Out to make Harper ‘a hell of a guy’

Out to make Harper ‘a hell of a guy’

by Gloria Galloway
Focus / May 7, 2005 / The Globe and Mail

Ottawa — Stephen Harper’s recent tour of Southwestern Ontario took him to a Wallaceberg children’s rehabilitation centre, where his handlers sat him at a knee-high table to join toddlers as they finger-painted pictures of trees.

With cameras rolling and reporters jostling for the best view of the disconsonant scene, the Conservative leader leaned away from the paint-covered hands of the youngsters and muttered a quick “Don’t touch me.”

He loosened his tie, looking very much like Rodney Dangerfield under pressure.  Then, for five minutes, he sat there tortured for something meaningful to say to his tiny companions.

It wasn’t until the reporters were ushered from the room that he was able to relax and enjoy the staged exercise.

The 46-year-old Mr. Harper has taken baby steps to improve his public persona since he watched his chance to govern slip away during the last federal election.  He makes jokes, some of them funny.  He throws snowballs at reporters when the cameras are not running.  He even smiles occasionally, though certainly not often.

Now, another shot at the nation’s top job is looming.  But has Mr. Harper come far enough to convince voters that he has the human touch needed to be prime minister?
When Canadians are polled, they say they trust Mr. Harper more than Paul Martin.  They say they believe he is more likely to rid Ottawa of corruption.  But when asked who would make the best prime minister, they give Mr. Martin the edge.

This is not lost on the Conservatives who are trying to lay the groundwork for the fast-approaching election campaign.  Their leader is intelligent.  He is perceived as a thinker and someone of integrity.  But they wonder if he will ever be able to kiss babies with credibility.

“What I see is that the general electorate does not like Harper.  And they look for things for him to do or say that justify their gut feeling that they have about him,” one high-placed Tory organizer says.

“This is a guy whose entire life in politics has been based on negativity so far,” the organizer says.  He’s “cold, cold, cold, cold, cold.  He doesn’t seem to like people, he doesn’t seem to like to go out and talk to people.  He’s so weird how he approaches things.”
Barry McLoughlin of McLoughlin Media, a media-consultancy firm in Ottawa, says what Mr. Harper seems to lack is the “HOAG” – hell of a guy – factor.

Mike Harris “had the hell-of-a-guy factor going for him.  Gary Doer in Manitoba, he’s got the hell-of-a-guy factor.  Most successful politicians have got the-hell-of-a-guy factor,” says Mr. McLoughlin, who has coached current party leaders but is emphatic that none used his services before the last election campaign.

“Do we see enough of [Mr. Harper] outside of a suit, outside of the House?  Do we see him in our living rooms in a way that we can relate to him and, more importantly, can he relate to us?”

In fact, Mr. Harper has occasionally worn golf shirts – something that inevitably prompts the media to comment on his middle-aged paunch.  He just looks better in a suit and tie.
He also lacks the physical and verbal mannerisms that put people at ease, says Shelle Rose Charvet, who runs Success Strategies, a firm based in Burlington, Ont., that teaches communication skills.

“He doesn’t respond when other people make gestures.  So you can be talking and he will not move.  It’s like a machine,” Ms. Rose Charvet says.

“You have no idea what’s going on in the black box.  His eyes don’t flicker” – eyes that have been referred to as icy blue so often that the phrase has become a cliché.

Linguistically, she says, he relates to people as things.  He’ll “refer to the electorate, as opposed to people who vote . . . . He uses impersonal nouns to refer to people.  He’ll talk about the group or the population.”

But do Canadians really need a nice guy to lead their country?  Isn’t it enough to have someone who can keep the economy on an even keel, preserve the social fabric and keep us out of hot water internationally?

“They need a nice guy in as much as, at some levels, people want a leader to reflect who they think they are,” Ms. Rose Charvet says.  “And Canadians, as a population, like to think they’re nice – so our leader has to be nice.”

One of the strangest things about Mr. Harper’s icy public persona is that, more than many past prime ministers, he is an everyday kind of guy, Mr. McLoughlin says.

He has a tremendous sense of humour and a deadly accurate ability to impersonate others, but that is rarely seen in public.

He is also a devoted father.  “You see him walking the neighbourhood with his kids to school and back,” he says.  On weekends, he plays road hockey in the driveway.

Compare that with Jean Crétien, a man Mr. McLoughlin says had a large dose of HOAG factor.  “Was he really the hockey-dad kind of dad?  Not really.  But you could easily decode from him that he was not a fancy guy – he was down to earth.”

The bottom line, Mr. McLoughlin says, is that Mr. Harper seems to be uncomfortable playing a role, playing for the cameras.  And “to be a successful politician, you have to be able to play a role,” he says – even when you are up to your elbows in finger paint.

Gloria Galloway is a member of The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau.

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