The Life, Steve Paikin

Penguin Canada, 2002 paperback reprint of 2001 original, 326 pages, C$24.00 tp, ISBN 0-14-029370-1

As I write this, Canadians are in the middle dog-days of a federal election, and the first of the political party leaders’ debate is playing on the TV screen.  By this time in the process, even die-hard political junkies such as myself are nearing exasperation.  The modern electoral campaign is a carefully staged ritual designed to minimize surprises.  Since the beginning of this year’s election, the leaders are saying the same things, polls haven’t moved an inch and we’re left to contemplate politics at their most partisan, which is pretty much the same as saying politics at their dullest.  The debate is a case in point, as leaders once again trot out the same tired arguments, cross-talk without engaging in meaningful “debate” and manage to use many words to say very little.  The kabuki ritual of elections isn’t fooling anyone, and it’s enough to make you wonder why anyone would ever want to go in politics.

It’s exactly at times like these that Steve Paikin’s The Life becomes essential reading.  Paikin, who has long worked for Ontario’s public broadcaster TV Ontario, is not your usual pack political journalist: He hosts current-affair shows, interviews guests, writes books and produces feature length documentaries.  He’s respected enough to have been asked to moderate the federal leaders’ election debate three times.  A long-form journalism specialist, Paikin has the advantage of studying politicians without being caught in the trap of daily news cycles.

In The Life, Paikin deliberately steps away from the cynicism with which most people regard politicians to ask Why would anyone want to get into politics?  Most of the book is a series of linked profiles, based on interviews and press clippings, describing the political life of Canadian politicians no matter their level or political affiliation.  Since Paikin is based in Toronto, it’s no surprise to see that most of the profiles are about Toronto and Ottawa.  In the opening chapter of the book (“The Crusaders”), for instance, Paikin discusses the careers of Lewis MacKenzie (PC/Federal), Frances Lankin (NDP/Ontario), Pam Barrett (NDP/Alberta) and Derwyn Shea (PC/Ontario).

Each politician’s life and career is told crisply, with readable prose and a storyteller’s skill.  Don’t be surprised if everyone in the book comes across as a better kind of politician than you may expect: Paikin may not completely indulge in hagiography, but his aim is to present the politicians’ side of the story.  The long hours campaigning, the unfair reversals of fortune due to no fault of their own; the bitter choices faced by people in power…  The Life aims to present politicians as regular people stuck in a high visibility job with considerable downsides.

It’s useful to note that ten years after publication, The Life may be more interesting now than ever before.  Paikin’s examples are drawn from 1960 to 2000, which may reduce the partisan sting of some of his subjects to 2011 readers.  Ten years is practically forever in politics, and Paikin is careful never to assume too much political knowledge from his readers: he provides balanced context and tells stories as if readers were reading them for the first time –not an unreasonable assumption for a work of long-form journalism.  I was particularly interested by the stories surrounding Bob Rae’s NDP government in the early nineties: while I may have lived through the era, Paikin presents it according to the people who lived through the tough choices of the time –his description of the anguish of NDP backbenchers forced to vote on a “Social Contract” many didn’t believe in is particularly poignant in presenting the kind of impossible choices that regular politicians must face… and pay for.

Other highlights of the book are a joint comparison of the lives of provincial premiers William Davis and Peter Lougheed; a chapter on unelected “backroom boys”; the inspiring story of Alvin Curling, first black MP in Ontario’s history; and a momentous description of how Brian Mulroney gave “Eighty Minutes” of his time to Paikin.

It goes without saying that The Life presents politicians at their best and their most amiable, but their story often kept going after the book was published.  From 2011, we know the Alvin Curling’s tenure as Speaker of the House wasn’t without controversy; more crucially, we now know quite a few more things about Brian Mulroney and the Airbus/Schreiber affair than we did in 2001.  (Three words: “brown paper bags.”) Do these latter-day developments invalidate Paikin’s book?  Absolutely not.  The point of The Life is to make us consider the possibility that politicians may be human.  That despite our resentment for the power they hold (however tenuously) over our lives, they too can be regular people trying to do a job in trying circumstances.  It’s to Paikin’s credit that he’s able to deliver this thesis without appearing to fawn over his subjects, by simply telling their story from their point of view.

It amounts to a book that, well, may make you look at politicians differently.  As I edit this review weeks after the surprising end of the 2010 federal elections (in which Conservatives won an unexpected majority, the NDP became the unexpected official opposition and both the Liberal and the Bloc Québécois unexpectedly lost a significant chunk of votes), I do so with the renewed appreciation that elections can be exciting and campaigns may produce unexpected results.  As a number of brand-new federal MPs (one of them still in his teens) swear allegiance and take on a four-year term, I can’t help but think about the lives in The Life and wonder how they feel as ordinary people thrust in the spotlight.

[June 2010: Steve Paikin’s follow-up The Dark Side purports to tell us about the less-glamorous side of the political life, and it’s reasonably effective in doing so as it tells us about political betrayals, losses and scandals.  The style and tone of the book is very similar to The Life, presenting linked profiles in successive chapters.  But don’t let the title lull you toward false expectations: Paikin is too much of a nice guy to present the darkest stories of Canadian politics: many times, he’ll follow the defeats of his subjects by their redemption or their success in other fields.  While the book features the powerful story of Paul Dick (who attended 144 job interviews after losing his seat in the 1993 federal elections before re-entering the workforce as an entry-level stockbroker), most of the other stories seem far more optimistic.  Since the book remains interesting no matter what, this isn’t much a criticism.  Other the other hand, there’s a feeling that there remains a more scathing book to be written about the dark side of Canadian politics.]

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