Book review: “Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics” by Michael Ignatieff

Michae IgnatieffFireandAshes

When I came to Harvard as a postgraduate student in September of 2005, the Kennedy School of Government was abuzz with Michael Ignatieff's imminent move into politics. "There is Canada's next Prime Minister", students whispered as Ignatieff walked through the courtyard. My attempt to sign up for his course "Human Rights and International Politics", however, was met with disappointment: Its schedule clashed with a mandatory quantitative methods seminar for all first-year students, making Ignatieff's course ineligible for us. When Ignatieff heard our complaints, he immediately decided to offer an additional course at a different schedule. We would enjoy Ignatieff's final lectures at Harvard, after all. 

His classes were brilliant. Rather than bringing prepared notes or a power point presentation, Ignatieff appeared to develop his ideas on the go in such clarity that they seemed ready to publish - no matter whether we discussed the sharia-based penal code in northern Nigeria, immigration reform in Germany or military intervention in Darfur. And yet, Ignatieff was not admired unanimously. Only two years earlier, he had passionately and publicly defended a U.S. intervention in Iraq. (Ignatieff admitted to "getting Iraq wrong" in 2007 in an op-ed in the New York Times). Still, to my mind, he seemed well-equipped to enter politics. 

In his office, after discussing my final paper with him in late 2005, weeks before his departure, I asked Ignatieff whether he was not afraid of missing Harvard once he'd enter politics in Canada. "I feel like I am leaving paradise", he responded, half-jokingly. Fire and Ashes, Ignatieff's latest book, deals with the subsequent six years he spent in Canadian politics - a time that began with his historic rise as an outsider and equally remarkable election defeat and eventual retreat from politics. 

The book is written with disarming openness, self-criticism and candor. For example, the author admits to struggling, in his early days in Canada, to explain why exactly he had entered politics in the first place. Ignatieff admits plenty of mistakes, and soon realizes how little academia prepared him for political life. 

Any reader will quickly realize that Ignatieff has no intention of ever returning into the political arena - this is precisely why the book deserves to be read. Rather than being yet another self-congratulatory autobiography of a politician who feels urged to defend his legacy, Fire and Ashes can be read as a manual for those who consider going into politics - in Canada or anywhere else in the world. 

Ignatieff makes clear that a significant part of national politics is far from glamorous. He writes that 

most people regard the spectacle of political combat with a mixture of disgust and alarm, fading quickly into indifference. (..) Politicians have to negotiate trust against the backdrop of permanent dislike of their own profession. (...) You counter this feeling, as best as you can, by attending the neighborhood garden party, the parent-teacher association meeting, the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the school prize-giving- all to show that you have not delivered yourself up to the alien political world. 

His reflections about the impact of politics on his personal life and his sense of his own worth are important because no career politician would ever describe them in such detail - perhaps because they got used to such challenges at an earlier age.

His late entry at the very top, of course, makes his political bid very peculiar and very different from what most will experience who run for public office. Ignatieff joined politics in 2006 with the goal of becoming Prime Minister a couple of years later ("make no mistake, that was the proposition"). When he was elected party leader in late 2008, he writes "so here I was, leader of the party, at last" - this expression conveys a sense of impatience which may seem odd to other political actors who had to wait decades to assume high political office. Some will criticize the author's focus on his ancestors, many of whom have held high office - as an expression of implicit entitlement, even though Ignatieff seeks to explicitly distances himself from that assumption. The tension between being "the one" chosen to lead the country and his assertion that he is "no Trudeau" is, perhaps inevitably, visible throughout the book. 

Yet Ignatieff is of course aware that his rapid rise also presented his major weakness - as brilliantly exploited by his adversaries in the "Just Visiting" campaign that was launched against him, arguing that he had not returned for good. The book provides a vivid impression of the helplessness his party encountered to respond to such attacks - partly, as Ignatieff concedes, because they had an element of truth in them. In the same way, the tale of his election defeat shows the difficulty the Liberal Party faced with growing opponents on both sides of the political spectrum. 

In the book's final pages, the author attempts to convince young men and women to enter politics. Yet it would have been interesting to hear more about what Ignatieff thinks about entering politics as an outsider, at a later stage in life. The book seems to suggest that his lack of experience in the political arena significantly contributed to his defeat. Remembering an early moment in his return to Canada, when he read a complex Hungarian poem to a celebratory audience of supporters, Ignatieff admits that it may have confirmed the impression that he was “an intellectual who had landed from outer space.” In a way, this is a worrisome signal as it strengthens the view that there is no place for common citizens in politics. And yet, Fire and Ashes is likely to be a useful primer to those who consider politics as a profession. 

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