Heroes inevitably disappoint — especially those in politics

What Havel and Ignatieff taught a Speechwriter.

Since I began working as a speechwriter I’ve traded the stack of novels beside my bed for memoirs, biographies and the like. The latest is Michael Zantovsky’s excellent biography of Vaclav Havel. The book — a fascinating insight in the life of a playwrite/thinker who transformed into a reluctant politician/preacher — reminded me of the political memoir by Michael Ignatieff, who also wrote an insightful review of Havel’s biography in The Atlantic. Ignatieff himself is an admired academic who tried to transform into a political leader, but failed without much honour.

Why do these stories fascinate a speechwriter? Because they mirror at least part of the life lived close to political leaders: the questions surrounding leadership, the use of words to practise it and the struggles of public personalities to stay true to themselves. Ignatieff hoped that his reputation in academics would give him gravitas in politics. The opposite happened. Havel wanted to stay close to the things he grappled with as a writer. A noble quest he beautifully called ‘Living in Truth’.

And what about their use rhetoric, the persuasive use of words? Ignatieff hailed from a world of objectivity, formulating carefully and checked and balanced by peer reviews. Havel was raised in a world of theatrics and constant self-examination. Both styles hardly fitted modern politics. Ignatieff couldn’t handle the cheap shots and quick zingers from the soap box. Havel couldn’t handle the insincerity and, strangely, the theatrics of daily politicis. Though words may have been their strong suits, they also where part of their political undoing.

Heroes inevitably disappoint, Ignatieff wrote about Havel and he should know. But, he continues, ‘what makes Havel so interesting is that he disappointed himself. No one was a more ruthless judge of his own failures, both personal and political’. In his own book Ignatieff tries to reach the same level of honesty; he doesn’t always succeed.

Why do I treasure these books? Because I spent part of my life in relative closeness to political leaders. They’re neither Havel nor Ignatieff and they need not resemble them. Sometimes they inspire and sometimes they disappoint. I see their daily determination to live in Truth-as-they-see-it. In them I see Ignatieff’s conclusion that a politician is a time artist — constantly weighing what should be done no what can wait. And I share their search for the right words to express their leadership, to struck the right chord and to make the connection that advances society.
Maybe I treasure these books even more because people disappoint each other all the time. Politicians are no exception (contrary to what many people expect from them) and it is a fitting reminder to see these two wise and successfull men struggled, seeking redemption after the fire of politics reduced some dreams to ashes.

They help us to live in truth — whatever the source of our truths may be.

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