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Richler sheds light on all-or-nothing nature of political campaigning in entertaining, groundbreaking political memoir

By Kate Malloy      

Noah Richler talks about his new book The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

Noah Richler, pictured jokingly trying to get into the East Block recently on the Hill. 'To my astonishment, when I did set about writing The Candidate I could find no book recounting a campaign from the ground, only memoirs from on high that were innately suspect.' The Hill Times photograph by Cynthia Münster
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OTTAWA—Noah Richler knew he likely wouldn’t win the Toronto riding of St. Paul’s in the last election, but he went for it anyway. In fact, NDP MP Craig Scott asked him if he wouldn’t mind running to lose. So after prospecting the Liberals, but getting his “hackles up” over the “immaculate lawyer-cool suaveness” of the Grits’ “brand,” the celebrated author, journalist, and son of the late and legendary author Mordecai Richler, said he certainly wouldn’t mind running as a sacrificial lamb for the NDP and was recruited. He stumbled into the 78-day 2015 campaign late, with $350 in the bank, zero political experience, and a ton of naivety in his back pocket.

But he also started to want to win.

The 56-year-old rookie candidate was impatient for a new government and tired of the Conservatives’ fear narrative. No slouch, he figured he had something to offer the NDP. The award-winning author of This is My Country, What’s Yours?: A Literary Atlas of Canada is intelligent, articulate, and funny. He has strong opinions on Canadian culture, identity, and foreign policy, and he had a fire in his belly. So he figured out how to hire campaign staff, recruit volunteers, ask strangers for money, door-knock, and keep his mouth shut when told to by the party brass in Ottawa. Memorably, he put together one very funny video during the election mocking Justin Trudeau’s escalator ad, which went viral during the campaign, and another mocking a Peter Mansbridge interview with Stephen Harper, which got him into copyright trouble with the CBC.

We know how this story ends. The NDP lost 51 seats. Mr. Richler lost to incumbent Liberal Carolyn Bennett, the red fedora-wearing “legend” MP and well-known obstetrician “who delivered half the babies in the riding,” and who won it with 55 per cent of the vote. But Mr. Richler says he came through the experience with a cliché-sounding, however, very real sense of hope for Canadian democracy.

It’s all in his new book, The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, published by Doubleday Canada. Titled as a play on Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Mr. Richler’s The Candidate is a groundbreaking Canadian political memoir because of its honesty. He admits he was a heroin user in his late teens. He’s open and funny about what it’s like to door-knock, and he’s insecure, over-confident, sarcastic, and very witty, sometimes all at the same time, about life on the campaign trail. This is a refreshingly funny, well-written account of what it’s like to run for federal office in this country, from the ground.

You say you didn’t run in the October 2015 election to write about it, but you’re a writer. At what point did you think this would make a great book?

“It’s absolutely true that I did not run to write a book but to toss ideas into the ring and to try and win a seat in Parliament. That said, I have always thought of my writing as being political, no matter how seemingly anodyne, and I did also think it would be a good thing to have a writer in the House. This is a normal state of affairs in Latin America and Europe, though less so here. But there were moments when the writer’s ears, at least, were pricked—such as when my campaign’s financial team was unable to ascertain what money we had in the coffers and one of my trio of campaign managers, shaking her head at the door, said, ‘Don’t let anybody know about this, we’re trying for a government.’ But, come to think of it, the effort to balance the books proved, of course, a solely NDP concern and spending with no consideration of the bottom line is apparently now a virtue in government, so maybe my campaign manager was unduly worried.”

Your book is groundbreaking for Canadian political memoirs because it’s so candid and raw. Why did you want to write it?

“To my astonishment, when I did set about writing The Candidate I could find no book recounting a campaign from the ground, only memoirs from on high that were innately suspect. I am being utterly genuine when I say it was the zeal of volunteers, most of whom I saw in action but did not meet, that provided me not only the energy for the campaign, but the will to remember and celebrate it afterwards.

“To that end, it was very important to me to gather the first-person soliloquies that I did, and show in this manner that a campaign is the enterprise of the many and the candidate certainly not the boss. The book is not an NDP platform, though, of course, my sympathies are there, and if The Candidate is successful it will be because it appeals across party boundaries. You can be for Elizabeth May or Donald Trump; the democratic instincts are generally the same. If the book is ‘candid and raw,’ it’s because I wanted to reflect the all-or-nothing nature of campaigning—the intense energy and the way everything’s on show. And to at least point to the fact that our electoral choices are only partly rational. All sorts of absurdities, forces that are often extremely personal, also affect these choices.”

What was the best thing about running as a federal political candidate?

“The best thing for me is what is now: that I and my team did our utmost and ran a credible campaign and did so in good faith without hurting anyone. Democracy is a privilege, one that needs to be tended and that’s what we did. I am so happy that this fella who lost would still unequivocally recommend the experience. When I wrote the book—which I had to do in a very short time—I had the book and chapter titles first. The title of the last chapter, describing the election result and the days after, was, initially, ‘The Reckoning.’ I changed it to ‘Winning’ because that’s how it felt. We won. Our Canada is a better place because of what Tom Mulcair and the NDP managed so brilliantly for 10 years and when, by chance these days, I run into one of my confederates I am tremendously moved by the knowledge of what contributors to whatever is their vision of Canada they are. I don’t doubt all candidates feel this way.”

What was the worst thing? Was it hard to become a political candidate?

“Oh, I don’t know—what was the worst thing? That we lost. That a party I had been pleading with to show that it not only reflected, but was Canada in its astonishing diversity of age, gender, backgrounds, and diversity is, at least for the moment, no longer that. But I feel rosier than most about the state and future of the party, and if I had the time would relish naming all the parroting, idiot jounalists proclaiming, after Edmonton, the pointlessness of the NDP or even of a third party. I imagine the circus to the South may have led some to reflect on the fact that a choice of two candidates is—as Bryan Leblanc, a Liberal fixer friend of mine, aptly puts it—the bare minimum for a functioning democracy. The NDP is not the ‘party of conscience’—such a dull phrase of the Canadian political lexicon—that there is ‘a newspaper of record’ is another—but the party of invention. Of course, others relentlessly pinch its ideas. They’re good.”

Will you run in the next election? Why or why not?

“No, I don’t think so, though admittedly that’s a less emphatic answer than I was providing a few months ago. I certainly wouldn’t do so without the support of my partner, Sarah, though I will also admit that a part of me has noticed that her ‘absolutely not’ did recently become, ‘wake me up when it’s over.’ More seriously, I would only do so if I felt I had something to bring to the table. In 2015, that something was standing up to the Conservatives and their perversion of Canadian government as I’d been doing in my writing for years. Now I’m not so sure that I’d be bringing something to the table that was not already there. But I’m watching.”

At what point did you know you weren’t going to win the riding?

“It sounds unglamorous, but the candidate’s moments to be alone are few and one of mine happened using one of the washroom cubicles and the words ‘Liberal landslide,’ which it wasn’t quite, coming to mind. Then everything changed. But the precursor to that revelatory piss was the spectacle of The Globe and Mail-sponsored leaders’ debate on foreign policy, and seeing just how rabidly the crowd of almost entirely Toronto one percenters was baying, like a crowd at the Roman forum, for the defeat of the NDP pretender. It didn’t matter whether the next government was to be red or blue, as long as it wasn’t orange. But why should that have been a surprise? I didn’t need a House of Commons bear hug of former and present ministers of trade to prove there is virtually no difference between the two ruling parties to this country’s Toronto establishment.”

What is the biggest misconception about running for office?

“Well, I can’t speak for others, but my own biggest misconception was that the party brass would be phoning their brilliant new candidate to seek out his brilliant views on Canadian culture, identity, foreign policy, etc. But, of course, if anybody did actually read my stuff, it was only to vet for liabilities and as it turned out, they even did that badly. But I am sympathetic. Any large undertaking becomes, eventually, a human resources problem. Looking back, I am amused by my naivety.”

What is the single most important way to influence voters and to connect with them?

“There was a wonderful tension in our office between proven NDP veterans who came out to lead my campaign, and other more media savvy whom I brought onto the team. Each had a high regard for the other and the mix was fruitful. The vets wanted me canvassing at the door, always, but the truth is I came so late to the game that we needed, all the more, the brilliant social media campaign that was a vital part of our effort. It got me and our team into trouble because of a couple of videos that went viral: one, a takedown of now Prime Minister Trudeau and the other of Stephen Harper (though it was the CBC and not the CPC that behaved childishly and threatened to sue), and the handing over of ‘oppo-research’ intended to humiliate me—scurrilous Facebook and Twitter posts that I had written, the usual story. I suppose that suggests that social media have an extraordinary reach, but in truth I see the latter communications simply as another part of the industrious candidate’s toolbox. The best way to connect is to meet. But I did not have the time to do that, and if I had one piece of advice to someone with less experience than I, it would be to start early enough that this is not the case.”

Who is the most important person in a candidate’s election campaign?

“The volunteer that has the courage to canvass a transit stop in the morning rush hour. My heart goes out to these unknown soldiers of the political campaign. Hand them a medal. I loved canvassing at the door but feel only exhaustion at the memory of cheerily handing out flyers to fed-up commuters dimly aware that something in their lives had not gone as planned. It’s like painting a bullseye on your forehead. Save me.”

Your book is honest, funny, and refreshingly personal. Did you have to get approval from some people to write it first?

“Yes. The book is factual, to the word. No line is made up—but for the book’s fantasy sequences, of course. Who, that runs for office, does not dream of victory? This is not so hard today because the records of anybody’s lives in this digital age is extraordinary, in emails, on social media platforms and in intranet programs and so on, and I also documented much of the campaign myself simply as a matter of record. But, as I said, I had not set out to write a book, and so did feel I needed to seek the approval of anybody who might have felt purloined into the book against his/her/their will. I also did this with those players providing the book’s soliloquies, showing them my edits and, for context, the preceding and following page only. Others—colleagues still in the game or those with whom I had a professional political relationship—I did not show pages to, believing as I do now that what transpired is in the public interest to share. And, of course, Sarah sees everything. As did a couple of lawyers.”

What’s your take on Donald Trump winning the election?

“It’s easy to be smart after the fact. I was told early on that politics is all about twisting and turning and being right all along, but Hillary Clinton has always reminded me of Tom Mulcair in that there is something about her that was just unelectable, as we have seen confirmed now in all the critical figures of portions of the vote and getting the vote out in which she performed, across the board, worse than her predecessor Barack Obama.

“This is in no way a comment on Clinton’s abilities or character or readiness for the job, but about the simple and often mysterious quality of charisma. It’s a really hard slog to campaign for a leader who people just don’t like, and, out of necessity in a campaign, you blind yourself to this and just do the best job possible. Just think, for instance, how much easier it might have been to have had a Michelle Obama in that position. But the Democrats did not and so helped pave the way for Donald Trump whose success can be compared to Justin Trudeau’s. Both have celebrity status and made effective use of social media, both corralled significant numbers of new voters (different in nature) and got them to the ballot box, and, most importantly of all, both were effectively seen as a negation and a rebuke to the standing order.”

Why is this book important and who should read it?

“This is not really for me to say. Perhaps I can tell you instead that, to my enormous pleasure, I am receiving really sweet notes from folk who have already read the book—it’s an easy read. Like, for instance, the fella that wrote me this last week loving the book and promising to buy ‘Two more as Christmas gifts for some mouthy Liberal-voting accounting clients I have and then see if they re-gift [Justin Trudeau’s] Common Ground to me.’ Pretty funny, really.”

The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trail, by Noah Richler, Doubleday Canada, 378 pp., $34. 


The Hill Times

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