One on one: Mansbridge and the PM
This week, we've been treated to a two-part interview on CBC between Peter Mansbridge and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. If you haven't seen the interview, you may have seen the headlines, or read the transcript (in two parts, here and here.)
But you should see the full interview (video available through links above); not just read it. And here are a few reasons why:
Mansbridge didn't walk into that interview looking for talking points. Far too often, especially when time is limited, we reporters throw questions at politicians that amount to a recitation of a recent development and "so what are you saying about that?" And the politicians -- can't blame them -- respond with their poll-tested, advisor-sanctioned lines. What was interesting about the interview, especially the first part, was the way in which Mansbridge asked Harper to measure himself by his own standards -- presenting him with past statements and positions and asking him to reconcile the past Harper with the current one.
On that point...
Harper, as we all know, is a smart man, and not because he stays up late in his office signing papers. In my long years of covering Harper in opposition and talking to him through those years, what really distinguished him as a politician, in my view, was his ability/willingness to see the world through the eyes of his opponents. I can't tell you how many times I talked to him about the Liberals; how he was analyzing the leadership style of Chretien and Martin, why they would do what they were doing. That's just basic smarts -- how do you win over non-supporters unless you understand why they're backing your adversary and how your foes tick? But it's surprising how few politicians will do that very thing -- respecting their challengers. It's also surprising how little of it Harper has done as PM, wasting his time and growth potential on lashing out at perceived enemies everywhere. It's never been clear to me how he expects to lure people away from other parties when he's casting them as stupid or evil all the time. Or, as one Conservative said, hilariously, a few weeks ago: "Memo to (new chief of staff) Nigel Wright: Let's only be a--holes when there's a net benefit to being a--holes."
Anyway, back to the point -- watch Harper in the interview with Mansbridge. He's watching Peter carefully, trying to understand where he's coming from, anticipating the questions, looking for clues about where the interview is going next. He even pauses and offers an analysis of the trendline in the questions, noting his surprise that the CBC has been coming to him from "the right."
Some people have interpreted the body language as nervousness on the part of Harper, or hostility toward the CBC. But on some reflection, I see it differently: I think Harper was reminded of his past self: the guy who's more intrigued by challenge than sycophancy. I suspect he doesn't get much of that in his current job, where, as he's boasted, he makes the rules, and it seems to be a guiding PMO principle to crush anything but slavish praise and devotion. It must have been somewhat refreshing for Harper to be out of his comfort zone; it's good for all politicians to do that from time to time.
On my local CBC radio yesterday, Canadian Press bureau chief Rob Russo said this interview will probably be studied by historians and political scientists for a real glimpse into the man who's leading Canada at present. I think Russo is right. But don't wait to watch the interview in the future -- give it a look now.