“Events, dear boy, events.”
—Harold Macmillan when asked what, as Britain’s Prime Minister, he feared most
Forgive the cliché, but when it comes to American politics and Canada’s idolatrous fascination with them, a dreadfully overused quote from an Englishman proved irresistible this week.
I thought of Macmillan as most of my friends in eastern Canada were commenting upon the election of a separatist government in Quebec and most in western Canada (albeit with jaded glances and yawns to the east) watched instead the U.S. Democratic National Convention.
What struck me was how so many of them are convinced that the character and the plan of a single human being can change the world, when most often it is the unanticipated challenges the world’s events present that reveals our character, changes our lives, and even completely alters the mandate and the legacy of even the most powerful men on the planet.
No one is better at putting on show than the Americans, who are such masters of marketing and spectacle that they have convinced the world that NFL football is an entertaining sport. If they can turn seven minutes of movement—most of which is very large men stirring up clouds of dust—into three-and-a-half hours which generate billions in wealth and entertain hundreds of millions, it is little wonder they convince people that presidential candidates can be temporal saviours. Certainly the Democrats did not disappoint in leaving that impression. Neither, the previous week, had the Republicans. Former president Bill Clinton, despite being a disbarred lawyer and a notoriously impeached philanderer, is a masterful speaker. As are President Obama and Governor Romney.
During the broadcasts, many of my friends and my brother (who is a dual citizen) merrily commented online, staking out partisan positions. To Canadians, this is like trying to figure out which man should marry their sister. The outcome is not our call but we know the choice will impact our lives. We live in one of the very few countries in the world to have but a single neighbour to worry and complain about. Americans, on the other hand, have borders with two neighbours and seem happy enough with Canadians provided we keep the snow shovelled and the lawn cut. Most of their attention seems to be drawn to the at times noisy parties going on in the neighbour’s place to the south.
Still, I am confused why Canadians get as passionate as they do about these matters. The awesome responsibility placed on the shoulders of a U.S. president seems to pretty much ensure they must govern within a couple of percentage points—say two or three to the left or right—of their centre. And what seems to determine the difference between successful and unsuccessful presidents is not their ideological bent: it’s their ability to get legislation through a stunningly undisciplined congressional structure. And, most of all, their success and failure are determined by Macmillan’s “events.”
Who knows, for instance, what George W. Bush would or would not have done but for the “events” of Sept. 11, 2001—a day of such enormity less than nine months into his mandate? As his former secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice, put it, “Every day after that [for almost eight years] was September 12.”
Similarly, incumbent President Obama was designed and nominated as one to inspire and lead hope for a new age, a fresh American face on the planet and, just maybe, the final chapter if not the end of America’s race-torn history. There was enough momentum in this that “the events” of September 2008, when the economies of the western giants plummeted to breathtaking depths, only further inspired his election in the midst of a financial meltdown. Qualified as he may be as a leader of social change, the poor man was uniquely unqualified for the “events” laid at his doorstep. America may have and still might want a prophet to lead a new social vision, but what “events” have really demanded is an economist.
Despite all the rhetoric and all the heaving to and fro, there is much reason for us to manage our own expectations and understand that we are not in control. No matter whom Americans choose as their leader in November, his chances of success will have more to do with being the man who can meet the challenges the hour demands than being the man who rules the hour.