FEDERAL LIBERAL LEADER Bob Rae’s citation of William Shakespeare was an indirect invocation also of a commonplace political euphemism — the putting aside of personal ambition “to spend more time with the family.” Announcing his decision yesterday not to run for permanent leadership, he produced the closing lines of Sonnet 25:
Then happy I, that love and am beloved/Where I may not remove nor be removed.
In my three decades and more parsing the grammar of electoral politics, I’ve yet to encounter a more political politician than Bob Rae. Every step of his early life seems in retrospect to have been toward the very thing he now declines. Born in Ottawa, in 1948, he was the son of an ambassador, working a Summer as a Parliament guide. At the University of Toronto he became involved in student politics, later attending Oxford (Balliol) and again U of T (Law School), briefly practicing labour law before running first as a Federal NDP candidate (in 1978) and afterward as a Provincial NDP candidate.
Not only political, but bookish as well, he no doubt gave a good measure of thought to his choice of literary allusion. This is, after all, the same man who chastized Mike Harris in a 1996 memoir — “From Protest to Power” — via a discussion of the conservative writer Edmund Burke. Rae had his taste of power but was unseated while unsated, and the opening lines of Sonnet 25 fittingly register a keen and apropos awareness of bitter fortune:
Let those who are in favour with their stars/Of public honour and proud titles boast/Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars/Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.
Lurking in the background of this early installment of the Shakespearean sonnet cycle is the poet’s looming rival — and here as well there is a parallel to be drawn by Mr. Rae. His rival is a younger man with a famous name, a recent and surprising boxing victory, and a successful Twitter account. The core irony of Shakespeare’s sonnet cycle, perhaps even the organizing principle, is the assertion that enduring love surpasses the temporary business of ambition and fame. The irony subsists in the fact that we encounter this notion in works celebrated for their genius across cultures and across centuries. Shakespeare bore no illusions concerning that which impels men toward glory. Love is not at the top of that list.
None of this, I think, is lost on the former Premier of Ontario. I suspect, as he looks back over his recent and mostly thankless work of keeping the bootless Liberals in the media spotlight, he sees himself in these lines too: “The painful warrior famoused for fight,/After a thousand victories once foiled,/Is from the book of honour razed quite,/And all the rest forgot for which he toiled.” Among the most disliked of contemporary Canadian politicians, he governed during the slaughterhouse years which brought down the senior Bush’s presidency and Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives and many others. He was both ambitious and foolish enough to attempt a comeback. But fortune had other plans.