He was betrayed by old friends. He endured unearned and lofty condescension from political columnists. In Parliament, he became a total partisan, putting, as one must, loyalty to the group above loyalty to truth. He had no friends who were not in his own party. He loathed the other side. “We never wasted a single breath trying to convince each other of anything,” he recalls.
He learned that when you are attacking your opponent, you have to hit his strengths because his weaknesses will take care of themselves. Political discourse, he came to see, is not really a debate about issues; it is a verbal contest to deny your opponents of standing, or as we would say, legitimacy. “Of the three elections that I fought, none was a debate on the country’s future. All were vicious battles over standing.”
During the course of his career he endured the character tests that all honest politicians face. “Politics tests your capacity for self-knowledge more than any profession I know,” he writes. He would look at himself in the mirror, wearing the suits that the image crafters had selected, and feel as though he had been taken over by some strange new persona he barely recognized.
He went through each day completely dependent on the reaction of other people, minute by minute, second by second, to validate his performance. After poor showings at question time, he’d go to the washroom, no longer sure he was up to the job, confronting the mistakes that suggested he wasn’t. “I had never been so well-dressed in my life and had never felt so hollow.”
But Ignatieff ultimately delivers a strong defense of politics. Politicians should never imagine themselves superior to the process they are engaged in. Politicians bind people together into communities and nations, he argues. To be a politician is to be “worldly and sinful and yet faithful and fearless at the same time. You put your own immodest ambitions in the service of others. You hope that your ambitions will be redeemed by the good you do.”
Politics, as Max Weber famously said, is the necessary work of strong and slow boring through hard boards. People who do it out of a sense of selfishness and vanity, often give up, because the life can be miserable.
The people who sustain are usually motivated by a sense of service, and by evidence of the good that laws and programs can do. Ignatieff failed at politics, but through the refiner’s fire of the political climb, he realized what a tainted but worthwhile calling it can be.
Source: The New York Times