No matter how bizarre the events in Paul Martin's political life, he manages to make them sound ordinary. No matter what happens, he finds a way to convince us that nothing is happening. Our Prime Minister is a poet of the humdrum, a virtuoso of ennui. He apparently believes he should never say anything memorable -- because, after all, someone might remember it.
That's his style, and while it puts many of us to sleep it may be sound politics. Long ago it worked for Mackenzie King. It may work again.
This week Martin proved he can go to Tripoli, sit in a tent for a chat with one of the world's most appalling tyrants and make it sound as exciting as a federal-provincial conference. He apparently found it entirely unremarkable that he should be forging bonds of friendship, and exchanging political views, with Muammar Gaddafi, who has made his career as a dissident-killing dictator. Gaddafi, as Martin pointed out, has promised to mend his ways; he even submitted to advice from Martin on improving his human-rights practices, which would have to improve a great deal just to be terrible. In return, Gaddafi outlined his plan to have Israelis and Palestinians unite as one country, to be called Isratine.
Nothing unusual there, apparently. As for the camels, the tent and the big bonfire laid on by the Libyans, it was all in a day's work.
Martin did acknowledge that it wasn't exactly ordinary, but pointed out that people who come to Canada from the southern nations must find Ottawa snowbanks surprising. That's one way of looking at it, though I'm not sure that anyone else on Earth would consider those two experiences comparable.
Martin has recently brought the same sleepiness to his year-end interviews, smothering the events of the last 12 months in a thick layer of apathy. Bear in mind that since he became leader a scandal inherited from his predecessor has caused him to lose Quebec, lose his parliamentary majority and come close to losing his first election. But when he looks back on this landscape of political horror he sounds like the coach of a high-school hockey team on a short losing streak. "What I've got to do is to focus," he confessed on Global TV, "and focus on really where the main priorities are. That takes a certain amount of discipline, which I guess I'm learning to do."
Perhaps a numb passivity may be simply the Canadian way. Richard Addis, the British journalist who was editor of The Globe and Mail for three years, found our leaders disappointing for just this reason. He was used to British politicians who, on meeting journalists, show off their wit and try to demonstrate some originality. Their Canadian equivalents make no similar effort. Chris Cobb, in his book Ego and Ink, quotes Addis: "They are much less articulate and confident than British politicians. They seem to have less need to be interesting and would bore you to death with details. I think Paul Martin may be the world's most boring man."
Martin operates, so far as we can tell, on the assumption that lively words and vigorous debates cause nothing but trouble. His decision to avoid a referendum on gay marriage follows that principle. You get people talking and you never know what they might say.
In the U.S. Martin would be immediately classified as a natural Republican, if we follow the typology David Brooks recently outlined in a New York Times column. Brooks argued that Republicans and Democrats approach ideas in different ways. "When Democrats open their mouths, they try to say something interesting." If the truth is too obvious, they say something original anyway, even if it's idiotic. Republicans, on the other hand, don't care about being clever. "When they actually stumble upon an idea, they are so delighted they regurgitate it over and over again. Where others might favor elaboration, Republicans favor repetition." That's Martin. He shows no desire to say something his listeners haven't already heard.
Some are born boring, some achieve boredom and some have boredom thrust upon them. For Martin it's natural. He doesn't need to strain. This is a man who names A.Y. Jackson as his favourite painter and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as his favourite movie. My guess is that he believes boring works best and distrusts anything he can't reduce to the level of tedium. In that he may be the perfect Canadian politician.