07 September 2008

The Rhodes to Perdition

In his Globe column on Stephen Harper this first campaign weekend, Rex Murphy demonstrates an ability to observe but not see.

Murphy begins with a description of the television ads currently running:

They're from a series of seven, titled "At home with Stephen Harper." And very gentle, soft, fuzzy little minuets they are. In the jargon of PR, they try to "humanize" the Prime Minister.

He then writes:

Well, he's been running the country now for a bit more than 2½ years. We've seen him in the House. We've seen him at press conferences. We've seen him on his good days and on his bad. And the cumulative impression we have of him is already fixed.

and then proceeds to a glowing description of the Prime Minister:

For all his angularity, occasional harshness and remoteness, Canadians recognize him as a leader. They see him, in the main, as competent and determined. They are not embarrassed when he goes abroad. They know he has intelligence to spare. And despite his chilliness of manner (which I expect is as much a product of shyness as arrogance), he's a decent man who loves his country. For good or ill, that's the package - and in the campaign about to unfold, from the Conservatives' perspective, it's mainly for the good.

While noting that he does not agree with the "premise" of the television ads designed to "humanize" Harper, as Murphy puts it, Murphy is prepared to list the qualities we know and pronounce them as placing Harper well ahead of the other party leaders, particularly Stephan Dion.

Murphy's observation may well be accurate in the long run; Harper and his party may well win the election.

What he does not see - or at least does not show signs of seeing  - is that Murphy, like Canadians across the country, has not seen Stephen Harper at all.

We have observed the premise of Stephen Harper. We get the assumption on which we are supposed to base our vote.

That is,  we watch minuets,  to use Murphy's word:  carefully scripted dances.

We have observed that this Prime Minister is visible outside those carefully contrived moments as we have of Dion, Layton and other political leaders in Canada current and former.

As a Canadian who lives at one end of the country but who is no less removed from the mainstream of national media as anyone living in Toronto, your humble e-scribbler cannot recall anything of Harper that was not scripted.



As with the television ads, fake.

It is that inherent sense of falseness  - designed not by public relations people as Murphy states but advertising types - that Murphy and others ought to find unsettling.

Murphy forgets the great set-to between the parliamentary press gallery and the Prime Minister's Office on the point of control. it was about nothing more than establishing tight and unrelenting control over what snippets of Stephen Harper Canadians are allowed to see.

Harper won that tussle as he inevitably would and from the moment he took office, Stephen Harper has presented to the world only that much of himself and his government as fits the premise to be presented; nothing more and far, far less than we are used to or that we deserve. Rather than reducing the "Daddy" ads to a mere passing point, Murphy could more accurately have said that they are yet another element in a diligently mapped plan to gain power and to exercise that power to do something. 

The "something" unfortunately has not been approved for disclosure. We are not allowed to vote on what Harper will do, only on the pretty pictures all posed with precision. We are to assume it, and risk the dangers that go with every unchallenged assumption.

One of the hallmarks of leadership  - a word Murphy uses but does not define - is the ability to inspire men and women to attain a goal.  Barack Obama inspires.  He is able to describe in simple words the hopes and aspirations of millions of Americans in a way that invites them along on a journey.  He is seen, at ease, in the company of others and even alone on a stage amid tens of thousands of cheering Americans already committed to his political party, he seems to reach past the physical distance between himself and others.

Stephen Harper does not inspire.  His cold, aloof manner is not a virtue in this regard, as much as Murphy seems to think it does. It is a barrier between him and others.  It is a barrier that Harper's script writers are evidently conscious of and worried about. If they were not, they would not have come up with the ads featuring actors reading words written by others in an effort to "humanize" Harper.  They would not present Harper himself mouthing words. If they were not uneasy about Harper they would not have had someone pick precisely the right clothes in exactly the right shades of blue to convey exactly the picture they wished to others to see.  They would not have paid someone to cut and style his hair into a gray helmet that, if nothing else, looks right for whatever impression they desired to leave.

Obama, like all political leaders since the 1960s, is no less surrounded by the handlers, hairdressers, and writers;  it is just that we cannot see with him as obviously as we see with Harper the signs of their manipulations. The one is a skilled craft that is merely aimed at presenting a clear picture of the man. The elegance of their work is that is not evident. One suspects it is not evident because they are able to let the man speak for himself without worrying about the impression.

With Harper, we can see every pixel.

We see every line.

Every line pointing somewhere.

But we are not allowed to know - and during the campaign the managers will work hardest of all to ensure - that we do not know where those lines really point.

Perhaps from Toronto, Rex Murphy is too close to the screen to tell what road it is showing.