Columns

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 1 2000
Columns

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 1 2000

Don’t sweat the small stuff

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

In the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union was crumbling, Jean Chrétien's advisers decided that the new Liberal leader needed to know more about what was going on. They brought in a Canadian Sovietologist who was also a devout Liberal. He spent hours memorizing minutiae about the Soviet Union in order to be able to respond to any Chrétien query. The meeting ended early. Later, the Sovietologist met a friend who asked how the encounter had gone. Chrétien, came the sad response, had asked only one question: “He wanted to know if there were any good anecdotes he could use in his speeches.”

For those who think the Prime Minister shallow, illinformed and lazy, there’s a perfect illustration. But also consider an anecdote Chrétien sometimes told from firsthand experience. As a cabinet minister in the 1970s, he was invited to visit a part of Siberia normally closed to foreigners. One night, he stopped in the bar of his hotel and discovered a local band playing Beatles music. That was the moment, Chrétien said, “at which it became clear that the Soviet Union would eventually fail, because the government could no longer keep the outside world from people.”

Ask any old Moscow hand, and they’ll get his point right away: a key reason communism died was that Soviet young people wanted the inalienable right to race fast cars, listen to rock music and do the same goofy things as their counterparts elsewhere. In this instance, the PM, like Ronald Reagan, demonstrated a gift for cutting through clutter and synthesizing geopolitics in one tidy tale. Reagan, too, was criticized for being lazy and dismissive of detail: there were stories of him falling asleep in cabinet meetings, forgetting names of longtime aides and not knowing or caring about key sectors of foreign policy. Sound like any leader you know? But a lot of smart people make a good case that Reagan was one of the greatest American presidents.

A successful leader needs a variety of skills, but micromanagement isn’t necessarily among them. In fact, it can be a detriment: no leader ever paid more attention to the nuts and bolts of managing than Jimmy Carter, and he got so caught up in deciding how to run things that he forgot where he wanted to go. Reagan had only three big thoughts: government was too big, taxes too high and the Soviet Union too well armed. He focused on each at the expense of all else: overall, it worked. At home, three of our most successful leaders are the PM, Ralph Klein and Mike Harris. None of them lie awake at night, sweating small stuff. They set a course in a certain direction and let others figure out how to get there.

Many politicians never learn that voters see human failing as a virtue, not a vice—so long as it’s within reason. The

smartest thing Stockwell Day has done in his campaign to lead the Canadian Alliance is confess that he smoked marijuana as a teen: before that, his background as a Pentecostal preacher helped feed his media image as a religious zealot. Although Preston Manning seldom puts his religious beliefs out front when talking politics, those convictions have been a hindrance, not a help, in the eyes of many journalists and some voters. When people say fellow Alliance candidate Tom Long is a relative moderate on social issues, some of that is because Long (like Reagan, for that matter) is a small-c conservative with a previous marriage under his belt. Someone who has experienced breakdown or failure in his personal life seems less likely to be too judgmental. So those revelations help the Alliance confront its biggest problem— the perception that the party wants to stick its nose into the nation’s bedrooms.

What Canadians really like from politicians is humility. One of Brian Mulroney’s problems was that he always looked over-groomed and overly pleased with himself: he should have loosened his tie, shortened his vocabulary and let the real guy within come out. Kim Campbell’s dalliance with voters flamed when it became apparent that, in her view, she never did anything wrong: her gaffes were always the result of biased reporting, or sexist views, or people who didn’t listen, or the previous leader, or____And Pierre Trudeau’s popular-

ity soared after Margaret left him: it humanized his glacial image. Joe Clark scores best when he makes fun of himself, but he ruins things by appearing needlessly stubborn and arrogant, such as the way in which he has several times failed to notify caucus before making sudden policy changes.

This week, the PM is home in the wake of his most embarrassing road trip in more than six years in power. As a politician, he’s been guided by two principles. He likes being underestimated, because it lets him look like a modest guy who knows he has much to be modest about. But he refuses to ever admit mistakes, which runs directly counter to that image. When it comes time to explain to the Commons how he managed to annoy Israel, Palestine and Syria all at once, you can, sadly, bet a lot of money on exactly how the PM will act. Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau used to hypothesize that usually nice guy George Bush had an evil twin brother, Skippy, who was really responsible for his hubris and lapses of judgment. So maybe that guy who will soon be popping up in Parliament denying, dissembling, deflecting and denouncing all who oppose him isn’t the PM, but rather a malevolent, self-destructive clone. For those who otherwise admire Chrétien, that would actually be a comforting explanation.