Washington, DC ~ In 1992 when I was preparing for my assignment in Ottawa as political counselor, I read many serious, academic oriented books and spoke with a wide variety of individuals in Washington with hands-on experience in Canada. I also had the good fortune to talk with counterparts in the Canadian Embassy.
During the process, however, I also encountered a little cartoon book, Son of a Meech: The Best Brian Mulroney Jokes, edited by Mark Breslin and published in 1991. A quick search of the Internet did not reveal it available for current sale. It was unique in its way; frankly, I’d not seen anything outside of straight pornography with such viciously crude humor. Indeed, virtually every “dirty joke” I’d ever heard was transmuted into an anti-Mulroney slash with no special effort at sophistication. As one illustration (hardly the worst), I cite,
“Mulroney’s dick is so small…(How small is it?)..It’s so small that when Mila takes it in her mouth, she doesn’t suck, she flosses.”
The book stunned me, but I’d heard and read some other vicious political rhetoric, e.g., against Lyndon Johnson. What surprised me somewhat more was that when I visited the Canadian Embassy for coffee/chat with embassy officers, the level of criticism they directed against the prime minister was startling. They were not quoting Son of a Meech, but their criticism was far beyond what a U.S. diplomat would offer a foreign diplomat about our president—especially on first acquaintance.
Still, it was somewhat understandable. Mulroney had struggled through eight highly contentious years as prime minister. He had implemented a goods and services (GST) tax making visible (and immensely irritating) what had previously been concealed. He pushed through the Free Trade Agreement with the United States that infuriated the Canadian left. He catered to Quebec nationalists, twice failing disastrously and divisively with Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, alienating massive numbers of Canadians in the process. Moreover, the Tory party had managed to convey the impression of getting all four feet in the trough, not content with polite corruption. Finally, his personal style was un-Canadian, emphasizing tailored suits and expensive shoes. While his wife didn’t have as much footwear as Imelda Marcos, she also dressed far above what the average Canadian considered appropriate.
Which brings me to the level of animosity directed against Prime Minister Harper.
It is a Canadian sociopolitical reality that approximately 60 percent of the electorate votes against the Tories. That leaves the coherently organized Tories to “come up the middle” advantaging themselves of a divided Left to squeeze out victories. The result among the defeated ranges from irritated acceptance of the existing political voting system to anger that the “majority” doesn’t rule to outright, visceral hatred of Stephen Harper.
But it puzzles me why Canadian voters should expend such anger against an intelligent man with strong moral principles and no personal corruption scandals. Canada is prosperous; its human rights profile puts it far above average; its overseas commitments do not overreach. Harper is arguably responsible for maneuvering Canada through the Great Recession, working to reconcile the disparate strands of multi-multi Canada, and strengthening Canada’s profile within NATO. He has even written a decently received book on hockey (A Great Game) and demonstrated a light touch on the piano in public/charitable appearances.
Tory scandals do not rise to the levels of FIFA officials; there are no Cayman Island accounts reflecting breathtaking corruption. Mountains are constructed from mole hills for every administration, but Harper’s “mountains” are low altitude. Moreover, his wife is modestly attractive, dressed in upper-middle class styles, and devoted to good works such as saving abandoned kittens. His children are not found drunk/drugged in the Byward Market or driving at 200 km on the 401.
So what is it?
He lacks Trudeau’s hair and cuteness personified small children. He doesn’t seem to project Mulcair’s bad-boy image edging toward out of control. He doesn’t give barnburner speeches (and once wryly professed that he became an economist because he lacked the charisma to be an accountant).
Sometimes it is hard to appreciate what you have until it is gone. Simple competence can be dull. Bland works in an era of complex challenges. PM Mackenzie King who dominated Canadian politics in the 1930s-50s, had the charisma of an armchair—but gets high retrospective historical competency ratings.
Currently, the Republican Party has 16 announced candidates for the presidency. It would be better off with one “Stephen Harper.”
Count your blessings, Canada.