The Road to Rejection

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Greg Locke/Redux
Michael Ignatieff, then leader of the Liberal Party, campaigning in the Canadian federal election, St. John’s, Newfoundland, April 2011

Michael Ignatieff’s eighteenth book sets out to tell a tale that, in its outlines, is almost mythic. A writer and intellectual at the pinnacle of his powers is approached by a trio of shadowy envoys from a former life. These “men in black,” as he somewhat ominously calls them, invite him to return home to a country he has not lived in for most of his adult life. The reward they hold out, for which he must give up his present career, is the prospect of becoming the most powerful man in the land. He is flattered, but he also knows these men can’t simply hand him the prize; he will have to win it for himself. He also knows the idea is preposterous; after all, he has spent his adult life studying power but has never once exercised it. Yet the offer stirs ancestral memories, and he finds it too tantalizing to refuse. He returns home, confident that his country, with its well-known civility, will give him a friendly reception.

Instead, he’s met with a groundswell of hostility: rivals challenge his right to be there; opponents try to undermine his reputation. The more he tries to adapt, the emptier he feels. Within arm’s reach of his goal, he flings down the gauntlet and marches into battle for the crown. We know how it ends. In the classical mold in which this story is cast, actions born in hubris always lead to defeat.

The story, of course, is Ignatieff’s own. He left his post at Harvard and entered Canadian politics on a wave of high hopes in 2005, won a seat in Parliament in 2006, rose to become leader of the Liberal Party, and thus of the official opposition, in 2009, and then, in the federal election of 2011, which he had helped precipitate, he led his party to the greatest defeat in its history and left the field badly beaten.

In Fire and Ashes he tries to understand the debacle and explain what drew him into politics in the first place, why he failed, and what deeper knowledge, both of himself and of the game that defeated him, he might reclaim from the ashes. And although he wants us to read the book as an “analytical memoir” rather than as a standard political autobiography, it is really a cautionary tale about the perils awaiting thoughtful men who are moved to act out the ancient dream of bringing bright ideas into the fog of political life.

The story begins at a dinner in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in late 2004, hosted by three mysterious “men in black.” At the time Ignatieff was fifty-seven and had, for the past four years, been head of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard …

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