Who is Stephen Harper? - Globe and Mail Article

www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/ RTGAM.20060114.wxibbitson0114/BNStory/specialDecision2006
Anyone read this article before? It's an interesting read. I just hope Mr. Harper is elected next week now
Haggis McBagpipe
The problem with Globe & Mail articles is, they are usually destined to disappear after seven days, at which point they become pay-to-view.

For that reason only, I think Globe & Mail articles are best to be cut-and-pasted rather than just linked.

This particular article is worth the read. I have always been a Liberal, and have long loathed Harper. At the moment, I am giving him the benefit of the doubt. Turns out that it isn't quite cut-and-dry with him, he is more complex and interesting than I had previously imagined.

Who is Stephen Harper?

Saturday, January 14, 2006
From Saturday's Globe and Mail

After failing to bring down the Martin government last spring, Stephen Harper disappeared. He didn't just disappear from public sight. His staff couldn't reach him either. He wouldn't return calls, avoided meetings. He was sulking, and he was thinking.

And then he came back. “He decided he was willing to give it one more shot,” as someone who was there describes it. The Conservative Leader threw himself into preparations for the election campaign to come; he subjected himself to a barbecue-circuit pre-election tour; he made changes to his staff, resolved to control his notorious temper, and hammered out a detailed policy platform that aimed to put to rest Liberal accusations of a secret Conservative agenda.

It was worth the effort. Some time in early February, unless the plurality of you who now support him change your mind, Stephen Harper, at the age of 46, will become the 22nd prime minister of Canada. You probably know his policies and his priorities, though some of you still suspect his motives and his agenda.

But voters don't cast a ballot based exclusively, or even primarily, on the platforms of competing parties. They vote for the guy they trust most, or distrust least. It is probably fair to say that Stephen Harper is winning this election because he is less distrusted than Paul Martin.

But the question still hangs out there: Who is Stephen Harper? What is he like? Is he really that cold and remote? How would he react in a crisis?

What kind of a prime minister would Stephen Harper make?

One clue to an answer might lie in his asthma.

Mr. Harper has suffered from asthma since childhood. Even today, it can hamper his performance, bothering him for weeks at a time, and then abating. When Mr. Harper was young, asthma limited his ability to play team sports, especially his beloved hockey (although he has never been comfortable playing on a team).

He compensated by taking up track and field in high school. One person who has watched him suspects asthma might contribute to a tendency Mr. Harper has to fade in the final stretch of a long campaign.

Mr. Harper is an avid reader of biography (and history and economics and politics and philosophy; as for fiction, not so much), so he will know that a common denominator informs the early lives of most prominent figures. Something — some disability, some circumstance — removes exceptional people from the pack at a young age, leaving them isolated, but also leaving them able to assess objectively, from the outside, what others inside the pack simply take for granted.

This may be reading too much into a common ailment. “Asthma has been a factor, at times,” acknowledges John Weissenberger, one of Mr. Harper's oldest friends. “But I wouldn't make too much of it. It comes and goes.”

Whether it was asthma or something else, Mr. Harper arrived in Calgary after a middle-class, suburban Toronto upbringing a formidably intelligent but very introverted young man, attracted to the outsider mythology of the West, angry at the centrist, central-Canadian consensus of this country's political and intellectual elites, and impatient to shake that consensus.

“What drove him into politics was indignation, outrage,” argues commentator William Johnson, who has written a biography called Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada. It was ideology, not love of the game, that Mr. Johnson believes pushed Mr. Harper into public life.

“One thing that I would say about him, with great conviction, is that he's a straight arrow,” Mr. Johnson believes. “What you see is what you get. He's not good at acting or pretending. He doesn't weep with widows and hug every orphan in sight, and he won't wear a hundred hearts on his sleeve. By character and by principle he opposes all the photo ops and false sentiments” that are part of political theatre.

(This has contributed to the ongoing tension, sometimes shading into mutual hostility, between Mr. Harper and the media, which he considers too often biased, ill-informed and lazy. It has been said that one of the great transformations of this election campaign is that Mr. Harper no longer displays open contempt for the press gallery. Now he hides his contempt.)

The young Stephen Harper had no ambition, initially, to enter politics, planning instead to pursue a PhD in economics and to craft a persona as a public intellectual.

But the drift of Mulroney conservatism away from any semblance of a libertarian agenda brought Mr. Harper to the Reform Party, and ultimately to a seat in Parliament; his impatience with Preston Manning's populism sent him fleeing to the ideologically more comforting National Citizens' Coalition; the disarray of the Canadian Alliance party under Stockwell Day lured him back into politics; the threat of unending hegemonic Liberal government under the then-popular Paul Martin spurred him to negotiate the union of the Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties, and the implosion of the Martin government and its troubled re-election campaign now has Mr. Harper on the cusp of real power.

In all that time, has he changed? Some, but not much.

One person who has known the man for a long time and remains profoundly ambivalent about him (and who asked not to be named), argues that the key to figuring out Mr. Harper is to understand that he always believes he is the smartest person in the room. University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan is perhaps Mr. Harper's closest political confidant, but the Conservative Leader has had no real mentor (something that personally disappointed Mr. Manning, who had hoped to be one) because he has never encountered anyone he considered markedly wiser than he is.

His enemies consider this arrogant, intolerant and narrow minded.

“He surrounds himself with like-minded people and doesn't want input from others who have a different viewpoint,” maintains Belinda Stronach, the star Conservative MP whose defection to the Liberal front bench saved the Paul Martin government from defeat last spring.

“Stephen never wanted anyone around who would challenge your ideas. If you did challenge his ideas, he would shut you out.”

To his friends, Mr. Harper's intellectual confidence is one of his greatest strengths. Someone who knows Mr. Harper very well believes that people don't understand that he asserts strong views in order to have them challenged. What he really wants, this person believes, is to be confronted by someone who is prepared to stand up and state an opposing case. If that case is compelling enough, Mr. Harper will modify his stand, as he has on everything from bilingualism to multiculturalism to abortion, where his views have migrated closer to the mainstream.

That is not political opportunism, his supporters maintain; that is simply a young man maturing.

Then there is the question of his temper. Mr. Harper's can be formidable. (It seems to be an occupational hazard with politicians.) The Conservative Leader may end most speeches with “God bless Canada,” but when he loses his temper he can let forth a stream of profanity that would make a longshoreman blanch. When things go very wrong, he simply disappears, something he has done repeatedly during times of political crisis, from the day he discovered Preston Manning wasn't listening to advice on fighting the Charlottetown accord, to the day Paul Martin kidnapped Belinda Stronach from Mr. Harper's caucus.

Detractors maintain these retreats are displays of petulance: Stephen picking up the ball and going home. Others say no, it's simply how he thinks. He expects something to happen, it happens differently, so he retreats to examine his assumptions and plan a response. Considering that he has gone from being a graduate student to prospective prime minister in less than 20 years, this has to be said: It works.

He has succeeded in recent months in keeping his emotions more closely in check. In 2004, a frustrated Mr. Harper lashed out at aides when the campaign stumbled. This time, after a rocky start, he remained calm, rallying the team in a conference call and sloughing off a couple of campaign misfires.

He remains a control freak. Mr. Harper learned to delegate some of the details of campaign strategy this time out, but the word on the ground is that he still makes all the major decisions, including where to tour, and co-writes campaign press releases with Calgary MP Jason Kenney.

Mr. Johnson is right, and Canadians have long since figured it out: Mr. Harper lacks the ability to publicly empathize. It is unlikely that a Prime Minister Harper would ever speak for the people, comfort them, move them, as Bill Clinton did after the Oklahoma bombings, as Tony Blair did by reading from First Corinthians at Diana's funeral, as Paul Martin did at the memorial service for the police officers killed at Mayerthorpe. Mr. Harper is just not that kind of man.

But he is not an automaton. Mr. Harper was at the Mayerthorpe service, and when he recounted it later to his staff, tears filled his eyes. When the family cat was run over by a car outside Stornoway, Mr. Harper was distraught. The staff in his office circulated a condolence card, and not in jest.

And he has his passions. He is writing a book on the history of hockey, and has been working on it every night, even during the campaign. Mr. Harper knows a lot about hockey. In the last election campaign, the Air Canada crew circulated a hockey trivia quiz, Mr. Harper won, with only one wrong answer, which he promptly challenged, claiming the answer on the quiz was wrong. (Whether Mr. Harper or the quizmaster was right has been lost in the mists.)

He is equally passionate about movies, often citing lines or scenes from films both popular and obscure to make a point with staff. And although Mr. Harper doesn't appear to have any long-time friends he feels comfortable kicking back with — “Stephen is not a kick-back kind of guy,” one observer puts it — everyone agrees he draws strength from his wife Laureen, his emotional opposite, an outgoing, lively confident woman, “a farm girl from Alberta who drinks beer from a bottle” as one person put it, who travelled the world on her own when she was younger, and who started up and ran her own communications company. They have two children, Ben, 9, and Rachel, 7, who Mr. Harper walks or drives to school every morning.

He has mellowed in recent years, say his defenders; not enough, say his detractors. For Rick Anderson, an independent consultant and former aide to Preston Manning, this is the crucial question.

“If Stephen Harper is a success as a prime minister — and I think all of us would want him to succeed — it will be because of the ways he has matured over the past five or 10 years, as we have all matured, and learned to combine his idealism with respect for the views of others,” Mr. Anderson says.

And if he fails, “it will be because he has not learned that wisdom.”

And what is success? By Mr. Harper's standards it would be realigning the responsibilities and fiscal resources of the federal and provincial governments, lessening the chronic warfare between them; toughening the federal stand against secessionism in Quebec, while bolstering federalist forces; expanding the military, increasing productivity and lowering taxes, while preserving a balanced budget and paying down the national debt; restoring public trust (or at least reducing public disillusion) in the federal government and its public service.

It is a bold, controversial and potentially polarizing agenda: Only a very skilled prime minister could manage it.

There are two contradictory attitudes that a successful politician must embrace. The first is a sense of confidence: knowing who you are, what you want to accomplish, how you plan to get there. The second is a sense of humility: You must be able to recognize when you have made a mistake, learn the right lessons and grow as a result.

Mr. Harper emphatically possesses the first half of this necessary contradiction. He has demonstrated that he grasps the importance of the second half. But even those who know him best admit he has yet to master the art of reconciling and embracing the two.

And that is where Stephen Harper is at, on the brink.

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