified in its war against the murderous Saddam Hussein gave him credibility in George Bush’s Washington that other liberals and Liberals lacked. Ignatieff’s personal biography and beliefs created credentials for him on Bay Street and with conservative editors and intellectuals that all other contenders lacked. It certainly helped when Foreign Policy ranked him in 2005 as the 37th most influential public intellectual in the world.

Ignatieff knew that Canadians have a habit of preferring leaders whose hands have few stains from toil in the domestic political trenches. Mackenzie King, probably the Canadian who most influenced American public life through his relationship with the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, spent most of World War One in the United States and his absence from Canadian wartime quarrels helped him to win the Liberal leadership shortly after the conflict ended. Lester Pearson spent most of his adult life as a soldier and diplomat outside of Canada until he returned to become Canada’s foreign minister and, in the view of King and Pearson himself, the obvious successor to Louis St. Laurent. Laurier’s finance minister W.S. Fielding and Paul Martin Sr., who had spent decades in the murky and muddy world of constituency politics, did not stand a chance against the glamorous cosmopolitans who defeated them.

But these are simply details, and Fire and Ashes does not have many, particularly about Canadian politics and its history. There are some autobiographical fragments, but, apart from his obvious deep affection for his wife, Zsuzsanna, Ignatieff’s skill as a sharp-eyed biographer is strangely absent from this book. Although he gives a fascinating description and analysis of his work in his Toronto constituency office, one gets a sense that the number of people who mattered on his political journey was small. There were the three men in black but, like Trudeau, Ignatieff is puzzled that those who made the machine work were so few. Nevertheless, and despite the few actors, the play fascinates.

After Ignatieff decided to heed the political call, he made his own pilgrimage to Toronto to meet with money (Elvio DelZotto), Liberal icons (David Smith and Donald and Adrian Macdonald) and former premiers (David Peterson). His new friends somehow persuaded Paul Martin’s legendary “board” to allow Ignatieff to be the keynote speaker at the March 2005 policy convention, a treasured pulpit from which he issued a sharp critique of recent Liberal ways. A puzzled Martin asked to see the upstart the following morning: Ignatieff, still a Harvard professor, reports on the bizarre meeting. “He was gracious, but he could not have been pleased with my speech or with its reception.” Describing the event that occurred only five months after the men in black had called, Ignatieff recalls that Martin was guarded: “I was too obviously a rival.” The chapter is entitled “Ambition.” It follows “Hubris.”

Fire and Ashes has attracted much criticism for its brevity, its absence of policy discussion and its attitude toward the author’s colleagues and predecessors. Although Ignatieff declares that his book is written in praise of politics and politicians, both fare badly on most pages: Martin is dithering and weak; Bob Rae jealous, Bob’s brother John vicious; and Chrétien misguided in his zeal to overthrow Harper in 2009–10. While Ignatieff compares himself to other intellectuals who chose politics such as Havel and Vargas Llosa, he does not see Stéphane Dion as a fellow intellectual traveller. Rather, he is especially harsh in describing Dion’s naiveté and incompetence. The memoirs of Martin and Chrétien get no attention, and there is nary a reference to academic works on Canadian politics or the musings of Canadian journalists.

There is, however, a Canadian politician whom Ignatieff respects: Stephen Harper. He is without firm principles, to be sure, but he has “tenacity, discipline and ruthlessness in spades.” He possesses the “rare gift to combine the impression of conviction with total opportunism.” Ignatieff admits he could not “throw him off his game,” even when Harper stumbled during the prorogation affair in 2009 and faced a united opposition. A groggy Harper got off the floor, fought back and dominated once more. He is, Ignatieff writes, “one of life’s natural dominators.” Ignatieff’s description of his encounters with Harper leaves the clear impression that the prime minister intimidated him. In a long-forgotten crisis over isotopes, Ignatieff worked with the government against the NDP. When the NDP was effectively sidelined, Harper approached Ignatieff in the Commons and “whispered words to the effect that I had got as much as I could out of the situation and shouldn’t try my luck any further.” Ignatieff asked whether he was threatening him. Harper “laughed a mirthless chuckle and went to his seat.” Harper’s is the strongest portrait in the book.

Ignatieff is not writing a political memoir nor, certainly, is he writing an essay on Canadian politics. He wants, above all, to situate his own experience in the broader debate about democracy’s fate in the 21st century. He is relentlessly cosmopolitan in his references, with the final eight endnotes referring to Cicero, Machiavelli, Burke, de Tocqueville, Mill, Louis Menand, Isaiah Berlin, Tolstoy and Max Weber. He refers often to Machiavelli’s The Prince but it is Weber’s brilliant 1919 address, “Politics as a Vocation,” that Ignatieff seeks to emulate. Like Weber, a defeated politician and pre-eminent German intellectual, Ignatieff seeks to combine personal experience with reflections on the nature of a political vocation in a world where, to quote Weber, “nine out of ten” politicians were mere “windbags” spewing nonsense.

Ignatieff points to the best-known quotation from Weber’s essay—“politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards.” At first glance, it seems an inappropriate reference to apply to Ignatieff’s relatively brief political career that came to an end when too many Canadians concluded that he was “just visiting,” a view that Fire and Ashes, with its face turned outward, will confirm for many.2 But Ignatieff, who taught a much-lauded course on “Renewing Canadian Democracy” at the University of Toronto last year, now seeks a broader prescription for democracy’s ills.

In a stupid and base world, Ignatieff still finds purpose in politics, an enticing chance to attain the impossible. But, as Weber wrote, “to do that a man must be a leader, and a hero as well.” At the party meeting when he stepped down as Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff repeatedly said that he had “failed.” Bob Rae, then the Liberal interim leader, challenged that denigrating description, pointing out that he had achieved the honour of being a democratically elected MP and had served as the leader of a great political party. Fire and Ashes firmly rejects Rae’s gracious rebuke. It sides with Weber and, implicitly, with the men in black. In the end, only winning matters.


  1. Ignatieff calls his three visitors the “men in black,” a curious evocation of the mysterious men in dark suits and big cars who threaten people to keep quiet about extraterrestrial sightings written about by Gray Barker and Alfred Bender in the 1950s, on which the popular 1997 film Men in Black was based. However, the term sometimes also refers to secret security agents, who also tend to behave mysteriously. 

  2. The endorsements on the back cover are from British Conservative member of Parliament and author Rory Stewart, New America Foundation president Anne-Marie Slaughter and Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa.