The floor is littered with wrapping paper, the kids are transfixed by their new GameCube, and the political junkie, dozy with eggnog, turns to the TV for a little diversion. Endless loops of Miracle on 34th Street (bah!) and It’s a Wonderful Life (humbug!). No use searching through yesterdays papers again, with parliaments and legislatures depressingly silent. But wait—wasn’t there a book about politics, politicians or policy? A quick rummage under the socks, the odd-scented toiletries, the bottle of someone else’s brand of scotch, and—ho, ho, ho!—our enthusiast is set.
The long, dark, politicalnews-free holiday just got a little brighter.
For those hunting down the right book for that pitiable someone who can’t let politics alone, here are a few recent Canadian offerings.
The most unabashedly pro-politicians book of the year is The Life: The Seductive Call of Politics (Viking, $35) by Steve Paikin. As host of TVOntario’s Studio 2, the first-time author is steeped in the Ontario scene, but this collection of political portraits ranges across Canada. Paikin sets the tone in his introduction, declaring that he likes the “vast majority” of the politicians he has met. He’s not kidding. Early on, he tells us he is “constantly struck” by the modesty of Bill Davis and Peter Lougheed, two former premiers not universally known for downplaying their own accomplishments. And it’s not just that Paikin has a soft spot for elder statesmen. He lauds Tony Clement, the Ontario Tory cabinet minister now vying to replace Mike Harris, as that rare politician “who’s seriously thought through some of the truly big issues” and as “the closest thing to a boy scout you’ll find in public life.”
Like fruitcake, too much of this oldfashioned stuff is hard to digest. Even the acidity of electoral disaster doesn’t cut
Paikin’s sweetness. Sure, Audrey McLaughlin led the NDP to near-oblivion in the 1993 federal campaign, but Paikin looks to her plucky response: She rolled up her sleeves and tried to remember why the voters of the Yukon sent her to Ottawa.” If The Life is naive, though, it can also be charming, even surprising. Paikin’s enthusiasm for just about every sort of political impulse seems to get his subjects talking. But he is so resolutely nonjudgmental that some revelations are all but passed over. In one passage, Lyn McLeod, the Ontario Liberal leader defeated by Harris’s Conservatives in the 1995 election, thinks back on some tough Tory TV ads aired late in that campaign, and says, “They were winning by then. Why did they need to rub it in?” It’s a bizarre complaint for any partisan campaigner, but Paikin simply lets it stand.
For a tougher take on campaign life, Kicking Ass in Canadian Politics (Random House, $34.95) by Warren Kinsella holds promise. The author, a Liberal warroom operative, reports with undisguised pride that he has been called “the Prince of Darkness” for his tactics. He states early on that “negative and nastiness works.” But then something unexpected happens: his book inadvertently teaches quite the opposite lesson. Kinsella starts off by taking a close look at the notorious 1993
Tory TV ad that mocked Jean Chrétiens appearance—and demonstrates how that nasty bit of work badly backfired. (He suggests the Tories might have been better off sticking with the ad rather than pulling it, but that argument is hardly persuasive.) Kinsella seems to admire a more amusingly negative Tory ad from last year —a spot that parodied rapidfire “K-tel” ads while listing alleged Liberal “lies.” But that one didn’t pay off either.
If his adversaries don’t get far by “going neg,” what about the campaigns Kinsella worked on?
He does offer a revealing firsthand account of how the Liberals came up with their own TV advertising in last falls election. Some tough scripts attacking Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Days positions on health care, tax relief and gun control were drafted, but they never aired. The Liberals won handily with milder material. Even when Kinsella trolls history, he comes up mostly with examples that refute his
thesis. He recounts how pioneering negative radio ads by R. B.
Bennetts Conservatives failed to put a dent in Mackenzie King’s Liberals in 1935. It’s as if Kinsella just can’t help but undercut his nice-guys-finish-last thesis.
If politics comes off looking better than expected in Kicking Ass, it’s the voting public that comes in for praise in Searching for Certainty; Inside the New Canadian Mindset (Doubleday, $35.95). Co-authors
Darrell Bricker, a veteran pollster with Ipsos-Reid, and Edward Greenspon, political editor and columnist with The Globe and Mail, set out to discover what Canadians are like in these days of globalization, the Internet and business-casual attire. The answer: wonderful. “A barn raising represents a good metaphor for the Canadian way,” they gush. “We are good neighbours, but we like strong fences as well. Self-reliance and mutual responsibility make up the twin leitmotifs of the Canadian mindset.” If the extolling of Canada’s virtues is laid on a little thick, the analysis gets more convincing where it is more precise. There are deft observations about why Tim Hortons survived while T. Eaton Co. Ltd. went down. The chapter on how universal health care became the bedrock of Canadians’ “search for certainty” hits on something essential.
A people as fine as the Canadians Bricker and Greenspon describe surely deserve a fully functioning democracy. But The Friendly Dictatorship (McClelland & Stewart, $32.99) by Jeffrey Simpson bemoans our lack of options in this era of federal Liberal hegemony. The Globe and Mails veteran national affairs columnist draws on his deep understanding of how Ottawa works to examine the discouraging reality of politics without a viable government-in-waiting on the opposition benches. Simpson writes with unmatched authority on how patronage underpins the Prime Minister’s almost unchecked power. He takes the decline in
THE FRIEND1T DICTATORSHIP
voter turnout seriously—and leaves the reader wondering why this disturbing trend is so little discussed. And he offers solutions, including a new way of electing MPs. Simpson’s style is not spritely, but he never talks down to the reader. A momentum builds as he marshals his facts. Read through the holidays, this book will leave the true political addict looking forward to the return of Parliament if only to revel more knowledgeably in its dysfunction. EH3
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