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Recently read: Paul Wells' Right Side Up

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on August 25, 2007
Tags: book_reviews

The first few years I spent outside of Canada I kept up with Canadian politics fairly well. The last few years my grasp of what is going on from day to day has gotten considerably weaker. Still, that’s not going to stop me from voting in the next federal election, and it’s not going to stop me from recommending Paul Wells’ Right Side Up, his highly entertaining book chronicling of the rise of Steven Harper and the Conservatives in Canada. Wells is as clever as he is cheeky, and although the occasional spot might be rough going for an outsider, on the whole I thought that Right Side Up would be as entertaining an introduction to the last few years of Canadian politics for a non-Canadian as it is a pleasant review of the same for a Canadian.

Wells has a great eye for hypocrisy and sham, and one of the great things about Right Side Up is the way he pauses to savour moments that the more jaded might let slip by. I think this passage illustrates this nicely:

For lo, the night had come when Paul Martin became the leader of the party to which he had given his life. Liberals from across the country repaired to the Air Canada Centre in downtown Toronto for the great moment.

“Over the years, in various leadership conventions, a small number of Canadians have stood on a stage like this,” Martin said from the floor of the hockey arena on the evening of November 14, 2003.

“In the past while, I have thought about them. And wondered just how I would feel as I stood before you at this moment. And what I would say and what I would do.

“As it turns out, it is deeply moving—and much more difficult than I thought.”

What a touching admission of vulnerability at the moment of triumph. Also: what transparent dime-store fiction. Even as Martin was confiding to a few thousand of his closest friends that this was harder than he had thought it would be, dozens of reporters, loosely herded in a bullpen on the floor of the arena in front of the new leader, were reading along with the prepared text, which Martin’s legions of helpers had handed to us before he began speaking. Sure enough, there it was, a third of the way down Page 1: Much . . . more . . . difficult . . . than . . . I . . . thought.

Earlier that afternoon Martin had read the speech (“. . .much more difficult than I thought . . .”) at that same podium, in a dress rehearsal [. . . .]

Which means that among the small number of Canadians who had stood on stages like this, before Paul Martin did, was . . . himself. Paul Martin. De deux choses l’une, as we say: either this deeply moving experience was precisely as difficult now as it had been during months of draft speech rewrites, meetings, and conference calls, as well as at the big dress rehearsal this afternoon—or it was even more difficult now than then, in which case Martin and his communications team had factored in the requisite increment of difficulty, aiming ahead of the hurtling clay pigeon like so many ace skeet shooters, and included their eerily prescient hunch about that supplementary burden in the text of the big guy’s acceptance speech.
I also enjoyed Wells’ description of the David Emerson kerfuffle. Emerson switched sides to the Conservatives very shortly after the 2006 election, much to the consternation of a bunch of Vancouverites who were under the distinction impression that they had just voted for a Liberal.

The Conservatives were helped by the fact that David Emerson is one of the most beatifically gormless amateurs ever to stumble into electoral politics without pausing to consider how it works. His excuse for switching parties wasn’t political conviction but its perfect absence. He had run as a Liberal, he told pie-eyed reporters, only because a Liberal was offering cabinet seats. Now that Liberal, Paul Martin, had quit as Liberal leader, so David Emerson was a free agent again.

“You’re saying that if Paul Martin had become prime minister you would have stayed with him and become a minister in his cabinet?” one reporter asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” Emerson replied cheerfully.
Wells is also very funny on the subject of Michael Ignatieff, who shows up in the final part of the book devoted to the Liberal leadership race that followed Paul Martin’s election defeat. He begins with a little poke at Ignatieff for trying to pass as common folk:

I haven’t heard anyone drop so many g’s from the ends of his participles since Hee Haw went off the air.

“Yeah, people have got questions about—bein’ out of the country,” Ignatieff said. Here, “bein’ out of the country” is a genteel euphemism for the fact that until he moved to Toronto to run for Parliament in 2005, the rookie MP for Etobicoke-Lakeshore had not resided in Canada since 1969. He spent some of that time teachin’ at Harvard. “I genuinely got a lot of people sayin’, ‘It’s great. It’s great. Good for you.’ Behind the you’ve-been-out-of-the-country question, it’s not really—I think Canadians rather like the fact that somebody’s been out and has done stuff and has come back. What they want to be assured is that the guy knows the country, right? He’s not some kind of Martian.”

Oh, surely that a bit harsh. Where would any Canadian get the idea that Michael Ignatieff is a Martian? I mean, where besides the preface to his book The Rights Revolution, published in 2000? In that preface, Ignatieff admits that he is writing about the Canadian conception of rights and that it “may read oddly” to an audience of actual Canadians. “To them, this book may seem like a report by a visitor from a distant planet,” Ignatieff writes. “I want to alert readers that I am a Martian outsider.”

And so on, and on, and on (for several pages afterwards, Wells drops the “g” from every single participle, a deliciously cruel little touch). It’s passages like these - gotcha passages - that make the book so highly entertaining.

So much for entertainment. What about edification? Well, here I think the verdict a bit more mixed. Wells really is, as I said, awfully bright. And in the course of providing context for some of those very funny gaffes, Wells treats his reader to a bit more substance that we might find in a regular news column. Still, I found myself wondering at times if the book didn’t reflect (as I confess this post does), in some modest way, one of the vices of Canadian reporting, which is to allow gaffes and gotcha moments to organize the presentation of the issues rather than the other way around. (Toward the end of the book, Wells makes a few comments on Harper’s attitude to the media that suggests sympathy for this view of the Canadian media.) I can see that since this is the way that Canadian politics is so often done, a history of Canadian politics will need to reflect that. And I can see that there is some difference between writing a bunch of gotchas and writing about a bunch of gotchas. Still . . .

I’ll leave aside my irritation with Wells’ brief treatment of Harper’s foreign policy towards the end of the book to make just one complaint about substance. Wells seems to think that the relative moderation of the early Harper government shows that critics were wrong to complain that the sky would fall if Harper got into power. But Harper didn’t win a majority in 2006, and his government lives on borrowed time, with a very strong incentive in the meantime to act in as nonthreatening a way as possible, in the hopes that the Conversatives can sweep to power later with a solid majority. And it seems pretty clear to me that if Harper can do that, we can expect very different things from him. So, the sky may yet fall.


Author: alif sikkiin
Date: 2007-08-26

“(for several pages afterwards, Wells drops the “g” from every single participle, a deliciously cruel little touch).”

I’m no Ignatieff fan to say the least, but this seems like it might get irritating after a page or so.

Author: Chris
Date: 2007-08-26

Sorry, I wasn’t very clear. It’s only in the (extensive) quotations from Ignatieff that he does that.