Thrice the brinded cat hath mewed/ Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined/ Harper cries ’tis time, ’tis time. (Macbeth). Scholarly note: Some early manuscripts have “Harpier.” But those are corrupt, unreliable sources.

The prime minister. Why is Stephen Harper often seen as supersmart? The National Post, for instance, says he’s never been accused of being stupid. Is it because he’s an economist, his preferred self-description? Then why are economists smart? The economics mainstream, to which Harper belongs, has been wrong on every major economic crisis for almost a century: from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the Great Recession of 2007-8. Is it because economics is the only social science eligible for a Nobel Prize? So what? Is it because, since the Second World War, economics has managed to mathematize itself on the model of physics, giving it a gloss of objectivity in return for a disconnection from the messiness of actual social life?

Or is he supposed to be smart because he’s managed to hold onto power? Is this due to his mighty brain or a stroke of luck: vote-splitting by about two-thirds of the population between Liberals and NDP, and those parties’ refusal to merge or devise a joint strategy due to no more than their mutual self-delusion that something serious separates them, for which there’s zero evidence. Harper’s predecessor, Jean Chretien, held majorities for 10 years. He was never accused of being smart though you could say he had smarts. He benefitted from an eerily similar split between Reform and Progressive Conservatives — till they merged, which is exactly when Chretien, smartly, got out.

Another profession commonly assumed to be smart is lawyers, which most politicians are, and who also have a weird, not very grounded in real life, way of thinking. Tom Mulcair has looked extremely lawyerly in his prosecutorial smartness during Question Periods this week. But I’m not sure it’s the same mentality people want in a national leader.

Preston Manning wasn’t seen as terribly smart but you can’t picture him in a moral morass like this because he had a moral core. Harper’s core is ideological. Harper’s strength may be his limited ego. He isn’t all about vanity, as most public figures are. His antagonist, Duffy, is about nothing except ego.

The Senator (MikeDuff?). Unlike Pamela Wallin, who seems to have an inner place she goes to regroup, Duffy has little beyond his carapace of vanity. He’s always presented himself as the voice of the common folk, telling truth about the arrogant higher-ups, though the truths he told were never unsettling to them. But that’s the nature of right-wing populism.

Still, he seems to have believed the role and relied on it for a sense of self. You get the sense he’s not complex enough to be as cynical as Wallin, so he’s wounded to the quick: that carapace is who he is and he’ll fight to the death (quite possibly) to retain it. In the dispute between him and Harper, Harper’s smarter and righter: they were in the scam together but when the jig was up, it was on Duffy to take the fall, in return for protection. Yet when that moment came, Duffy’s self-image apparently meant too much to him. (“Canadians know me as an honest guy. To pay back money I didn’t owe would destroy my reputation.”) He blew it.

Nigel Wright. Commentators wonder if he’ll turn on Harper, now that Harper has rounded on him. I think that’s unlikely; a deal was probably done in advance. Why? Because that’s how the game is played. It’s what Gordon Liddy and the other crooks did in Watergate: they took the fall and went to jail to cover for Richard Nixon. And especially because it’s precisely the deal that everyone concurs was made with Duffy: he’d take the fall as agreed in advance.

Duffy botched it because he lost track, or got dealer’s remorse — whatever — and reneged, something it’s hard to picture other, smarter players, like Nigel Wright, doing. Yet with all that, Duffy seems to have got the best of smarty Harper!

Now it’s on to the Tory convention in Calgary:

Round about the cauldron go/ In the poison’d entrails throw. . .

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.