Historian Michael Ignatieff writes a memoir explaining why he failed in politics

Historians in the News

Michael Ignatieff’s eighteenth book [Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politicsir?t=thneyoreofbo-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0674725] sets out to tell a tale that, in its outlines, is almost mythic. A writer and intellectual at the pinnacle of his powers is approached by a trio of shadowy envoys from a former life. These “men in black,” as he somewhat ominously calls them, invite him to return home to a country he has not lived in for most of his adult life. The reward they hold out, for which he must give up his present career, is the prospect of becoming the most powerful man in the land. He is flattered, but he also knows these men can’t simply hand him the prize; he will have to win it for himself. He also knows the idea is preposterous; after all, he has spent his adult life studying power but has never once exercised it. Yet the offer stirs ancestral memories, and he finds it too tantalizing to refuse. He returns home, confident that his country, with its well-known civility, will give him a friendly reception.

Instead, he’s met with a groundswell of hostility: rivals challenge his right to be there; opponents try to undermine his reputation. The more he tries to adapt, the emptier he feels. Within arm’s reach of his goal, he flings down the gauntlet and marches into battle for the crown. We know how it ends. In the classical mold in which this story is cast, actions born in hubris always lead to defeat.

The story, of course, is Ignatieff’s own. He left his post at Harvard and entered Canadian politics on a wave of high hopes in 2005, won a seat in Parliament in 2006, rose to become leader of the Liberal Party, and thus of the official opposition, in 2009, and then, in the federal election of 2011, which he had helped precipitate, he led his party to the greatest defeat in its history and left the field badly beaten....

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