Northern Exposure

November 21, 2013
By Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Gazette

It all started one night in 2004 over dinner at the Charles Hotel. Professor Michael Ignatieff and his wife, Zsuzsanna, sat down with three mysterious strangers, whom the couple later referred to as the “men in black.”

Their pitch to Ignatieff was as intriguing as it was audacious, given his background as an accomplished teacher, journalist, and novelist. Would he leave the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) to run for leader of Canada’s beleaguered Liberal Party, and ultimately for prime minister?

“What didn’t well up inside me was laughter. It should have. The idea was preposterous,” Ignatieff writes in “Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics,” an elegant and unflinching memoir of his disastrous six-year flameout from the pillowy cocoon of academia into the foul trenches of modern politics. The book is out this month from Harvard University Press.

“ ‘Fire and Ashes’ is the story of why … I said yes to the men in black.”

Ignatieff returned to his native Canada, winning election to the House of Commons in 2006. After losing a bid that year to become the Liberal Party leader, he was named deputy chief, a post he held until late 2008, when leader Stephane Dion resigned and “Iggy,” as he is known, was elevated to interim head. In 2009, he was elected leader, only to usher the party to its worst defeat in its history in 2011, winning just 34 seats in Parliament. Ignatieff, who even lost his own seat, resigned not long after that.

“If you don’t understand you can lose and don’t understand what you can lose when you lose, you shouldn’t go into [politics],” Ignatieff said in a recent Gazette interview from Toronto.

“But it’s not a book whose premise is ‘feel my pain.’ I feel good about having done it, I feel actually lucky to have done it, and I don’t regret doing it. I just think any honest account of politics has to talk about how bad it hurts the morning after you get clobbered. I think that’s important. It’s important to the truth of the experience.”

“Very few Harvard professors go straight from the classroom into the cold room of electoral politics — Elizabeth Warren’s done it and a few others … but rather few run for elective office,” he said. “So I thought, if you start from a classroom, what’s it like to do it? I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of what has to change inside your head, what has to change inside you, in order to do it.”

He currently teaches at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, but will return to HKS in January to teach “Responsibility and Representation: Meeting the Demands of Public Office” and “Sovereignty and Intervention.”

In hindsight, it seems clear that his viability as a novice candidate — one best known as a public intellectual — who was running for national office in a country he hadn’t lived in for 30 years would be limited. But, Ignatieff said, when he decided to run, he was motivated by his family’s rich diplomatic history as well as by his belief in the nobility of public service and his faith in the egalitarianism and romance of democracy.

He had the “deep moral belief that democracy is not merely the least worst form of government, but, much more positively, the best form of government, the form of government that can bring out the best in us,” he said. There was “the sense that you may be a Harvard professor, but your vote is not worth any more than anybody else’s. Democracy is the system that tries to counterbalance the power of money and the power of expertise and the power of privilege. And I feel very deeply attached to that ideal.” read more

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Michael Ignatieff, professor of practice

Michael Ignatieff, professor of practice

“If you don’t understand you can lose and don’t understand what you can lose when you lose, you shouldn’t go into [politics].”