None for the Ages

Can we hope to find the right leader for the times?

In 1978, near the end of Pierre Trudeau’s first stretch as prime minister of Canada, an aging expat poet from the Westmount district of Montreal asked, “What is the expression which the age demands?” Leonard Cohen was addressing, it must be said, neither his generation’s leaders nor its voters, but his fellow poets. Quietude, he counselled. North America had just seen a war unfold in Southeast Asia in real time, followed by a decade of disappointment and unease. “There is nothing you can show on your face that can match the horror of this time,” he wrote. “Do not even try.”

Politicians, the manager-actors of democracy, typically escape the responsibility of trying to express an era — but they are often held up as the expression of one. In a season fixated on a presidential election in the United States and speculating ad nauseam on a federal one at home, this has especially proven true south of the border. “The most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting,” wrote Andrew Sullivan in the December 2007 Atlantic Monthly. “The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East.”

Obama, Sullivan argued, is the right person for the times, not so much for his abilities or his rhetoric, but because of his identity as a sincerely spiritual black man who opposed a war most Americans regret and the world loathes. He seems poised to unite a generational and ideological divide that has rent the US since Vietnam. No doubt the times demand such a leader. In the years following a spectacularly sinister act from without, America’s most cherished ideals have come under attack from within, thanks to Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and the Patriot Act.

North of the forty-ninth parallel, we are in a period of intense malaise, caught in the undertow of global and American crises, and threatening crises of our own. Our soldiers are waging our most aggressive military campaign since the Korean War, our government is tackling global warming with a playbook written in the oil sands, and our economy lurches toward recession. And yet our political culture seems stagnant, with a Prime Minister’s Office implementing its agenda under cover of a well-enforced insularity, and an Opposition campaigning primarily to be remembered as history’s most ineffective. At such moments, electorates tend to seek out pivotal leaders. This usually happens pell-mell.

But Canadians are fortunate to have been graced over the past few years with a surfeit of road maps, in the form of biographies and memoirs of our country’s past prime ministers. Two recent offerings, Richard Gwyn’s Charles Taylor Prize–winning John A.: The Man Who Made Us, and John English’s Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, dedicate their first volumes to establishing the backstories and early political lives of two very different figures who nestled into two very different eras. Brian Mulroney’s memoirs and Peter C. Newman’s The Secret Mulroney Tapes, meanwhile, attempt respectively to varnish and sand back down the legacy of a figure whose influence hangs over us perhaps even more than Trudeau’s.

We are long past the era when history was much believed to be Thomas Carlyle’s “biography of great men.” Instead, we look to biography in order to understand how a person and a people aligned during a given era. For biographers of Canadian prime ministers, this daunting task is made still more challenging by the spectre of Donald Creighton, the University of Toronto historian whose mastery of the form earned him two Governor General’s Awards for non-fiction, one for The Young Politician (1952) and the other for The Old Chieftain (1955), the two volumes of his biography of John A. Macdonald. The work has become a canon of one, and by unspoken law no one is permitted to publish a prime ministerial biography in Canada without acknowledging it in the introduction.

Born into a Scottish family led nominally by a striving but unfortunate father, and in spirit by a strong and doting mother, Macdonald was defined politically by struggles with Confederation, the cpr, and the Riel Rebellion, and personally by struggles with debt, alcoholism, a severely disabled daughter, and the tragic deaths of his son and first wife. Still, he met the world with a wit that found its equal among prime ministers perhaps only in John Diefenbaker, making him a much-loved figure among the farmers’ sons and daughters who inhabited the proto-country.

Creighton’s historical imagination is such that readers get a vivid sense not only of who Macdonald was, but who they once were. For instance, he recounts this tavern scene following the thirty-six-year-old Macdonald’s re-election to the parliament of Canada West in 1851:

Macdonald, cheerful, irreverent, elated with whisky and triumph, mounted the platform of Teddy McGuire’s saloon to address the crowd. He was back in his old district, joking with his old neighbours, talking to old friends and acquaintances who already rolled his stories, and escapades, and burlesques about their palates like a well-loved spirit. For five minutes or so they shouted with laughter while he imitated the ridiculous sing-song manner in which a poor worthy Quaker clergyman, well known in the district, used to intone his interminable sermons. A young man, Canniff Haight, who had driven the sleigh back from Picton, stood watching the platform, and the flaring lights of the hotel, and the laughing faces of the spectators. Long afterwards he remembered: and it was out of episodes such as these — at ferries and by roadsides, in hotels and village inns, in city halls and on rural hustings — that the incredible Macdonald legend began to grow.

Creighton narrates the rest of Macdonald’s life in similarly luxurious detail, framing the politician’s thrust toward Confederation as a philosophical response to the US Civil War and to a fear of American domination, but also to the personal connection he felt to the Crown. The biography reveals Macdonald as a man out not to capture people’s imaginations with grand historical sweep, but to find practical solutions to problems. Politics for Macdonald “found its raw material in the problems of a particular landscape and a particular people,” Creighton writes. “It was the task of a politician to work within the tradition, and to respect the limitations and exploit the possibilities of the medium.” Confederation and the cpr were in this sense primarily designs on a craftsman’s table.

In John A.: The Man Who Made Us, Richard Gwyn smartly avoids meeting Creighton in the realms of command or style, shifting instead to the veteran political commentator’s terrain of spare prose and astute interpretation. Where Creighton’s sympathy for Macdonald is unrestrained, Gwyn is even-handed. He challenges Creighton’s contention that Macdonald was an early advocate of Confederation, stating that the idea found its footing in a series of editorials titled The Future of Canada, by Confederation’s honorary poet laureate (and Macdonald’s drinking buddy), Thomas D’Arcy McGee.

Gwyn makes his case not by imagining McGee drafting away at his desk, quill in hand, but by explaining in his own fashion how McGee paved the way for Macdonald. “What was happening here,” Gwyn writes, “as happened so rarely in the pragmatic, provincial world of mid-nineteenth-century Canadian politics, was original thought and unleashed imagination.” His path to explaining how the Canadian people would have received this affront is equally analytical: “With McGee, the idea of Canada as something larger than the sum of its parts entered the public discourse. It was an idea, moreover, that all those who crowded in to hear McGee’s speeches applauded wildly, no matter whether they were Conservatives or Reformers or Grits, or entirely indifferent to all politics.”

It was also an idea that would have been unseemly coming from a leading politician, and Macdonald’s political gifts allowed him to understand this. “I am satisfied not to have a reputation for indulging in imaginary schemes and harbouring visionary ideas,” he said during the 1865 Confederation debates. This oft-declaimed posture, Gwyn says, reassured Canadians that Macdonald was just like them. And indeed, leaders who downplayed bold ideas as a basis for leadership were the preferred fashion for decades afterward. It would be some time before Canada was ready for a prime minister who embodied both Macdonald and McGee.

The first volume of University of Waterloo historian John English’s Citizen of the World is a paean to Pierre Trudeau’s swashbuckling early years. Buoyed by unprecedented access to Trudeau’s personal papers, English emerged with a picture of a man who immersed himself fully in the defining questions of his era. “The world marching forward continuously creates new needs,” Trudeau wrote in a 1948 article. And so this young, impossibly bourgeois fellow, fuelled by the money from his late father’s successful businesses and the support of his mother, roved the globe, probing those needs and theorizing how they might best be met. In doing so, he placed himself in the vanguard of the questions that would occupy Canada in the decades following World War II: What would come of Quebec after Duplessis? Of Europe and the world? And religion?

Trudeau comes across as almost quaint in this last sphere for much of his early life. As a student, first at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal, then at the Université de Montréal, Harvard, the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, and finally the London School of Economics, Trudeau was marked by guilt and a longing for moral rectitude that ran counter to the tangle of romantic affairs for which he later became notorious. Such concerns extended into his thought as well. His position on the nascent concept of human rights, for instance — that democracies best safeguard the dignity of individuals — followed not only from his travels through the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, but from his Catholicism. “Trudeau found grounds for his argument in a passage from Saint Paul that held that each human being was justified in obeying his own conscience,” English writes. “Diverse streams met and formed a stronger current.”

Trudeau’s intellectual and educational maturation included a comical succession of epistolary appeals to local religious authorities, in which he requested permission to read publications from “the Index,” the Church’s list of banned works. (Perhaps in homage to Trudeau’s jesterliness, Citizen’s index entry for index is “index, puzzling self-reference to.” ) Eventually, inevitably though, the proscribed books combined with other influences to do their work, and Trudeau began to fall away from organized religion, adopting personalism — humanism, essentially — well before it became the default posture of Canadian (and especially Quebec) society.

The personal translated into the political in 1967 when, as Lester Pearson’s justice minister, he loosened Criminal Code restrictions on abortion and homosexuality. When he subsequently uttered, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” during a media scrum that beamed across the country on cbc Television, he demonstrated not only that he was in tune with the evolving morals of the age, but with its evolving media as well.

English sets up the second volume of his biography (slated for release in 2009, as is Gwyn’s) with Trudeau’s election as Liberal leader, having established him as a man with unyielding faith in his vision for an era that seemed poised for him. “The times appeared to be perfectly tailored to fit Pierre Trudeau,” he writes. “The very foundations of tradition seemed to be collapsing . . . Canada finally seemed ready to abandon its reserve as television broke through restrictions in its treatment of sex, politics, and religion. Above all it was Canada’s Centennial Year, which began quietly but, by late spring, had become a noisy celebration of a North American country that was suddenly and unexpectedly ‘cool.’ ” But the times would change, as they tend to do, Canada would grow sick of Trudeau, and another leader would emerge.

Never before or since has a Canadian political figure been so suited to the role of a Richler or Bellow character as the mill worker’s son from Baie-Comeau: “With what,” Ravelstein demanded, “in this modern democracy, will you meet the demands of your soul? ” “Why, with this very democracy,” Mulroney replied. But before novelization or biography can occur, we must first suffer the memoir, and Brian Mulroney’s Memoirs: 1939–1993 is more insufferable than most. The offence is all the more grievous because, as Peter C. Newman’s formidable counterweight, The Secret Mulroney Tapes, shows, the man is one of the country’s most psychologically compelling prime ministers ever.

No political memoir is designed to offer a ready and open account of a life, of course. It is an argument for a legacy, a celebration of allies and an excoriation of enemies, and a recounting of a few good yarns — all, ideally, in brief. In making his case, Mulroney adopts the lawyer’s tactic of eliding his flaws, forgoing the writer’s task of acknowledging and exploring complexity. Unsurprising though it may be, it is a special disservice to a complex figure who had such a profound effect on the Canada in which we now live.

Born in 1939 in a small northeastern Quebec resource town, Mulroney grew up in a Catholic family led by a patriarch who worked extra jobs to fund his six children’s educations. He came of age in an environment where street smarts were paramount, went off to school in New Brunswick at age fourteen, then entered St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia at sixteen, becoming a champion debater and getting heavily involved in student politics.

In stark contrast to Trudeau’s, Mulroney’s early life seems to have been largely unmarked by philosophical inquiry. His reasons for joining the Progressive Conservative Party, after being petitioned by a student group, were reactive rather than thoughtful: “I had little interest in politics at the time,” he writes, “but I was flattered to be asked, and attracted not so much by the PC ideology — although I found it compatible with my own views — but by the challenges that membership would represent.”

The same tendencies marked his tenure as prime minister. His description of himself ensconced before a television at 24 Sussex as he watched images of the Ethiopian famine is untainted by pretense. “I was shocked by what I saw coming through my television,” he recounts. “A calamity was unfolding before our very eyes, children were dying in a ravaged country and nothing was happening to stop it.” Soon after Mulroney saw the reports, Joe Clark was on his way to Africa, the first foreign minister from the West to land in Ethiopia. This was the first part of the Mulroney formula: encounter a political problem, be affected by it, and then respond, fast. Then, once finished, argue loudly and at length that you’ve done the right thing — even when you haven’t.

Mulroney’s bullheaded ambition led him to confront everything from constitutional reform to acid rain, apartheid, free trade, and the creation of the gst. In doing so, he allowed Canada to confront a difficult moment in history. Newman captures the interplay beautifully:

He came to power at a time when Canadians were searching for emotional anchorage in an increasingly alien, fast-paced, technological world gone global . . . Mulroney’s political agenda was set by the winds — or, more precisely, by the hurricanes — of change. He might have been expected to escape those social and economic upheavals by hunkering down and doing as little as possible. Instead, he behaved like an obsessive beekeeper, patrolling the buzzing apiary that Canada had become, punching holes into every hive he could find.

What makes Mulroney such a fascinating figure is that his approach seemed to arise not just from a desire to govern well, but from deep inner drives that carried with them a tragic flaw — the same flaw that led him to speak so incautiously and at such length with a journalist’s tape recorder running. Again, Newman grasps this: “Lacking internal validation,” he writes, Mulroney “spent a lifetime in search of himself.” Canada, he need not have added, was along for the ride. Mulroney was Irish Catholic, to be sure, but nevertheless Duddy Kravitz, prime minister.

In being that character, however — in having the audacity to rain blows upon beehives — Mulroney may have prepared the country for the even more alien challenges that lay ahead. “Instead of pretending that the twentieth century belonged to Canada,” Newman writes, “he made sure that Canada would belong to the twenty-first.” It is he who haunts us still.

Which brings us, accelerating past the Campbell nanogovernment and the deficit busting and Trudeauist social politicking of the Chrétien and Martin years, to our current moment and our current prime minister.

Lost amid the standard-issue conservatism we’ve experienced in the past few years is Stephen Harper’s former role as a tub-thumping, inspirational figure in the early years of the Reform Party. William Johnson, in his 2005 book, Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada, expends considerable effort arguing that Harper and Trudeau were in this sense parallel spirits. “Each was drawn to politics by a sense of mission,” he writes. “If Quebec had not threatened Canada’s existence after 1960, Pierre Trudeau would never have become prime minister. If Alberta had not been treated with flagrant injustice from 1973 to the present, if Canada had not been threatened with disaster by spendthrift politicians and Quebec nationalists, Stephen Harper would never have become leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.”

Harper’s appeal in the years since Reform’s rise has laid in the traditional comfort of conservatism: cut taxes, fight wars, manage well, and cover genitals, and all will be fine. That Johnson describes the prime minister’s philosophy as having Hegelian underpinnings seems somewhat at odds with his persona as a pure political animal, genus Conservativis. At the time of Reform’s rise, Johnson writes, Harper “saw the last two centuries in the Western world as a constant tension between freedom and constraint, with freedom as the creative, liberating, and dynamic factor; political constraint was inhibiting, stultifying . . . In the contemporary world, the tension was on the one hand between statism and big government, and the enhancement of the private sector on the other.”

The Harper government’s strict control of information coming from the pmo, and its move to allow a form of censorship of the film industry, indicate a certain devolution in this view — one playing to the perception that he possesses, in Newman’s derisive phrase, “the finest medieval mind of the Commons.” Some of Harper’s other policies further suggest a resistance to the day (never mind the historical cause of liberty): economically ineffectual cuts to the gst as we face recession; global warming roadblocks rather than green initiatives as we stare down ecological disaster; acquiescence on Guantánamo as we try to neuter extremism at home and abroad.

A Macdonald, Trudeau, or Mulroney he may not be, but Harper is poised to at least hold the line in the next election. And what does this say about us? That we’re revising our aspirations as a nation? That we’re hunkering down against the upheavals of our time? Perhaps, in the end, that we’re simply lacking for options. This is one of the harsher truths of history: it doesn’t throw forth the right leader on demand, nor even one who tempts us to believe otherwise. For every Churchill, there is a Bush Jr.; for every Obama, a Clinton or McCain; and for every Trudeau, a Stanfield who might have won but for a few fumbles. “What is the expression which the age demands? ” Cohen asked. “The age,” he concluded, “demands no expression whatever.”

Jeremy Keehn
Jeremy Keehn is an editor at Harper’s Magazine, and a former senior editor at The Walrus.