I like my politicians to admit that they're politicians
It is, without qualification, good that the four federal party leaders found a way to put aside their quarrels and attend ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of VE-Day. So, definitely with qualification, is Paul Martin's explanation of the decision: "I think we've got to put politics aside," he told reporters. "This is simply too important." He accidentally said something profound which, in his profession, is about the only way it happens. Remarkably, his utterance does not seem remarkable. Participants and observers of the political process nod sagely and move on. But wait. Try to imagine anyone in any other business talking that way.
If the French president were coming to town, would the chef charged with his care and feeding say, "I think we've got to put cuisine aside. This is simply too important"? Would the garage tuning up his limousine say, "I think we've got to put mechanics aside. This is simply too important"? And if he were nevertheless to suffer a traffic accident or food poisoning, would his attending physician tell the press, "I think we've got to put medicine aside. This is simply too important"? It is, transparently, unimaginable.
I could go on and on. Actually, I couldn't. My editor does not believe that in trying to make my column readable "we've got to put editing aside." Such a statement would be inexplicable babbling in his or any other profession. Yet in politics, we instinctively understand and sympathize. Indeed, from Jack Layton's disparaging of "political games" to endless proposals for arms'-length commissions and electoral reforms and independent counsellors to take the politics out of decisions, there is a determination verging on mania among politicians to remove their profession from their profession.
Of course they might all, by their own reckoning at least, be statesmen, not politicians. After all, a chef, in dismissing that lukewarm noodle and tasteless chicken ball with neon-red sauce thing you get in malls, might also deny that those who cooked it were "chefs." A skilled surgeon might call a hapless colleague a "butcher." A talented columnist might describe yours truly as a "hack."
It would be a bit strange to be knee-deep in statesmen without a drop of statesmanship in sight. But I decided the subject was not too important for research. So I phoned the offices of each of the federal party leaders to ask, in essence: "Is it fair to say that your boss's profession is 'politician'?"
One of the prime minister's press secretaries unflinchingly answered "Yes." Perhaps they should have asked him first.
Someone in Gilles Duceppe's office asked, "What would they be instead?" but, after asking him, called back to say he "would describe himself more as a representative of his constituents of Laurier-Sainte-Marie of Montreal than a politician and usually he also says that he's a defender of the interests of Quebecers. It would be more appropriate." If asked flat out if he's a politician, "he would be a bit more precise. He would say 'Yes, but' or something like 'a form of' .... He would need a correction, that's for sure. He wouldn't just say 'Yes, I'm a politician.'"
Layton's office e-mailed back, "Mr Laytons profession is that of professor." (What, no apostrophe? Is higher education too important for punctuation?)
Stephen Harper's office did not respond.
I also checked "PROFESSION" on their parliamentary websites and found that Mr. Martin's is "Businessman, lawyer"; Mr. Duceppe's is "Union organiser"; Mr. Harper's is "Economist, lecturer, writer"; and Mr. Layton's is, indeed, "Professor." Gad. A kitchen full of food, pans sizzling away, and not a cook in the place. I think I'll eat somewhere else. Oh wait. I can't.
Samuel Johnson said, "It is not sufficiently considered, that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed." Indeed. There is much that we can't not know, but that we often manage not to think about, including that politics is sordid. We know it. But we talk, and legislate, as if politicizing health care will make us better; politicizing marriage will make us more loving; and politicizing economic decisions will make us wealthier. Now Mr. Martin has reminded us that it won't. (As for government without politics, the historical record surely shows it to be a cure worse than the disease.)
It really is of great importance that we understand the accidentally profound significance of the prime minister's remarks. And no, I don't think we've got to put journalism aside. This is simply too important.
[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]