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October 1952, John Diefenbaker offered me a guaranteed seat in the House of
Commons. It was my
first experience of Canadian politics.
met the man who would be the Progressive Conservative leader when I returned to
Regina, the city of my childhood, to conduct a fifteen-day preaching mission
for the Council of Churches. It was
"home-coming week” for me and I made much of it. So did the media.
Diefenbaker was not yet leader of the party but he was planning to be,
and he happened to be in Regina during my campaign. On the Sunday night, with about 3,000 present, he was invited to
sit on the platform. Afterwards, we
went together to a small social gathering in a private home.
had been much impressed by the service, and after a few minutes, he drew me
aside for a private conversation. He
urged me to return to Canada ("Great things are afoot") and to become
active in politics. He emphasized that he wasn't denigrating the importance of
the ministry-making the point that he was a Baptist and active as a layman-but
he insisted that, if a man truly wanted to serve his fellows, the place to get
things done was in politics.
made me this proposition: "Return to Canada, join the Progressive
Conservative party and I'll guarantee you a set in the House of Commons.“ He
was certainly able to keep the promise: he was in absolute control of the party
in Saskatchewan, where the Tories held every federal seat. Only half in jest, I quoted Martin Luther,
"God forbid that I should slip from being a priest to become a king.” He
laughed and clapped me on a shoulder.
As the evening, ended, he at the door, “If you change your mind, come
and see me.”
have been fascinated by politics since the 1930s when I watched Mitch Hepburn,
then premier of Ontario, utterly entrance a crowd of about one thousand at a
Liberal rally in Toronto. I was there
to draw his portrait for the Globe and
Mail. In my years in the United States, I hero-worshipped Franklin
Roosevelt and especially Harry Truman.
In the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections, I worked for Adlai
Stevenson. (I was a resident alien and
couldn't vote, but I offered my services and passed out campaign literature in
downtown Manhattan.) If you cared about words and ideas, Stevenson was a
particularly attractive political figure.
It seemed imperative that a man with such intellect and idealism be
elected president. Today I have no
doubt that he would have been a disaster as president. He seemed congenitally incapable of making
the tough decisions.
1957, only weeks after my return to Toronto, I moved to become active in the
politics of my own country. I read in
the newspapers that the Liberal party of Ontario was holding a leadership
convention at Toronto's King Edwards’s hotel.
Knowing no one, I slipped unobtrusively into the Crystal Ballroom to
watch the proceedings. I was recognized
by a few delegates because of my television appearances and they shook my
hand. Among them was Keith Davey. I watched as the final vote tallies were
announced and John Wintermeyer was elected leader.
following week I was invited to lunch by Paul Hellyer. He had been Associate Minister of Defense
and, only months before had gone down to defeat with the St. Laurent government. He pressed me to join the Liberal
party. Their prospects were anything
but prepossessing: the federal wing had just suffered its worst defeat in
history and the Ontario Liberals had been out of power for twenty-seven years.
following day I was again invited to lunch, by coincidence at the same table in
the same dining room of the same hotel, the Westbury. I was the guest of Donald MacDonald, the leader of the CCF in
Ontario. I'd voted CCF once; in the
1940s when E. B. Jolliffe was leader of the party. MacDonald and I talked about Norman Thomas, the brilliant
American socialist-idealist, whom I admired, and about Sam Gompers, the heroic
early labour organizer. We discussed
Bernard Shaw and the Fabians, compared politics in the United States and Canada
and talked about the hopes of Canadian socialists. I Liked MacDonald but was not impressed by what he had to say.
am not by disposition a Conservative, so I didn't contact John
Diefenbaker. The following week, after
an extended discussion with Keith Davey, I joined the Liberal party.
was then a time salesman at a small Toronto radio station, CKFH; in his spare
time, he was president of the Toronto and Yorks Liberal Association. We established an immediate rapport. We were both fascinated by the political
process and liked politicians, and while we were both idealists, we relished he
back-room activity of organizing and building the party. Davey was a leading member of an informal agitation of Toronto Liberals known as Cell
13 who met regularly to work for the return to power of a reformed Liberal
party. An untried newcomer, I was not a
member of the group, all of whom had been blooded in earlier electoral battles,
but none the less busied myself with party activity, mostly in association with
we organized and were co-chairmen of what we called the School for practical
Politics. (The approach was later
adopted nationally under the title Campaign College.) The weekly meetings of
the "school" were hardnosed teaching sessions spiced by lighthearted
camaraderie. “Old pools" taught
party workers the fundamentals: door-to-door canvassing, riding organization,
fund-raising and promotion and so on.
The classes marked the beginning of the revitalizing of the party in
months before, Liberal fortunes had hit bottom. John Diefenbaker's Conservative party won 75 percent of the seats
in the Commons, including a majority in Quebec, amassing the largest
parliamentary majority in Canadian history: 108 seats to the Liberals' 67. The press of the nation blew Taps over the
the Liberals were not without hope, and his name was Lester Bowles
Pearson. Did anyone ever come to
politics whose credentials shone more brightly? He had taught history at the
University of Toronto. He had been
Canada's senior advisor at the Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco conferences
that led to the formation of the United Nations, and he had headed Canada's
delegation to the new peace body. In
1947, as chairman of the United Nations Political and Security Committee, he
had played a decisive role in mediating the Palestine crisis. No sooner was he elected to the Canadian
parliament than he was appointed minister of External Affairs and was
instrumental in the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in
1957. That same year he was awarded the
Nobel peace prize for his work in resolving the 1956 Arab-Israeli war. Beyond all this, he as an unpretentious,
warm, gregarious man who freely confessed that he would rather coach a
major-league baseball team than be Secretary General of the United
yet. . . . When he rose to speak at
public function, one's soaring expectations were suddenly earthbound. His self-deprecating wit fell flat. His lisp, barely noticeable in private
conversation, was accentuated by tension.
Speaking in public, he had a way of closing his eyes, and of lolling his
head back and to one side that appeared almost spastic Ringing phrases became
prosaic on his lips. Often, when he
summoned indignation or reached for outrage, his sentences collapsed in
boneless ineffectuality. Pearson didn't
sound like a politician because he wasn't a politician. His genius was as a conciliator, solving
problems, working with people. Loyal
Liberals covered their dismay, and tried to reassure themselves: Pearson's sure
touch would soon be evident; his lack of slickness would become an advantage as
people grew accustomed to him and were able to measure him against the
over-blown bombast of John Diefenbaker.
"If the Canadian people could only meet Mike face to face in small
groups," we used to say, "he would carry the country by the largest
margin in history.”
one believed this with greater conviction than Keith Davey. Davey is given to hero worships. (For the
past twenty-five years he has committed himself unswervingly to Pearson, Walter
Gordon and Pierre Trudeu although in the latter case, one suspects there is
more loyalty than affection in the fealty.) Beyond all that, Davey was a
dedicated Liberal and it was inevitable that he be summoned to Ottawa to use
his exceptional skills as an organizer on behalf of the party.
was at a small luncheon for journalists and Mike Pearson was doing what he
enjoyed doing: telling stories, especially stories about great events or great
men in which the unexpected and, ideally, the humorous happened.
had asked him to describe the difference in dealing with John Kennedy and
first time I met Kennedy," he said, brightening (he had been listless
earlier responding to questions about the problems of his government) "was
at Hyannis Port. The Kennedy clan
summered there. It was an official
meeting, a putting on the table matters of concern and areas of conflict
between our two countries.
arrived at the appointed time with a dozen aides, each of them carrying a fat
attaché case, and we sat down in a sunny place to talk. The Americans had prepared an agenda and
Kennedy had been very carefully briefed.
The interesting thing was that he had it all in his head. He knew more about some of the issues than I
did and had some facts about Canada that were news to me.” Pearson
chuckled. “I’d only been in office
three weeks - at any rate, that was my excuse.
Kennedy was cordial and witty, but all business. We accomplished a lot.
Johnson," he said with a laugh, “was the antithesis. This time the shoe was on the other foot;
he’d been in office only two months. We
met at the White House. He had his
aides, too, a lot of them. But we'd no
sooner sat down than he said, 'Look, Mike, let’s you and I slip into the next
room for a few minutes and leave these guys to get started. '
next room," Person said, “was a small sitting-room. We pulled up comfortable chairs. Lyndon poured some coffee. Very relaxed, very informal. He said, 'Now Mike, they tell me you're not
too happy about certain things, certain problems between our two countries. I don't know a hell of a lot bout the
problems, whatever they are, but why don't we do this: you tell me what you
would like to see done that I can do without doing a disservice to the American
people, and I'll see that it’s one.”
tossed back his head and laughed at the memory.” We were having serious
problems on the Great lakes at the time- rivalries in the Seafarers'
International. There had been a number
of shootings and some violence. I wanted
to see it stopped. At seven the
following morning, I was told later, Johnson picked up a telephone and called
Paul Hall, head of the Seafarers' union.
"Paul," he said, "I'd like to have breakfast with you
here at the White House this morning.
I’m sending a car around. ‘Hall
came to breakfast, of course, and LBJ told him of our conversation. "Paul," he said, "I'd like
you to put a stop to all this - you hear me now?"' Person laughed again.”
And it stopped, “he said.
you interviewed Pearson, he would frequently seem disconcertingly vague and
withdrawn, but in private conversation he exuded great warmth. Once, late in his life, we talked sports in
his suite at the Inn on the Park for the better part of an hour. (The early part of the hour had been spent
talking about his exasperation with some aspects of Methodism; his father had
been a clergyman. ) He had extraordinary recall, especially about baseball, and
we traded recollections. When it was
time for him to leave to make a speech somewhere in he hotel, he seemed almost
poignantly reluctant to drop the subject.
Pearson's ministers I knew Paul Hellyer best, although we were not close
friends. I saw him often, worked for
him in Trinity riding when he sought to be returned to parliament, and in later
years, did a weekly television show with him for five seasons. For all our frequent association I have
never felt close to Paul. He is an
earnest Christian and is, I think, fended by my unapologetic agnosticism. He is a contained man, not given to easy camaraderie,
and is certainly not the affable glad - hinder politicians are thought to
he was Minister of Defence, Hellyer was asked to speak at a testimonial dinner
that the late George Ben, a feisty and aggressive Toronto alderman, decided to
hold for himself. I acted as master of
ceremonies. The locale was the Palais
Royale on the Toronto waterfront. At
one point in his speech, Hellyer, extemporizing, was making comparisons
between Canada and the United States.
United States,“ he declared, “is a melting pot. People have emigrated there from all over the world and have
blended in one whole. Canada, too, has
grown through immigration, but we are not a melting pot.
We are. . . .” He paused, seeking an
appropriate analogy. "We are more
like. . . . more like. . . .” And now
he had it. "Canada is more like a
Christmas cake; you put in the fruits and you add the nuts. “He stopped, sensing that something had gone
amiss but not quite sure what. A woman
at the head table loosed a guffaw, and the rest of us, who had been restraining
it, exploded with laughter. After a
moment, Paul joined in.
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