Before Trudeau: Pearson and Diefenbaker
Commentator 13.1, January 1969.
Leadership is an elusive quality which picks favorites. I have no idea what makes Trudeau a leader, for he is neither particularly young nor prodigal in his public utterances. Yet, in less than a year, he has transformed the federal government from a fumbling, scandal-ridden regime headed by Lester Pearson into an instrument of power. Just how fumbling the Pearson government was is described in Peter Newman’s latest book, The Distemper of Our Times, (McClelland and Stewart). Paul Fox reviewed this book in the December issue of Commentator, but it is important enough that it should have a second opinion.
This is Newman’s second book on Canada’s leaders, and future prime ministers would do well to await its sequels with apprehension. Newman’s books are more imminent than the Last Judgement, and a great deal more public; his last, Renegade in Power, which assessed John Diefenbaker with the charity of a hanging judge, sold 100,000 copies. Moreover Newman has his own mental quirk. He is fascinated by powerful men, and has little patience with weakness. His verdict on Lester Pearson is devastating.
Perhaps not completely without justice. Pearson’s training was in diplomacy and he approached the office of prime minister as a diplomat would. Under him the federal government was in danger of becoming a small United Nations, with Pearson as Secretary-General, and the ten provinces as ten separate nations. He shone in federal-provincial conferences; during his first 18 months in office, his government held 114 federal-provincial consultations on all levels, and as Anthony Westell remarked rightly in the Toronto Globe and Mail, these conferences “were becoming the real seats of power – the places at which national policies are set in private to guide eleven governments.” Meanwhile Parliament, where Pearson did not shine, saw its prestige slip away.
Yet Pearson achieved something, and the fact that Trudeau is his successor, is some measure of his achievement. Canada had to adjust to the changes in French-Canada, and not only Canada. The Quebec wing of the federal Liberal party was completely divorced from the so-called “Quiet Revolution” when Pearson took over as prime minister. When he retired, one of the spokesmen for the “Quiet Revolution” could take his place. When all the scandals of his government are forgotten, Pearson may be remembered as the man who negotiated Confederation into survival. And not the least of his virtues was the fact that he knew when to retire.
Pearson’s five years is also partly the story of John Diefenbaker, and a section of Newman’s book, titled “Renegade out of Power”, narrates the story of the old chief’s last stand. Diefenbaker was a leader, who once had some of the charisma of Trudeau, but he led a party with a tradition of assassinating its leaders. Just how bitter the struggle was to unseat Diefenbaker appears in a book just published by his former executive assistant, Thomas Van Dusen, The Chief (McGraw-Hill). It is hardly of the same quality as The Distemper of Our Times, and yet it is worthwhile to put these two books side by side, and comparing their versions of events.
I would particularly recommend Van Dusen’s account of the Munsinger affair 1, and the report of the Spence Commission which followed it. Van Dusen writes with a bias; Pierre Sévigny may never have endangered his country’s security, but, like Caesar’s wife, cabinet ministers should be above suspicion. But the report of Mr. Justice Wishart Flett Spence of the Supreme Court must disturb anyone who likes to believe that Supreme Courts are beyond politics. Perhaps the Spence report is best forgotten; no one is likely to hold it up as a brilliant example of jurisprudence. Still, it is a sad fact that one of the major casualties of the Munsinger Affair was the reputation of Canada’s Supreme Court.
Newman’s book ends brilliantly, with pure theatre. The setting is the Liberal convention in the Ottawa Civic Centre to choose Pearson’s successor. Edna Poole, once Mackenzie King’s favourite spiritualist, has announced a “terrific feeling” that Pierre Trudeau will win the leadership race. The fourth ballot is read. Trudeau has 1,203 votes, Robert Winters 954, and John Turner 195. “A wedge of policemen arrive,” Newman writes, “to escort the winner on stage. Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s face, which might have been carved in alabaster to commemorate some distant war of the Crusades, closes in, mask-like, as he walks into the future, burdened with hope.”
I suspect that as Newman was writing that sentence, he was already thinking up the title of his next book.