The question immediately, in anonymous quotes and Conservative attacks, was one of leadership. Before he could even begin to go about trying to lead, he was defined as weak and cowardly, pursued by numerous rivals who, while they hadn’t been able to beat him in a year-long campaign, were apparently better, stronger, more deserving captains. For months he was mocked without riposte. Maybe a more archetypal politician might’ve been able to transcend this, might’ve reassured those who doubted his abilities. But, in Dion’s case, all that made him who he was only seemed to confirm what his opponents purported him to be. All that he supposedly stood in opposition to, he now needed to personify. And so maybe the question is how we now define leadership. Or how we know a leader when we think we see one.
There’s always a lot of second-guessing in a campaign like this but the campaign – and Dion’s leadership – were probably over 18 months ago. As Wherry laments above, within months of surprising everyone and winning the leadership, Tory ads had defined him as weak, the media had bought into that narrative, and the knives were being sharpened. I shudder to think of what would happen today to a wooden and uninspiring civil servant named “Lester” who talked with a lisp, wore bow ties, and lost his first two elections. It’s pretty clear that the days of a “not a leader” like Pearson becoming Prime Minister are long gone.
It became common to refer to Dion as “an honest politician and decent human being” during the dying days of the campaign, as if these were horrible character flaws holding him back from becoming Prime Minister. At the same time, voter apathy reached all-time highs, because of cynicism towards politics and politicians. Go figure. Maybe Dion needed the “bastard side” Will Ferguson talks about. Maybe he needed to be more pragmatic. Maybe the failure was not in the product but in how it was marketed.
When all is said and done, the problem is that Dion wasn’t “an honest politician” – he was “an honest man” thrust into the job of politician, a job he just wasn’t well suited for. Brilliant academic, yes. Passionate fighter of Canadian unity, no one can deny. Talented Cabinet Minister, you betcha. But as a politician? It just wasn’t his calling.
Even if you were never a big fan of Stéphane Dion and even if you think the party will be better served under new leadership, it’s hard not to feel at least a little bit sorry for the man. The story of Paul Martin’s leadership was probably a “greek tragedy” – for Dion, it was very much a geek tragedy.