No one doubted Michael Ignatieff's intelligence. It was his judgement and ethics that were questioned (AP Photo/Nathan Denette)
Michael Ignatieff always appeared to be the predestined man, scion of a noble Russian family, including one of the last Tsar's ministers, and of a prominent Anglo-Canadian family of academics and business leaders. He was a star in one of Canada's most exclusive schools, and an alumnus of the University of Toronto, Oxford, and Harvard. He became a well-regarded university lecturer and a prize-winning author, and not only in the suspiciously log-rolling and back-scratching world of Can(adian)Lit(erature). He was shortlisted for the Booker and endorsed by Isaiah Berlin, a professor and mentor at Oxford, as his biographer.
He acquired a reputation as an expert on human rights and gained credibility by being independent-minded and not just another cypher of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch attacking every foreign policy initiative of the United States. He was rewarded with a prominent civil rights chair at Harvard. There were problems of abrupt changes of position, including his very public and rigorous endorsement of the Iraq War followed by his eventual complete recantation when WMD were not discovered, as if that were the only reason for disposing of Saddam Hussein, or the principal one given by the US government, or even by Ignatieff himself.
His father, George Ignatieff, was a very respected diplomat and public servant, and prominent member of the Liberal establishment that staffed the senior civil and diplomatic service from 1896 to 2006, and governed Canada for 80 of those years. The Canadian Liberals were the most successful party in the democratic world throughout this time, basically because they were the only pan-Canadian party that alternated English and French-Canadian leaders; because they were not the party that imposed conscription on an unconvinced French Canada in 1917; and because they sold themselves in Quebec as the party that would make Canada work for Quebec, and in the rest of the country as the party that would keep Quebec in Canada, by whatever combination of bonne entente and force majeure was required.
Part of the genius of the Canadian Liberals was the habit of selecting leaders in an unpredictable and exotic manner that was rivalled only by the Holy See for mystery and surprise. The Commonwealth's longest serving prime minister, W.L. Mackenzie King (22 years), was a Harvard alumnus, a defeated former junior minister, and long resident in the United States when he was elected to a 29-year stint as Liberal leader, following the death of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had been Liberal leader for 30 years. King's successor, Louis St Laurent, had never dreamt of entering public life in his 60 years until King tapped him for the succession. Lester Pearson, a mentor of George Ignatieff, was a career foreign service officer when he got the call, and Pierre Trudeau was an underemployed academic with inherited wealth, who had never even supported the Liberals, when he was recruited by Pearson. Between them these five men led their party for 97 consecutive years, 66 of those as prime minister.
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