Narcissieff in the mirror of politics

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Perhaps Michael Ignatieff's views weren't as sinister as they once seemed. When, for instance, he wrote in favour of what's been called torture lite, which means torture that doesn't leave marks; or supported the war on Iraq, which he halfheartedly recanted; or the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which really only applies to the right of powerful nations to attack weak ones; or selective bombing of the Balkans in the 1990s. Maybe he just had a twerpy impulse to follow where those in power -- the Clintons, Bushes or Blairs -- led.

So let's turn to the consequential question for Canadian politics -- not what he thinks but how he'll campaign. This was always the doubtful element: Can he lead the Liberal Party to victory? Remember that he never won the leadership. He began as a strong favourite, frittered that away and lost to Stéphane Dion. Then he seized power last winter without having to face challenges from Bob Rae or Dominic LeBlanc. He has yet to show he can win.

My own sense is that he'll make a seriously bad candidate, due to what I'd call his narcissism. This isn't so much about adoring yourself, as being so self-absorbed that your sense of how others react to you goes missing. A therapist I know says it usually involves "a great deal of self-referencing. A real other doesn't exist except as an extension of themselves." This won't be useful when you're asking for people's votes, against other candidates.

For instance: "I've been lucky in my life to meet famous people." And, "I just pick up the phone and call some of my friends in his [the Obama] administration." As if we should be impressed, or envious. He recounted how witty he and the Prez got with each other ("He said, rather amusingly ..."). And how the President complimented him on things he'd written, which "made this particular Canadian author feel pretty good." That stuff may go down well with adoring audiences at author readings but, in politics, it's better to have your flunkies leak it for you. We're not at Harbourfront any more, Toto.

He told CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel that politics is "the most incredible adventure of all the adventures I've had in my life. ... It's been unforgettable no matter how it turns out." But for people in the country, how it turns out is what counts; he can save all the savouring for his next memoir. He told Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker: "I've been a spectator a lot of my life but this is about acting. ... You have to be ready for combat, and you have to lead troops." It's not that it's wrong to reflect on life's twists and turns, but he seems so captivated and preoccupied. Instead of revelling in the fab experience of being an actor, how about just Doing Something?

It's this misplaced emphasis that suggests an emotional tone deafness. The narcissism makes you oblivious to signals sent by others about how they perceive you, leading, one fears, to bad times on the campaign trail.

It's not the same as egomania, which can work in politics. Egomania requires you to be aware of others in order to dominate or manipulate them. With narcissism, you barely notice them, you bask in your own presence and assume everyone does. Even Stéphane Dion didn't seem narcissistic. Just arrogant: a guy who felt so superior, he was sure everyone would follow his lead. But narcissism blocks the reality of others, hence the stream of off-putting remarks.

Narcissieff himself seems to have a sense of this. "What is it that a great politician knows?" he asked Adam Gopnik. "I'm trying to learn that." You might expect him to have had a clue before running to be PM, but at least he's asking. Trouble is, a narcissistic makeup can stand in the way of finding an answer. It cuts off the natural ability to pay attention to others. He looks, someone said recently, as if he's Voguing a politician.

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