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Opinion

Oh, To Be a Harper Enemy

With a nod to Nixon, the PM proves you're nobody in politics 'til somebody hates you.

By Steve Burgess 17 Jul 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about politics for The Tyee and may now be on a Harper list near you.

Leonard Garment died this week at the age of 89. Garment's name will be familiar to scandal buffs as the Nixon advisor who advised his boss not to destroy the presidential tape recordings that eventually blew open the Watergate scandal. "Erase them?" he probably said. "But Dick, they'll be a blast at the Christmas party!" Garment will go down in history alongside such figures as Bobby "Peg-leg" Wilson of Florida who declared, "Don't worry, Ma -- this here gator's dead!" And the unknown passenger who announced, "Gentleman, the Hindenburg has arrived safely! Light up the cigars and fireworks!"

Garment's passing seemed timely, coming as it did just as Canadians were getting a burst of Nixonian nostalgia. Postmedia News reported this week that the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been compiling enemies lists.

This was another blast from the past for Watergate buffs (and they exist, I know. What with all the giant, furry G. Gordon Liddy costumes and the Spiro Agnew dress-up competitions, those conventions can get pretty wild). Richard Nixon's "Enemies List" was compiled in 1971 and later leaked to the press. It still stands today as a perfect expression of the paranoid political mindset. Harper's adoption of the tactic is like a political Freudian slip.

Ministers, know thy enemy

The Harper lists were apparently planned in conjunction with this week's cabinet shuffle, a rearrangement that saw eight new members in an over-stuffed cabinet that now contains 39 ministers. Thirty-nine may seem like a large group, but if you compare it to an Italian wedding it's really quite small. As usual, there were winners and losers. Peter MacKay was surely disappointed to move from defence to the justice portfolio. "Don't be sad, Pete," the prime minister must have said. "The cops have choppers too."

In the interests of stability Harper made no changes in key portfolios -- finance, foreign affairs, treasury. So if you ever wondered how many cabinet portfolios actually mean shit, there's a handy guide.

But to that enemies list. It was tucked into a memo directed to Conservative staffers, so that they might prepare new cabinet appointees to be shining representatives of public service. Outgoing staffers were to compile lists for new people, lists that would include "who to engage and avoid," plus groups and individuals considered friends or enemies, as well as troublesome bureaucrats. The instructions are certainly disturbing. But it's what we don't have that's really upsetting: the actual names on the list. It's frustrating. If you don't know whether you made the Harper government enemies list, how can you put it on your resume?

Are you worthy?

Actor Paul Newman later said making the original list of 20 Nixon enemies (it was later expanded) was his greatest accomplishment. Being on the official Harper Enemies List would be an honour indeed. In certain circles it would be more prized than the Order of Canada.

The promotional potential would be immense. An annual ceremony announcing the new Enemies List names might well rival the release of the Giller Prize shortlist or the Hockey Hall of Fame selections for public excitement. Intense lobbying would precede the announcement -- perhaps even ad campaigns, as with the Oscars. "Submitted for your approval: John Doe, who really frosted the PM's balls this year." Failing to make the enemies list would be crushing. It would signal that all your activism, all your organizing, all your hard work, was just so much dandruff on the PM's shoulders. In politics, you're nobody till somebody hates you.

Let's hope the PMO seizes the opportunity for a thrilling new national event. Meanwhile, keep an eye on the prime minister and his Nixonian proclivities. Here's a tip: watch the nose. When Carlo Collodi published The Adventures of Pinocchio in 1883, I believe he was hiding an explosive secret. The puppet whose nose grew with every lie was not a fairy tale at all -- Collodi was merely fictionalizing the freakish physical transformations of the born politician. Nixon was the proof, his ski slope nose extending over years of schemes, subterfuge, and paranoia. As Harper continues to read from the Nixon playbook, watch for signs of unusual growth. So far it's just been the cabinet. But I'd love to see an X-ray of his spleen.  [Tyee]

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