Conservatism’s New Prophet
What manner of man is the new leader of the Liberal-Conservative party? Grattan O’Leary says he is a man of courage and intellectual address
M. GRATTAN O’LEARY
RICHARD BEDFORD BENNETT, jurist and financier, vested with the mantle of Macdonald; Meighen, the Ney of post-war Toryism, confirmed in retirement; a funeral oration and burial for the Hamilton speech; party ranks reformed and revitalized for battle; Protection reaffirmed, but with muffled drums— such is the tale of the Winnipeg Convention of the Liberal Conservative Party.
Of the acts and pledges of the Convention, the drama of the clash of Ferguson and Meighen, the shoutings and the tumult and the passions of the gathering, the public has been told. But what of the leader? Who is Richard Bedford Bennett? What manner of man is this, called to lead the hosts of Toryism into the Promised Land?
R. B. Bennett started life with two enormous advantages. He was endowed by the Creator with brains, and he was born in the Maritime Provinces. To be born a Bluenose is to be born with a silver spoon in the mouth. It is to be born, as it were, into the governing family. We Upper Canadians are simply the hewers of wood and drawers of water for our Maritime masters. Everywhere, in Government, on the bench, in industry, and finance, and education, they sit in the seats of the mighty. Three of our Prime Ministers have been Bluenoses; four times the Tory Party has taken a Bluenose for its leader; and a Bluenose presides over Toronto University to see that we are educated.
Not satisfied with that, they have taken to becoming heads of our banks and to buying up our newspapers. Over all of Canada they cast their boot. R. B. Bennett was born, cradled, went to school and became a lawyer in that part of the Bluenose country which gave the British peerage Beaverbrook and British Toryism Bonar Law. Law immediately went to England to become a millionaire, and then a Prime Minister; Beaverbrook (then Max Aitken) headed also for London, loitered long enough in Montreal to amass a fortune;
Bennett went to Calgary with Senator James Lougheed.
That was in 1897. To-day, thirty years later, he is a Calgary institution; as much a part of the old ‘cow town’ as the Ranchers’ Club, Pat Burns or the Chinook winds. His rise has been meteoric. When the wit of a Paddy Nolan still dazzled Western courts, Bennett, still in his thirties, became his rival in law.
When Haultain and Arthur Sifton dominated prairie politics, Bennett began to challenge their power. Into politics and law, into all sorts of causes, prosperous and forlorn, he threw himself with concentrated fury. At twenty-eight he was a member of the old Northwest Assembly; lie became a force in the public life of Alberta; he swayed juries and persuaded judges by his forensic eloquence; became a K. C.; carried cases to the Privy Council; entered and mastered finance and industry; became a rich man.
A BORN speaker, with all the Maritimer’s love of eloquence, he dramatized politics, and some of his early utterances had more than the recklessness of youth
When in 1900, during an electiort in the Northwest, the Mormons, protesting against his demand for soldiers to fight the Boers, burned him in effigy, he marched upon a platform, struck a heroic pose, and thundered: “All over the south bonfires blaze to celebrate British defeats. Ah, my friends, while these things are tolerated within this land, what chance is there for the safety of this great Empire?”
They called him ‘Richard Bonfire’ after that, but his ardor was not quenched. On the contrary, he went down to Manitoba, threw himself into the thick of the school question, and we find him saying:
“Unless this question is settled and settled right, there will yet arise a strife as deep and dark and bitter as ever rent the North and South asunder and was only settled after four years of bloody and sanguinary conflict.”
He would consecrate his life to preserving unity. “I am only a young man yet,” he declared, “and I hope I have much of my young life before me. I promise to_ devote the remainder of my days to this great issue.”
The issue was not settled right, according to Bennett's canons, and, so far as is known, his consecration to it has never since produced a word frcm his lips. But no matter. It was just the brave ardor of a young Galahad, the reckless, headlong enthusiasm that has carried him to the summits. Nor was he ever a trimmer. Others might drop from the ranks, or turn apostate, but in all the dark days his party saw on the Plains he never once struck his flag. Even in 1926, when every Tory between the Rockies and the Lakes, but himself, went down in Meighen’s debacle, and Bennett became the shield and buckler, the chariot and horse of his party from Kenora to the Great Divide, his courage never flinched. Day after day, last session, he was found in his seat by the side of Mr. Guthrie.
As an orator, he lias few peers in the House. And his eloquence is the antithesis of Meighen's. Meighen could make mincemeat of his opponents’ arguments; but in doing so he created the uneasy feeling that anything, so triumphantly simple, must be in the nature of a conjuring trick, that the author of such intellectual subtleties must be more shifty and elusive than straightforward and honest. Bennett depends little on finesse. Other men rise to speak: he rises to deliver an oration. He advances, as it were, with his colors flying and his drums beating. It is no longer a skirmish, but a general engagement. All his rhetorical legions are brought into action with pomp and circumstance, and the most commonplace topic is thundered into a Thermopylae by a cataract of resounding phrases. And he improvises on his feet. Mr. King writes out a speech with his own hand, and knows it as he knows his prayers. Bennett’s bolts are forged in the furnace of his mind and come out molten and aflame.
For this he suffers in print. Most great speeches have come down in history as a feeble echo oí what they had been when delivered; and when Bennett's thunders are stilled and the vivid circumstances and dramatic situation have passed, one is liable to read his utterances only to wonder what made them sound so impressive when delivered by the orator, het he has improved with the years. When he first came to the House, preceded by a reputation for forensic eloquence, he made no great impression. One often felt that there was less stuff than stuffing in his torrential passages; they suggested John
Mûriey’s famous description of the oratory of Joseph Cowen, resembling 'a train of twenty coaches with a single passenger.’ To-day, one notes a change. There are still the old torrential passages, tumultuous and tumbling, but with them there is a power of drawing clear distinctions, a crystal clarity of thought, and a command of clear-out exposition that are potent in debate. At times, too, there is beauty. Bennett in his hurried life, has not neglected the classics; and occasionally the cadences of ins phrases, arid his literary allusions, with their revelation of w ide reading, conform to best classical traditions.
Bennett or Bludgeon
WHETHER Bennett will inspire more loyalty from his parte than Meighen did. remains to be seen. Meighen dominated it as Parnell did the Irish Nationalists: by the sheer force of his character. The rank and f-.le never loved him; they merely kissed the rod of his intellectual preeminence. Secretly, they chafed under many of his policies. Meighen was a radical trying to conform to a Tory tradition— and he didn’t always conform He didn’t conform when he defied the thunders of St. James Street and took over the Grand Trunk. And he didn’t conform when he made the Hamilton speech. The Hamilton speech was administered to the Imperialists as Mussolini administered castor oil to the Socialists. S >m-of them were cowed into it ; others bludgeoned into it; and all of them cordially hated it. The few exceptions who did approve of it, and who should have had the manliness to come out and say so when Meighen, in defeat, was assailed for it, kept their peace. They were as loyal as the comrades of Napoleon who deserted him in downfall and banishment.
When Meighen was on his feet, incomparable in attack or defence, his followers cheered him, but when the smoke of battle cleared away they repaired to the smoke-rooms to doubt him. This chill, frigid ascetic, so sure of himself, so immersed in the business of Parliament that he often failed to notice a colleague when he met him in the corridor, lacked the warmth of comradeship for which the party craved. The old hands, especially, longed for a Sir John: longed for somebody who would not always stand up straight and strong, but who, occasionally, would be guilty of a few venial sins. Dr. Totmie summed up their feelings when he pleaded with Meighen not to qualify for the presidency of the Undertakers’ Association.
And the feeling of the party was the feeling of the country. Canada never really knew Arthur Meighen. Those who saw him on the platform only thought of him as an intellectual machine: bleak, bitter and devoid of generosity. But there was another Meighen. There was the Meighen that those of us who were privileged to have his friendship knew; the Meighen who, privately, spoke chivalrously of his foes: who had more than a touch of emotion and sentiment and quiet humor beneath that cold exterior: who was loyal to old comrades and friends. Meighen hated humbug, hated it so much that he could not conceal his indignation in face of it: and too often his indignation w-as confused with spleen.
But pettiness was not in his soul. It was my high
privilege, intimately, to know him for more than fifteen years, and through all that stormy period, when passions ran high, and during which he tasted both triumph and tragedy, I do not think that it could ever be truly said, of him. that he was insolent in the hour of victory, unscrupulous in the hour of conflict, or petty or ungenerous in the hour of defeat. It will be long before Parliament sees his like again.
Bennett, like Meighen, has no surface humor. He has vitality and poise and never gives the impression that he is fanatical or bitten or driven by jealousies or animosities There is, in fact, a natural and well-ventilated health in Bennett, which distinguishes him from the run of overfed, tobacco-laden, anecdotal, indoor politicians. But this, a virtue, may well be a handicap in politics. Too much stateliness and dignity is anathema to democracy, and one of the most valuable qualities that the politician can possess is that touch of irrepressible fun that bubbles out of your AÍ Smiths or Lloyd Georges and, as the saying is, ‘makes them human.’ There is something a little inhuman about Bennett—not in the sense of being against human nature, but in the sense of being above it. He does not bring enough of the schoolboy into his relations with men. One feels that he takes himself a bit too seriously, that he is too conscious of the great lawyer and successful financier and statesman. ‘A large and important body, entirely surrounded by complacency,’ is the way one wit has described him.
Such a man will never beg votes by devices cheap or vulgar. One could no more imagine him kissing babies than one could imagine Francis of Assisi doing the charleston. Yet there is about R. B. Bennett a boyish impetuosity that is tremendously attractive. He dramatizes politics, and when a situation becomes spectacular he grapples with it with a zest and glee that compels admiration and seldom inspires bitterness. And he is a host in himself. He knows what is theatrically effective, he has an air of common sense, a resourcefulness, and an eloquence which make him powerful in debate. But he has a still greater quality than these. Bennett’s speeches, always hard-hitting, have no poison in them. For some creditable reason his speeches do not make enemies of his opponents. One might expect that a man who had fought many of the West’s dearest projects at one time or another would be hated on the plains. But, Bennett is not hated. On the contrary, there was no Conservative in Parliament during the past few years who was more liked by the Progressives.
His intimate friends swear by him. They protest that he is misunderstood, that there is no man in public life in Canada with a heart so warm, with sympathies more universal, with a simplicity so complete, with a loyalty so unswerving and so dependable. Let the party get to know him, they declare, and it will rally around him to a man. Whether they are right or wrong, we shall see.
A Civilized Mind
INTELLECTUALLY, Bennett has few equals in our
politics. His knowledge and his memory, like his genius for rhetoric, are amazing. “Have you read Guedalla’s Palmerston?” I asked him on a chance meeting
last session, and immediately he launched forward upon a torrential recital of the most intimate details of Palmerston’s career. He had read-—and remembered—everything of the great Englishman’s life. And it is so with politics and history and law. “You will find that precedent at page 300 of the British Journals of 1884,” he told Meighen’s inner cabinet one day when they were discussing an obscure constitutional point; and the amazed board of strategy went and found that it was so. It would not be true to say that he is the scholar in politics, but it certainly can be said that he has a wider knowledge of literature, and a more cultured, or, as H. L. Mencken would put it, a more civilized mind, than any other man in the House.
His intellectual courage is beyond dispute. In 1911, when he came out of the West like a flaming apostle of righteousness and Imperialism, he soon showed that he had an uncontrollable conscience that defied the orthodox partisans. Young men behind a new government are not supposed to talk, but they could not silence Bennett. He drew his sword against Meighen over the Canadian Northern bill in an episode that is remembered. He thundered against lobbying on the part of private interests; and he made one of the most slashing attacks that Parliament has heard against the iniquity of secret campaign funds. It did not win him favor with the Front Bench, but it certainly compelled respect. Nor has he changed with the years. Thus, last session, he disturbed his own party and many of its influential supporters by a proposal to reduce the national debt by what many interpreted to be virtual confiscation of the profits of banks and insurance companies. This from the man supposed to be on the side of wealth and high privilege.
And R. B. Bennett, despite his millions, is far from being a reactionary. “There are no Tories in Canada,” he told the Winnipeg Convention, revealing his political philosophy. It is not that he is a radical. He is not, and never will be, the leader of any movement seeking to impose any new or drastic policy upon the Canadian people. He will never promise those who follow him a new heaven and earth. The platform upon which he stands, offers nothing that has not been put forward, in one form or another, during every election of the past three decades. He has no creed such as the Labor Party in England offers to the unprivileged masses there. Nor does he believe that a reconstruction of Canadian society is necessary or desirable. He is really a perfectly conservative man about property, Canadian political institutions, and Canadian ideals; neither faddist nor Bourbon, radical nor Tory. And he will never permit formulae nor creeds nor theories to shape his solutions of problems.
William Jennings Bryan, when he was talking his ‘cross of gold’ nonsense, used to say that ‘no man can make a million dollars honestly.’ Later, when he became the Great Realtor and realized the profits that would accrue to him from sale of Florida land, he tapered his statement to read that ‘no man can make ten millions honestly.’ It is in the spirit of William Jennings Bryan that some people view with misgivings the selection of Bennett, the millionaire, to lead the Conservative Party. To such people, piping on a willow whistle the thin strain
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that comes from misfits and failures, to whom to be rich is to be wicked, it is inconceivable that a man of broad intelligence, and with a civilized philosophy of life, should tire of devoting himself to the piling up of wealth, and enter a wider sphere of activity. Yet, uncommon as this may be in Canada and the United States, it is the usual tiling in England. There, a man who has amassed all the money he needs feels that he owes it to his fellows to become a public servant, and that nothing will bring greater returns in happiness and honor. It is so, I believe, with Bennett.
Years ago, in the House of Commons, a member taunted him with being a hireling of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and Bennett flamed back the answer that he was giving up more in the way of Canadian Pacific fees each year for the privilege of sitting in the House than his heckler had ever earned in a similar period in his life. And he was right. Mighty in law, and with a genius for finance, Bennett holds a political career higher than all else, and when in 1911, he came to Parliament he sacrificed a practice and directorships that must have cost him thousands. And so again, today. Director of the Canadian Pacific Railway of the Royal Bank and of International Paper; directing genius of the Eddy Company; a giant at the Canadian bar; he is glad to abandon them all for the honor of public service. To him the Prime Ministership is a greater prize than all the gold of the northland.
Mr. Asquith once said that commercial law was the great training ground for modern politics, that it provided the best equipment for government more and more concerned with the complex questions of industry and finance. Mr. Bennett, indeed, already has proved this truth. When Lord Randolph Churchill went to the British Treasury and was confronted with decimals on a file he said to the officials: “What are those damned dots?” When Bennett walked into the Finance Department as Minister last year he amazed and confounded the experts of the department with his grasp of the most intimate details. “Other new ministers called us in to ask us what they should do,” said a leading official. “Bennett called us in to instruct us as to what should be done.” And he was the same in the Department of Justice, during the brief period in which he served as Minister under the Meighen regime. Deeply versed in law, as much at home before the Judicial Committee of the
Privy Council as when addressing a Cal" gary jury, it was the common verdict of the law officers of the department that he would have made the most notable occupant of the office since Edward Blake.
Wooing the West
ANF the platform of his party, evolved ^-At Winnipeg, little need be said. For, to the sophisticated in politics, it is a platform that signifies little. One hundred and twenty delegates, representing all sections of the country, and all sorts of seemingly conflicting interests, sat down in a room on the second night of the Convention, and between the hours of ten in the evening and four in the morning wrote a dozen resolutions about a dozen different things—and called them a platform. If any definite tendency one way or the other can be detected in them, it is a tendency to make a genuflection before the Prairies. “We must woo the West,” said Mr. Hugh Guthrie in Ontario last summer; and while the party disapproved of Mr. Guthrie with his heart so ostentatiously on his sleeve, it accepted his advice, nevertheless. That is why benediction is given to the Hudson Bay Railway. That is why there was endorsaron of the Crow’s Nest rates. And that is why Protection, though reaffirmed, is reaffirmed with muffled drums. The political pendulum swings westward.
Nor can the party’s strategists much be blamed. “Platforms,” said Mr. Fielding, after 1911, “platforms are made to get in on”; and Mr. King, less cynical, but not more honest, admitted they were merely a ‘chart.’ That, in truth, is all they can be. Principles are eternal, and may usefully be reiterated, but no group of men, no matter how far-sighted, can sit down in 1927 and draw up specific remedies for the unknowable problems of 1930. The tide of events in these times is too turbulent, too fast.
And so the fate and the future of the Conservative Party rest mainly with Mr. Bennett. Whether it is destined, under his leadership, to remain long in the wilderness, or fated soon to enter the Promised Land, no man can say, for no one can horoscope the future. But one thing, at least, is sure. It is that Mr. Bennett, if he be true to his past and his talents, will lead it in no mean nor ignoble way, but with a mind acutely responsive to noble impulses, with courage and intellectual address, and with a high sense of the dignity and the obligations of politics.