On the Hill – A Star is Born

This week, Canada is revelling in Obama-mania. Ever since the new US president announced that his first official foreign visit would land him in Ottawa, the media (along with countless security personnel) have been building toward the big moment when the plane door would open and Obama would appear.

What would he say? What would he wear? How would he and our notoriously rigid prime minister get along?

The excitement is understandable. It’s been a long, painful dry spell since our southern neighbours have been blessed with a leader who is that rare combination of intelligence, common sense, charisma, and, dare we say it about a politician, principles. (Even the Kennedy glamour was tarnished by JFK’s many affairs.)

It’s no surprise that Canadians are excited as well. Compared to the juvenile partisanship that passes for Parliament Hill these days, Obama seems to hold the promise of a leader who can rise above time-wasting antics and get things done.

In fact, some of that aura has already started to rub off on one of our own politicians: Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. But even without a shaky minority government and the lingering threat of an election, appeal-by-association is a dangerous thing.

There’s no doubting that Ignatieff is intelligent. He’s studied at Oxford and Harvard, and has taught at universities around the world. He’s well versed in humanitarian law and minority rights, and has won the Governor General’s award for non-fiction. He’s also no stranger to hard work, having started his political career over 40 years ago by knocking on doors for Lester B. Pearson.

If an election is called (and if Ignatieff still happens to be Liberal leader), those are the qualities we should be judging him, or any other leader, on?not the six-degrees-of-separation game.

St├ęphane Dion’s seat had barely cooled before the media were playing up the Obama-Ignatieff associations, no matter how tenuous they were. As the Globe and Mail reports, ?the two politicians . . . have several close friends in common.? These include Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard and head of the White House National Economic Council. Summers and his wife have reportedly vacationed with the Ignatieffs in the south of France.

Ignatieff himself isn’t shy about promoting the ties. ?I just pick up the phone to some of my friends in his administration,? he said on CTV’s Question Period about his White House connections.

When it comes to dinner parties or grabbing a plum Senate seat, those associations do matter. Ignatieff and Obama may well have long, friendly chats on the phone. They may even share common ground when it comes to foreign policy. But with the very real possibility that a non-confidence vote could take us back to the polls at any time, we’d do well to remember that knowing someone is not the same as being someone.

Liberal, Conservative, or Green, Canadians need real, effective leadership now more than ever. And it really shouldn’t matter whether those leaders are on the new president’s BFF list.

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