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"I Don't See the President As An Intellectual at All"

A Q&A with Michael Ignatieff

Geoff Robbins/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Ignatieff, the former leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, did not have a typical political career. Ignatieff taught at Harvard and lived in the United States in the early part of the last decade, and was best known as a public intellectual: He wrote a biography of Isaiah Berlin; he frequently contributed to publications such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, and this magazine; and he was one of the most prominent liberal voices in favor of the war in Iraq.

And yet he returned to Canada several years ago to try to become prime minister. He was elected to the House of Commons before becoming party leader in 2009. But in the 2011 general election, he oversaw the worst defeat in his party’s history. He quickly resigned and is now back at Harvard.

His most recent book, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, was called, by David Brooks, “the best book about what it feels like to be a politician” in decades. I recently chatted with Ignatieff about what type of people enter politics, the strange feelings Canadians have for America, and why Barack Obama is not a real intellectual.

Isaac Chotiner: When you think back to your time in politics, what’s your overwhelming emotion? 

Michael Ignatieff: A tremendous amount of it now depends on what happens and whether other people learn from what I did and do it better. I’m extremely glad that I did it, because I’m now back at the Kennedy School teaching this stuff, and that gives me the credibility to stand up and say I was there, I know what it’s like. I’ve earned the right to speak well of a life that did not go so well for me. 

IC: Can you describe how you understand politics differently now that you have experienced it? 

MI: Well, I think the dimension that the book tries to talk about, and that David Brooks picked up on in his column, is the inter-dimension. This is not a book that teaches you technique. I’m much more interested in learning the internal fortitude, learning not to take it personally, learning to master language, learning to be strategic in the deeper spiritual sense of having a vision of where you’re going. I was pretty radically unprepared for these inner demands, and so the book tries to talk about what those are. And a lot of the demands are about keeping some core non-tradeable inner self that doesn’t get sold in the process of pursuing power. That turns out to be really difficult, you just get really bent out of shape. 

IC: Our current president seems about as close to an intellectual as we have elected in a long time. He’s certainly very cerebral, he’s written one very good book, he seems to pride himself somewhat on being an intellectual. 

MI: I don’t see the president as an intellectual at all. I have enormous respect for him, and I’ll be the last one standing in terms of support for him, but not because he’s an intellectual. I think he’s a superb writer, but I think he’s an Illinoisan, and a Chicago politician. He’s a community organizer. He’s a great writer, and the greatest book he ever wrote is himself—he’s the creator of a character, and he inhabits his character. To say that he’s an intellectual would say that he’s interested in ideas for their own sake, and he’s interested in words for their own sake. No. He’s interested in power, and he shows enormous deliberation and self-discipline, but those are the virtues of any good president.

IC: Are there any intellectuals that you think would make good politicians?  

MI: I’ve always thought Anne-Marie Slaughter would make a fantastic United States Senator or something. She’s a real intellectual, but she’s got enormous communicative skills and she’s got government experience. The thing that drives me slightly crazy is the way we think about intellectuals as wooly, hopeless, arrogant, self-deceived, incapable. Come on.

IC: Slaughter 2016 wouldn’t look good on a bumper sticker. 

MI: [Laughs] Yeah. 

IC: Are there any leaders—you rejected Obama—who you think would qualify as intellectuals? There are certainly people in the past who went into politics—Mario Vargas Llosa, D’Annunzio, which is a less happy example. 

MI: In the current crop, very few. Part of that is because the crop of current leaders got into politics in their late 20s and early 30s and are professional politicians for the rest of their lives. The reality is that they don’t have time or space for loving ideas and thoughts and using art and culture for their own sake. Because they’re doing an extremely demanding, 70 hour a week job and that’s all they think about. So, the idea that we could get a Disraeli—a guy who writes novels, no. I think there’s been a kind of narrowing out of the career path of most contemporary politicians. It’s hard to imagine how we get another Lincoln. Lincoln was not an intellectual, but no one in 200 years understood the language of the King James Bible or learned Blackstone’s Laws of England, or Cicero, or the language of the founding fathers, better than he did. We’d have to go back to founding fathers in this republic—Jefferson was a real, true-blue genuine, bona-fide intellectual. Some of our finest leaders were not intellectuals at all, and I admire them enormously because they weren’t. Harry Truman wasn’t.


MI: Right, FDR, you wouldn’t sit down and talk to FDR about Rilke for god’s sake. You’re missing the point if you’re disappointed that he can’t tell you about poetry. 

IC: Trotsky.

MI: There’s an intellectual, and Christ, you don’t want him within 10,000 miles of power. 

IC: I don’t know that much about Canadian politics but in Britain, certainly, the sort of thing that you’re talking about is somewhat more common. If you look at British magazines like the New Statesman or the Times Literary Supplement, you’ve got people like Richard Crossman or Ferdinand Mount running them. Mount was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher and then he ran the TLS. It seems like that’s much more common there than in America. Where does Canada fall on the spectrum? 

MI: Canada is much more on the U.S. spectrum. I was a completely non-standard item, nobody had ever seen anything like me, and I don’t think they’ll see anything like me for quite some time. It may be that the United States is a more democratic society, much less deferential toward artistry, art, academic success all that kind of stuff. A lot of my book is saying that it’s in America that you see just how crucial it is to earn your standing by showing that you’re one with the people.

IC: You supported the Iraq War very vocally. How much did your loss have to do with that, as opposed to simply being associated with America? 

MI: I think the last weekend of the campaign I lost and I got a call from a guy running for our party in Nova Scotia, and he said, "I’m having trouble out here because they all think you’re an American." I think there’s no doubt that a lot of people thought that.

IC: Was that attack given more currency because of Iraq?

MI: Well, I don’t want to duck the Iraq thing. I think the Iraq thing made it very difficult for me get votes on the left, there’s no question. But I also paid a price for having been in the States, there’s no question—my candidacy triggered a lot of that weird ambivalence in the United States—we look like Americans, we shop like Americans, we see the same shows on TV—but the last thing you want in Canada is to be American.

IC: You write about failing in politics. If Iraq was an intellectual failure on your part, how would you compare those types of failure?

MI:  I’m proud of the fact that I’ve taken tough positions on tough issues and told them the way I saw them, and I’m proud that I’ve been in the public debate, but it was a mistake to assume that anything good could happen at the hands of Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. And the costs, the human costs, of what happened in Iraq were just horrendous and damaging, and you know, I’m also proud that when you make a mistake you say so. I’ve taken responsibility for every single syllable I’ve ever uttered on Iraq. 

As for Canada, I’m not sure that this passage actually exists in Proust, but I have some memory of a passage in Proust in which two guys are sitting on a park bench at the end of their lives, and what they’re saying to each other is, “We should have gone to the fairgrounds that day. All I can say about going into politics, is that I will not be sitting on a park bench at the end of my life and saying, "I should have gone into politics.” I did it. 

IC: If he’d been alive, what do you think your friend and biography subject Isaiah Berlin would have said to you about going into politics? 

MI: He would have said, “terrible mistake, terrible mistake.” He would have said it very rapidly too—"terrible mistake." He had unfailingly good judgment. But the romance of politics is what ceaselessly draws people in. Sometimes to their destruction. But without that sense of the romance of politics, no one would step up at all. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.