Monday, December 15, 2008

Grace Under Pressure

The problem with Hemingway's definition of courage -- grace under pressure -- is that, while it's a neat turn of phrase, it's nonetheless shallow. There is so much more to courage than just grace under pressure. Be that as it may, Bob Rae displayed both courage and realism last week when he bowed out of the race for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada.

He faced a central political problem. As Jeffrey Simpson noted in The Globe and Mail, "Like Macbeth's 'horrible shadow,' Mr. Rae could not escape the reality and mythologies of his years as the NDP premier of Ontario. They have stuck to him and tormented his political career as a Liberal. Even outside Ontario, where Liberals and others had not experienced those years, the telling of the province's travails, and those of his government, spread across the land, seeping into the common (if potted) wisdom of what actually happened and why."

Some claimed that his insistence on the principle of one person one vote was an obvious attempt by a losing candidate to tip the race in his favour. However, the last time I checked, that principle was at the root of western democracies. Others claimed that his support for the opposition coalition was a loser's game. But again, according to the rules of parliamentary democracy, that principle has been in practice for hundreds of years.

Mr. Rae does not need anyone to lecture him on principles. But, as perhaps the best Canadian politician of his generation, he can read his times; and he understands exactly what Stephen Harper has been trying to do to his political opposition -- and exactly what kind of response it requires. More than that, he has a refreshing sense of perspective. "It's only politics," he says, "it's not the end of the world."

Somehow, one cannot imagine Stephen Harper making that kind of statement. Even if the coalition fails, it has given Canadians confirmation of what they have long suspected -- but which the Prime Minister has sought to soft peddle in a soft blue sweater. Put simply, Mr. Harper believes -- with Vince Lombardi -- that "winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." The coalition has also given us a glimpse of how Stephen Harper reacts when he is genuinely scared. It is not a flattering portrait.

Harper is reputedly a very bright man. The late David Halberstam, in his book The Best and the Brightest -- the story of how John F. Kennedy and his brain trust blundered into Vietnam -- intended the book's title to be ironic. The title, he wrote, underlined "the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard won, often bitter experience." The prime minister is a bitter man but he is not a wise one.

Mr, Rae, on the other hand, has known -- and, as last week illustrates, continues to know -- bitter experience. But he has emerged from that experience a wiser and a much better man than Stephen Harper. Winning isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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