Pet ferrets across Canada became mysteriously lethargic last Friday, and Jack Russell terriers were lulled to peaceful stillness by TV coverage of the Liberal convention.
One after another, contenders for the leadership of the once-great Natural Ruling Party strolled up to the platform and droned off a few pages of flat and uninspiring prose, each in turn awakening joy in a well-rehearsed claque of transferable followers, and putting everyone else to sleep.
There couldn’t have been a better moment in history for the recently deposed Liberals to elect a leader.
Internationally, there’s a scent of change in the political winds, the first since they became laden with the sour pall of the Trade Centre attacks.
The self-fulfilling mantra “the world will never be the same again” has run a brutal five-year course, and a war-sickened population has begun to look around at the carnage and rapacity of the Bush-Blair years and realize that there are other things in life besides military security and cheap consumer goods.
In the US, both houses of Congress have passed to Democratic hands, Donald Rumsfeld has cleaned out his desk, millions of right-wingers both secular and religious have turned their backs on G.W. Bush, and the majority of Americans have pronounced themselves fed up with five years of fruitless bloody war.
In the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair is on the way out, his once huge popularity squandered in the shambles of Iraq.
Much of the world seems to have suddenly woken up to the most profound change imaginable: the polar ice cap is melting, and the planet’s weather grows daily more unpredictable and hazardous.
Even respected economists are beginning to point out what should have been obvious long ago — that climate change is going to cause economic as well as environmental chaos.
It was the day for a hero.
The podium awaited, and so did the nation.
Millions of TV sets hummed in anticipation.
Canada perched on the edge of its collective seat.
And then nothing happened.
Even the ghost of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, so inevitably invoked when Liberals congregate, dozed off in its chair as the speakers droned and the historical moment faded.
Sincere followed dull as the evening staggered on toward Bob Rae’s meandering off-the-cuff anti-speech and Ignatieff’s over-produced and under-inspiring revival prayer.
The Friday night speeches must have been a massive disappointment for the delegates.
Everything was in place for an exciting event.
Twenty per cent of the vote was up for grabs.
The streamers had been purchased, the screamers rehearsed, all public TV and radio hours for the weekend were booked, and after months of build-up and speculation, a nation of political junkies was ready for a show.
Howard Dean, allegedly the architect of the Democratic comeback in the US, had kicked off the weekend with a model speech, and all the old warhorses had been congratulated and put to bed.
All was in readiness.
For the first time since the sponsorship scandal, Canadians were watching Liberals out of interest, and not just to make sure they weren’t pilfering from the till.
All that was lacking was an inspiring candidate.
The hour was here, where was the man?
Where the woman?
It’s always the same when Canadians try to do American style entertainment.
We manage up to a point — were two cultures ever more similar? — but in the end we fall short, because we just don’t have the stars.
We try to put on the Academy Awards and end up with the Geminis every time.
We’re not a big enough population to make stars of our celebrities.
The Liberal establishment tried to overcome this disadvantage by recruiting south of the border, where Canadians who want to be real stars go.
They came up with a star of academe, and put all their faith in him, blind to the trail of clues — the square-jawed telegenicity, the liberal-hawk ethics, the Ivy-league connection, the poor political judgment — that Ignatieff was really John Kerry in a careless disguise, and destined for the same electoral fate.
Saturday marked the final phase of the convention.
Speeches gave way to horse-trading, and the entertainment value rose sharply.
Like a giant board game, gangs of sartorially identified delegates bustled from square to square quacking like trained ducks in order to build the suspense and momentum, to increase Liberal profile, and to give the country time to Google Stephane Dion and figure out what he’s about.
In the end the congregated Liberals made a surprising but probably right decision.
They turned aside from Ignatieff, the star candidate with the backing of the party establishment, they rejected Rae, the high profile candidate with personal ties to Power Corp and strong corporate backing, and they picked Dion, the candidate with what at least sounds like an orderly plan for sustainable development, and a cute, unmistakably Canadian accent.
It remains to be seen what Stephane Dion will make of his new job.
He’s no orator, at least in English, but those of us who remember those two great speechmakers, Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, will forgive him that.
And despite polls to the contrary it may be Dion after all, rather than Ignatieff or Rae, who stands the best chance of beating Harper.
At least the voters will have no trouble telling them apart.