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Image from Photo Phiend/Flickr.

Op-ed – Remember: politicians are people, too

March 27, 2017 — 

The following is an op-ed originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 25, 2017 by Royce Koop, associate professor and head of the department of political studies at the University of Manitoba.


Canadians generally hold politicians in low regard. In a 2015 survey, for example, the non-profit think tank Samara found only 40 per cent of Canadians trust MPs to do what is right. Sixty-two per cent believe politicians only want our vote.

Sometimes, politicians earn that enmity. They break promises. They avail themselves of the perks of public office and then wonder why people complain about their having become “Otta-washed.” And occasional examples of unethical behaviour give Canadians whole new reason to downgrade their regard for elected officials. 

It’s easy to paint all politicians with the same brush. We forget politicians are human and, like everyone else, they often have experienced hardship and tragedy in their lives. It’s easy to see them as talking heads on television rather than as people.

Former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden provides an example of a politician whose personal life has been marked by significant tragedy.

Biden served as a senator from Delaware for a stunning 36 years before becoming Barack Obama’s vice-president. A few weeks after Biden’s first successful run for the U.S. Senate in 1972, a tractor-trailer rammed into a car driven by his wife, Neilia, which was also carrying his three children. Neilia and the Bidens’ one-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in the accident; however, his two sons, Beau and Hunter, survived. Biden had lost his wife and daughter even before he was sworn into office.

Biden’s long political career was marked by personal tragedy: it began with the deaths of his first wife and infant daughter and ended with the death of his son, Beau, in 2015, following a long struggle with brain cancer.

In 2016, Biden entertained the possibility of challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. The recent death of his son, however, plagued Biden: while campaigning, anything that evoked even the slightest memory of Beau drew tears. Obama himself expressed concern that Biden had not sufficiently recovered from his son’s death to endure a gruelling run for office, especially against the Republicans’ hard-hitting nominee, Donald Trump.

After the campaign, Biden himself recognized that he wasn’t ready, telling a New York Times journalist, “I was more broken than I thought I was.” Speculating on what would have happened had he run, Biden said, “I don’t know what I’d do if I was in a debate and someone said, ‘You’re doing this because of your son’… I might have walked over and kicked his ass.”

Like Biden, Canada’s health minister, Jane Philpott, also tragically lost a child. From 1989 to 1998, Philpott and her family, including two young daughters, lived in Niger, where she worked as a physician for a non-governmental organization. In 1991, the Philpotts’ two-year-old daughter, Emily, fell ill — Philpott soon spotted a rash she knew indicated meningococcemia, a potentially fatal and very rapid infection.

Philpott’s family immediately began the two-hour drive to the nearest hospital so Emily could receive life-saving penicillin. An hour into the drive, however, Emily had a seizure and stopped breathing. “It was the most horrible moment of my life,” wrote Philpott. She and her husband were not ready to give up hope, so they took turns performing CPR on Emily as they kept driving, but the child never responded.

In the midst of all this, Philpott noticed that the same rash had appeared on her infant daughter, Bethany. The Philpotts, having lost one daughter, now faced the possibility of losing both. Thankfully and miraculously, Bethany survived long enough to arrive at the hospital and receive intravenous penicillin.

Despite the fact her kidneys had stopped functioning, Bethany survived through the night. The next day, the Philpotts attended a funeral for Emily, but Bethany’s health continued to improve. Philpott reports that the only physical manifestation of the illness for Bethany, now “a beautiful and brilliant young woman,” is a scar.

Writing on the anniversary of her daughter’s death, Philpott wondered, “What would her life be like? How would our lives be different if she were still with us?”

It was impossible for me to look at Philpott the same way after I learned about this tragedy in her life.

In 2009, former Saskatchewan Conservative MP Dave Batters committed suicide in his Regina home following a long struggle with depression. He had declined to run for re-election in 2008 because of his depression as well as an addiction to benzodiazepine, a drug prescribed to treat depression combined with anxiety.

Batters, like Biden and Philpott, had tragedy in his background: when asked why he decided to run for office, he cited the 2003 murder of his friend, Michelle Lenius, by her estranged husband. Batters’ time in office was indeed characterized by a focus on criminal justice and mental-health issues.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper gave a moving eulogy at Batters’ funeral. “I became aware that beneath this veneer of optimism, Dave struggled with severe anxiety and depression,” said Harper, referring to Batters’ decision not to run for re-election. Harper reminds us that politicians’ smiling public faces may mask pain, adversity and tragedy in their personal lives.

In 1993, my old MP from British Columbia, Jim Abbott, entered Parliament as a fire-breathing, populist Reform Party MP.

As a candidate and MP, Abbott was quick to denounce politicians. Over the course of 17 years as a well-regarded MP, Abbott worked with and forged friendships with scores of other politicians.

Upon announcing his retirement, he let it be known that his opinion about how the public should treat politicians had changed: Abbott urged Canadians to “cut us some slack.”

I think that’s a good general rule for everyone, including politicians.

As Biden, Philpott and Batters remind us, we see politicians’ public faces but not always the struggles and tragedies that exist in their personal lives.


2 comments on “Op-ed – Remember: politicians are people, too

  1. Laura Brown

    Well said. Most politicians, like most civil servants, enter public life in order to do what they see as good for their people.

    I heard a comment in a different context once and it has stayed with me: No one wants to have their entire life defined by their worst act.

    A politician’s mistake and/or weak moment will almost always be public.

    We need to cut everyone some slack.

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