Who's afraid of liberals?
Many commentators have picked up on the parts in Lawrence Martin's book that deal with the Prime Minister's "visceral" hatred of Liberals. My colleague Chantal Hebert has explored it more today, comparing it to Gilles Duceppe's antipathy toward the Liberal party, while the Globe's Jeffrey Simpson sees shadows of Nixon in all this.
Because I've been covering Harper all the way back to the early 1990s, I remember when this hatred had another target(s). First I remember it was Brian Mulroney and the federal Conservative party at the time. Harper was fixated on their destruction. Then, when he parted company with Preston Manning, his contempt was directed at all the Manning loyalists in the Reform Party. (Have you noticed that their praise of their old friend and co-worker, now in power, is quite faint?) Then, when Harper came back to Ottawa to lead the Canadian Alliance, I remember it was impossible to have a conversation with him without getting some withering ridicule directed at Joe Clark and the Progressive Conservative party. And it really was withering -- Harper does contempt well.
Now it's the Liberals. And here's the secret to Harper -- he doesn't value people with whom he shares friendships or old associations (that's why you get former loyalists like Tom Flanagan, Gerry Nicholls on the outs with him). He values people who share his enmity and his single-minded fixation on destroying his enemies of the moment. Look at his favourite word in the Commons (see previous post) and that of his most loyal lieutenant, John Baird.
His former press secretary, Carolyn Stewart-Olsen, is Exhibit A in this regard. (She's now a senator.) I never understood why someone who was so bad with the media was kept within the Harper circle while very smart communications folks -- who actually had an understanding of journalism and a professional attitude about them -- were repeatedly churning in and out of that office. Then, on the first prime ministerial trip to Afghanistan in 2006, I figured it out.
We were at a stopover in Pakistan and I approached Stewart-Olsen to get clarification on something. She started explaining where Harper stood and then went off on some crazy tangent about Liberals. She was awfully angry; this seemed personal -- not to mention, totally off-topic. I had no idea why we were suddenly talking about something a Liberal backbencher had said or done three years ago. I wanted to say: "Calm down. You won. You're in power now. Relax."
By now, nearly five years later, we in the media are used to this. The worst thing you can call someone in Harperland is a Liberal. Hence, Lawrence Martin is dismissed as a "big-L Liberal" by the PMO after his book is released. Being a liberal, small-l or big-L, is something for which people, in Conservative Ottawa, should be deeply ashamed. There's an element of hysteria to all this too -- witness the slightly off-the-rails, anti-Liberal rhetoric of Lawrence Cannon and Jim Flaherty in recent speeches to non-political audiences.
A few months ago, I saw a quote that keeps rattling around my head. It's from philosopher Eric Hoffer, a man himself who apparently celebrated his standing as an anti-intellectual, anti-elite outcast. Here's the quote:
"You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you."
That is enormously useful information in the hyper-partisan capital right now. The more that the word "Liberal" is used as a swear word, the more I wonder where that fear is coming from.