Sir John A’s online antics

2 Oct

Sir John A. MacDonald, the father of this country – along with his ally Sir Georges-Étienne Cartier – forged the great confederation that united French and British North America and brought Canada into being in 1867.

He became its first Prime Minister, serving in that position for 19 years, winning six majority governments, and becoming the dominant figure of Canadian politics in the early decades of the young country’s existence. He earned his place in history as a nation-builder, through accomplishments such as opening up the West and the North, spearheading the creation of a coast-to-coast railway, and founding the Mounties.

Tragically, his great achievements were overshadowed by an incident that took place after he had a bit too much to drink one night, when he wrote and published some nasty comments about a political rival on his personal blog.

Efforts by his party to erase the blog entry proved fruitless, as Google had cached his slanderous words, ensuring they would live online forever. Sir John A.’s reputation took a harsh blow.

And then when Internet video surfaced of the Prime Minister driving his horse and buggy under the influence of single-malt scotch, his political career was as good as done.

Okay. Maybe history unfolded a little differently. But you never know. If the frequently drunk MacDonald hadn’t died more than a century before politicians started keeping blogs, and posting videos to YouTube, things just might have happened as I described.

Indeed, during this fall’s federal election campaign, a whole slew of potential nation-builders have seen their political careers die premature deaths because of some non-erasable things they had posted to the Internet before they became candidates.

A couple of NDP candidates in B.C. stepped down after old video surfaced showing them using illegal drugs. One of those candidates had videotaped himself driving under the influence of hallucinogenics. In the era of YouTube, it was not hard for other parties to track down and distribute that video.

A Conservative candidate in Toronto gave up his nomination after some old blog writings were discovered in which – among other controversial statements – he criticized the passengers of a Greyhound bus in Manitoba for fleeing in terror from a grisly murder in which a fellow passenger was decapitated.

“This is where socialism has gotten us folks, a castrated effeminate population,” the blog entry read. The candidate had tried to erase the evidence before the campaign, but what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet… for opponents to exploit.

Liberal leader Stéphane Dion fired one of his party’s Manitoba candidates after some old articles of hers surfaced on the Internet. In the articles, she entertained 9-11 conspiracy theories, including a claim that Israeli businesses had inside information about the pending attack on the World Trade Center.

Finally, Green Party leader Elizabeth May mishandled a controversy that arose when bloggers got hold of – and posted – audio from an old TV appearance of May’s where she seemed to be saying she thought Canadians were “stupid” (Full disclosure: the appearance was on the show for which I work).

In fact, May was not saying that at all. Her only fault was not speaking clearly enough. But instead of clarifying her remarks, the Green Party threatened to sue one of the bloggers who had posted the comment, showing that the party didn’t quite grasp how the Internet worked.

This new political era probably began in 2006 with the infamous “macaca moment”, when Republican senator George Allen, running for re-election in Virginia, hurled a racially-charged epithet at a Democratic party worker who was videotaping him at a campaign rally.

Those were the early days of YouTube (was that only two years ago?). When he made the comment, Allen probably had no idea how quickly it would be disseminated all over the world. The incident derailed his campaign and probably lost him the election.

Since then, politics has exploded on the web and in the blogosphere. But it’s a different kind of politics than what you see on … say… the leaders’ tours. More wild and more dangerous.

The lesson for aspiring politicians? If you ever plan to run for office, be very careful of what you blog, upload, or otherwise post. As comedian Rick Mercer wrote:

“In the past, politicians had to survive a party background check that most Canadians could pull off. Now the question will be, “Can you survive a detailed Google search?” Who among us could do that?”

Not me. Not you. Not Sir John A. MacDonald either.

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