Articles

THE CABINET MINISTER WHO NEVER SLEEPS

BLAIR FRASER June 1 1952
Articles

THE CABINET MINISTER WHO NEVER SLEEPS

BLAIR FRASER June 1 1952

THE CABINET MINISTER WHO NEVER SLEEPS

Brooke Claxton, a former gunner, has at various times been under heavy fire from the Press, the Opposition and enemies within his own defense department. Through these barrages he continues to work an eight-hour night in addition to an eight-hour day

BLAIR FRASER

MACLEAN'S OTTAWA EDITOR

AT ELEVEN o’clock one evening last August Hon. Brooke Claxton, Minister of National Defense, left the Ottawa Country Club where he had been host at a state dinner for U. S. General Omar Bradley. He drove to Rockcliffe Airport and took off for Washington, to a conference on standardization of arms and ammunition.

Claxton spent the flight time briefing himself on the technical subject matter of the conference. He got to the Shoreham Hotel at four a.m. and went to bed, leaving a call for seven.

That morning he ate three breakfasts—one alone, one with French Defense Secretary Jules Moch and the third with Frank Pace, U. S. Secretary of the Army. By that time he felt adequately posted for the conference itself which opened at ten and went on until five, with a short break for lunch.

Claxton had to go to a reception, so he called a meeting of the Canadian delegation in his hotel room and presided at it while he showered, shaved and dressed. At six-thirty he went off to be one of the guests of honor at a party for eight hundred people.

He got away shortly after eight, had dinner with his staff and then returned to the hotel to work on the Canadian presentation to the conference. The staff knocked off at three a.m., leaving Claxton still at work. He was up and dressed when they came back at seven-thirty to continue the discussion during breakfast.

Another conference day was followed by another cocktail party, this time at the Canadian Embassy with Claxton again a guest of honor. He left at seven-thirty to fly back to Ottawa, getting home at one a.m. At nine a.m. he was back at the airport to take off for Edmonton, where he joined Prime

Minister St. Laurent on a tour of western military establishments.

According to his staff, who regard him with mixed feelings of affection, exasperation and awe, this was a fairly typical Claxton excursion. In a normal year he will be away from home on business more than one hundred nights, make two hundred speeches, attend one hundred and fifty meetings in fifty-odd places and travel forty thousand miles. Last year he traveled eighty thousand, but that includes a trip to Korea which ran over into 1952. It’s not unusual for him to go a week or ten days without once sleeping in the same bed twice.

When National Defense fails to provide reasons for staying up half the night Claxton invents them. One day last month he took off for Toronto at noon. His schedule called for two receptions, two speeches, one inspection four of an aircraft plant and a return flight to Ottawa the same night. Claxton got through on time, but meanwhile fog had come down on Ot tawa’s airports and grounded him in Toronto overnight, with nothing to do.

This news became definite about midnight. Claxton invited two aides to his suite for a nightcap and they talked about various problems until threethirty. When they left, Claxton was fishing in his brief case for the detective story his secretary had bought for him before he left Ottawa. (He Likes one each night, like a sleeping pill.)

The two officials were back at. seven-forty-five. Claxton, already dressed, was looking wit h distaste at the detective story. “A waste of money,” he said. “One of t he dullest mysteries I’ve ever read.”

When Claxton took over National Defense in 1947 he commissioned Walter Gordon, a business consultant., to do a survey of the department and suggest changes in its organization. Gordon and Claxton had been personal friends for years, but Gordon found the assignment somewhat trying. He would frequently start a working day at a normal hour, progress through a whirl of conferences, parties and more conferences until midnight, then find Claxton ready to settle down for a couple of hours’ serious work.

In his report, Gordon recommended among other things that the minister should reorganize himself and his working day. Some of the other suggestions were adopted, but that one was ignored.

Claxton has had several executive assistants during his five years at National Defense, all of them war veterans in good physical shape and most of them his junior by twenty years or more. But none of these hardy young men can keep up with the minister for more than a few days at a time. Claxton, who will be fifty-four in August, has been maintaining the same high-powered pace without

When he was eighteen he was quartermastersergeant of the second McGill Siege Battery, then training in Montreal, and the mothers of even younger children who had enlisted in his unit would ask Claxton to take care of their sons.

“You know Bill,” they would say. “You know he’s only fifteen, for all he’s so big and of course he’s lied about his age. Do look after him, won’t you?”

Claxton took these injunctions quite literally. Each midnight he would check the dormitories in the McGill Union and invariably he’d find some youngster wasn’t in. Claxton would then set out to find him, combing the nearby beer halls until he located the truant and escorted him back. He often found on returning from these expeditions that some other young recruit would have taken advantage of his absence to sneak down the fire escape, whereupon Claxton would repeat the operation. He didn’t get much sleep himself.

Actually Sergeant Claxton was already a qualified and commissioned officer who had been posted to the second battalion, Victoria Rifles. However, this unit was assigned to home duty and Claxton had spent the later months of 1916 guarding Victoria Bridge, a task he found uncongenial. When Sir Stopford Brunton got permission to raise a second McGill Siege Battery, Claxton gave up his commission for a place in the ranks.

It must Imve been a strange unit. Almost all the McGill recruits would now be rated as officer material and a good many, like Claxton, were officers already who had given up their commissions. George Bourke, now president of the Sun Life Assurance Company and then a recent honor graduate in mathematics and physics, was a sergeant— he and Claxton, together with Arthur Terroux of Montreal, were the three “charter members” who helped Sir Stopford organize the battery. Arthur Irwin, National Film Board Commissioner and former editor of this magazine, was a gunner. So was A. C. Casselman, now Progressive Conservative whip in the House of Commons and even then a graduate lawyer who gave up his practice to enlist.

In England the young college-trained recruits were reinforced by combat veterans who were mostly Cape Breton miners and New Brunswick lumberjacks. The two elements turned out to be unexpectedly congenial—Claxton’s closest friends, a little group of chronic poker players, included Casselman and a couple of other university men, a Glace Bay miner, a milknjan and a plumber.

The commanding officer, apparently chosen because he was a Montrealer with combat experience, was an ex-foreman from the CNR shops who told

the battery on its first parade that university men were a worthless lot and that he intended to prove it to them. Perhaps for this reason, the battery undertook to prove the opposite.

Today, veterans’ memories of the 10th Siege Battery tend to vary according to the veteran’s temperament. Claxton, whose instinct is to regard anything to which he belongs as the best in the world, recalls that the battery had the best ball team, the best boxer, the best tug-of-war team (beaten only once, by the undefeated London Metropolitan Police) as well as the fastest and most accurate gun crews in the whole Canadian

Army, which in turn was better than any other army. Other veterans say the McGill battery was a sloppy, peevish, ill-disciplined outfit which regarded its own officers as incompetent nincompoops and which performed its duties in a continuous mood of unconcealed resentment. Both schools agree, however, the 10th Siege Battery was a formidable fighting unit.

When Claxton was in Korea last winter one of the forward batteries put on an artillery demonstration for him. He clocked the interval between determination of target and firing of the first round —fifty-five seconds. Claxton told the battery

commander that this was precisely the time his outfit had achieved under combat conditions in France thirty-four years before.

Like all the home-front NCOs Claxton reverted to the rank of private on reaching England, then worked his way up again. He was sergeant in charge of a gun crew (best gun crew in the Canadian Army, he believes) when they went to France. For the last few months of the war he was battery sergeant-major.

Claxton was never wounded but he got a name for attracting enemy fire. “We got to be superstitious about it,” said one of his mates. “We’d

see Brooke coming and we’d holler ‘Stay away from here.’ Any place he went, Fritz would drop a shell and somebody’d be killed.”

Others were glad to see him anyway—several remember being buried by shellfire and having Claxton dig them out. He won the Distinguished Conduct Medal (second highest decoration available to noncommissioned ranks) for no single act of heroism but for doing a cool competent job during long periods under fire.

After the Armistice Claxton decided he hadn’t time to finish the Arts course he’d begun at McGill before enlisting. He Continued on page 31

The Cabinet Minister Who Never Sleeps

Continued from page 9

went straight into law, graduated with honor* and various medals and prizes in 192L and went into partnership with his father.

Claiton worked hard at his practice and did very well, but he never did limit himself to law. He spent almost as much aime being secretary of the Canadian League, an organization of the Nineteen-Twenties devoted to building up Canadian national spirit. Claxton had and has a boundless enthusiasm for anything Canadian, from Canadian art and poetry to Canadian whisky and Canadian cheese. In the early Twenties he and his father bought the house which the Claxtons still regard as home —a beiutiful Canadien farmhouse with walls * yard thick, built in 1685, and itself i rare item of Canadiana. In 1925 Claxton married Helen Galt Savage, sjster of the well-known painter Annie Savage, and through her he became interested in Canadian paintings. The first Montreal exhibition of the Group of Seven was held in the Claxtcns’ living room twenty-six years ago.

They had a busy social life, too. Claxtcn enjoys playing host and does it extremely well. Last December 24 saw the twenty-seventh consecutive Christmas Eve party at the Claxton home; among the carol singers around the piano were young men and women whose parents hadn’t even met when they attended their first Claxton Christmas party.

Claxton was active in the Canadian Institute of International Affairs which, founded in 1928, absorbed the old Canadian League. Partly through the Institute, partly by the natural effect of Claxton hospitality, their home became a rendezvous for visitors to Montreal from other provinces and other countries. He built up a set of acquaintances all over the world which has been helpful during his years in the cabinet.

Advice: Don’t Talk

His acquaintances were also responsible in some part, for the young Claxton’s reputation as a radical. He was a friend and admirer of the late J. S. Woodsworth, founder of the CCF, and of many a Woodsworth follower. Claxton himself has never belonged to any political organization except the Liberal Party and most of the radical measures he advocated in the Thirties have been enacted by the Liberal Government of which he is a member. However, conservative circles in those days regarded him as a pretty dangerous fellow, and there was surprise on both Left and Right when he ran as a Liberal candidate in 1940.

There was more surprise when he won. His opponent was Hon. C. H. Cahan, who had survived Liberal landslides before; their riding was St. Lawrence-St. George, which had gone Liberal only once before in its history. Claxton got a majority sixty-five percent bigger than the biggest Cahan had ever got, and since then he has doubled it.

When he came to Ottawa for his first session his old crony A. C. Cas8elman, who by then had been a Conservative MP for fifteen years, gave him some sage counsel: “If you want to get on, just keep quiet for the first year. Listen, don’t talk.”

Claxton took the advice to the extent of remaining silent for almost a month. In that first session he spoke only four times, and always briefly, though he plunged immediately into committee

work. He rose oftener the following year and by 1943 felt sufficiently at home to make a speech on the reform of parliament itself. He even wrote a magazine article on the subject. The Opposition seldom lets a session go by without quoting this article and asking the Minister of National Defense when he proposes to implement it.

A friend of those days remembers Claxton asking “What does a backbencher do when his party takes a line he doesn’t like? Should he try to change the policy, and then support the party anyway? Or should he speak against the policy in public as well?”

“Go ahead and speak your mind,” was the reply. “They’ll respect you for it.” The friend now recalls with a touch of malice that Claxton seemed to find this advice unpalatable, and changed the subject abruptly.

Assistant to the Boss

Nevertheless, his early speeches show more independence than those of most new members. If he didn’t attack the government he did urge it to various courses it hadn’t adopted. However, Claxton soon found it was more effective to work for what he wanted behind the scenes.

In the summer of 1943, the year Claxton was appointed parliamentary assistant to Prime Minister King, the Liberal Party’s fortunes were at their lowest ebb of the past twenty years. An Ontario provincial election threw out the Liberal government, installed a Conservative regime by the narrowest -of margins over a CCF Opposition, and left the Liberals decimated and demoralized. By-elections and Gallup polls indicated that the same fate awaited the Mackenzie King government if an election were to be held immediately.

A strong faction in the Liberal cabinet, led by Rt. Hon. James G. Gardiner, argued that this meant a reaction against wartime controls—price ceilings, wage ceilings, the controlled economy in general. Claxton believed (rightly, as it turned out) that the voters had precisely the opposite feeling, that they were oppressed by fear of postwar depression and disorganization and that what they wanted was some assurance of security.

Claxton began a private campaign for a restatement of Liberal policy and repair of the Liberal political machine. (Mr. King, in spite of his reputation as a master politician, never had much interest in the mechanics of politics, and the party organization had fallen into a sad state of decay.) One of Claxton’s memoranda to the then Prime Minister, a diagnosis of and prescription for the Liberal Party’s ills, is still quoted with admiration by connoisseurs of political strategy.

Largely as a result of Claxton’s insistence, the executive of the National Liberal Federation was summoned to meet in Sept. 1943. Again under Claxton’s persuasion, it adopted a fairly radical set of resolutions—virtually a blueprint of the social security program which has now been largely implemented. Because this advice was being proffered to a government in office, the resolutions had to be kept secret at the time. Claxton, having won a hard fight to get the Liberal Federation to adopt his security program, still had the job of selling it to the prime minister and the cabinet.

He succeeded in that, too. The Speech from the Throne in 1944 contained the promise of Family Allowances, and the election campaign literature (at that time the party intended to go to the people in 1944) was all based on old-age pensions, health insurance, floor prices for farm

products, etc. For that major trend in Liberal Party policy Claxton was responsible more than any other single individual.

It was appropriate, therefore, that his first cabinet post should be Minister of National Health and Welfare, which he became in Oct. 1944. Claxton picked the team of bright young men who set up the machinery of Family Allowances, an exploit of rapid organization of which he is still proud. He also picked Dr. Brock Chisholm as deputy minister of health; Chisholm’s outspoken opinions about God and Santa Claus got him into trouble with the orthodox of all sects, and were a terrible worry to Claxton. He defended Chisholm loyally against the outraged complaints of cabinet colleagues, but he was the happiest man in Ottawa when the World Health Organization took Chisholm off his hands.

At that time most people assumed that Claxton was headed for the External Affairs Department if, as expected, Mr. King made it a separate portfolio. The assumption was correct to an extent that few people realize even now.

King took Claxton as his deputy to the Paris Peace Conference in 1946. He confided one evening that he intended to appoint a Minister of External Affaire and that Claxton was his choice for the job.

Claxton wished nothing better but he had a different suggestion. Louis St. Laurent, then Minister of Justice, had decided to go back to his law practice. Claxton thought (as King did) that it was very important to the Liberal Party and to Canada that St. Laurent be induced to remain in public life and succeed King as prime minister. He had a hunch that if King were to offer St. Laurent External Affairs, St. Laurent might change his mind and stay.

“He won’t do it,” King replied. “I’ve spoken to him several times, and he’s determined to retire.”

However, he agreed to try Claxton’s plan and offer St. Laurent External Affairs. It worked.

The Brass Was Indignant

So instead of the job he wanted, Claxton got the one nobody wanted —National Defense. In Dec. 1946, National Defense offered about as unattractive a prospect as any politician could imagine. The services had to be shrunk to peacetime size, which would be certain to enrage the permanent forces and which the general public wouldn’t notice unless something went wrong. Meanwhile the services would remain a very costly item to the continuous irritation of the taxpayer, the Opposition and the Minister of Finance. All these forebodings turned out to be right.

Claxton discovered that as Minister of National Defense he had three automobiles permanently on call, each with a driver—one army, one navy, one air force. Each of the three services had its own motor pool. One of his first acts was to abolish this triplication and reduce the number of staff care at National Defense Headquarters from sixty-one to sixteen.

Officers above a certain rank were accustomed to some fairly expensive amenities. At an early meeting of chiefs of staff, Claxton struck out an item in the estimates for “mess gear; admirals, for the use of.” The Chief of the Naval Staff was very indignant. He argued that these distinctions of rank were indispensable to service morale. Claxton intimated that any admiral who felt his morale deteriorating should report the fact, in person, to the Minister of National Defense. Meanwhile, the admirals’ mess gear item would stay out.

The services were unaccustomed to this treatment. The deputy minister for air took to feeding information to the Opposition press, items intended to show what a fool Claxton was and how wise the air force was in frustrating his schemes. Claxton soon located the leak and fired the deputy minister, after which the discipline in all services noticeably improved.

He then proceeded with a program of service unification which all three disliked at the time, hut which they now admit to he an improvement in most respects. All services draw the same pay for corresponding rank, the same grade of clothing, bedding, housing, food and auxiliary services. Each service provides hospital service to the other two, depending on which has the biggest and best facilities in a given area. It is a symptom of the new approach that in the civilian organization of National Defense, the three assistant deputy ministers are assigned not to army, navy and air force but to finance, administration and requirements.

Even while he was cutting down at the top, Claxton began to build up at the bottom. When he came to National Defense there were three hundred and fifty married quarters for all three services, and servicemen’s wives and children were living in trailer camps, shanties and single rooms often miles away from their stations. Ten thousand married quarters have now been completed, and this figure will be doubled next year when the contracts already let are completed. Twentynine schools for six thousand children have also been built.

Medical service in 1946 was for service personnel only, and it was not uncommon for a soldier’s wife to hear' a child without assistance because no civilian doctor could be found, although a military hospital with empty beds and an unoccupied staff’ lay a mile or two away. Service families now get service medical attention.

This concern with the men’s welfare was one thing that helped to overcome the services’ hostility to their new minister. Another was his own hard work. Claxton set out in 1947 to visit every station, meet every man and master every fact in the Canadian armed forces, and he has succeeded to an astonishing degree. All three chiefs of staff’ now admit that Claxton knows more about the services, taken as a whole, than any man in Canada.

On his trip to Japan last January he was driving through Kure when he suddenly cried “Stop the car.” Claxton jumped out, ran back and tapped a bulky, blue-clad figure on the shoulder.

“Aren’t you Chief Petty Officer Martin?” said the Minister of National Defense. The navy man nodded. “1 met you last year at Esquimalt,” said Claxton.

Far from brooding nowadays over Continued on page 35

When You Have Read This Magazine...

please send it to a member of the armed forces serving overseas. If you know no one in the services, enquire locally if some organization is collecting magazines for shipment. In most areas some organization is performing this valuable service.

Continued from page 32 theii suspicion that the Minister is trying to sabotage them, the services now worry about his tendency to defend them at all times against all charges under all circumstances. They know, and Claxton cannot seem to learn, that it’s ingratiating to admit a fault and merely infuriating to pretend none existe.

Claxton has as many personal friends in the Ottawa press corps as any other cabinet minister and more than most; he is on mutual first-name terms with every senior reporter in town. Nevertheless he gets a worse press than anyone else in the Cabinet. Usually the reason is Claxton’s stubborn insistence that something or other is white which some people think is black and everyone knows is no paler than grey.

A current case in point is the CF-100, the Canadian-designed jet fighter with the Canadian Orenda engine which A. V. Roe is building at Malton, near Toronto. Air force people will admit privately that the CF-100 program is about a year behind what they hoped for when the first prototype was delivered nearly eighteen months ago. Enough trouble developed in 1951 to warrant the wholesale dismissal and replacement of Avro’s top management. Airmen still think the CF-100 will be a useful aircraft but they know a year is a long time in the fiercely competitive field of jet development.

Claxton maintains, even privately, that nothing serious has gone wrong with the CF-100 program. He refers to production delays as “bugs” to be expected in any new aircraft. Far from being gratified at this blanket defense, Claxton’s own staff finds it intensely annoying.

They have another aircraft production program of which they really are proud—the Sabre jet at Canadair, Montreal. Queen Elizabeth II has referred to the Canadair plant as the most impressive and memorable thing she saw in her whole Canadian tour. Some of its production records beat those of the North American plant in Los Angeles where the Sabre was designed and developed. National Defense officials would like to get credit for the job that’s been done on the Sabre; they suspect people won’t believe them unless they admit, at the same time, that the CF-100 program has fallen behind.

The Canadair project illustrates another way in which Claxton annoys the Press and the Opposition —his treatment. of so-called military secrets.

Canadair is producing approximately twenty Sabres a month, and will be able to increase that rate to fifty within eight or ten months after the U. S. plant is ready to provide the additional engines and other imported parts. Roth these facts have been published often and anyone at the Canadair plant will confirm them. Moreover, each Sabre coming off Canadair’s assembly line is

numbered; any visitor can see they have produced some two hundred and fifty aircraft in a little less than two years of production.

Claxton answers enquiry about Sabre production with the statement that the rate has never been announced, that it is therefore a military secret, and that press reports referring to production rates are mere speculation.

This attitude on the Minister’s part is partly responsible for George Drew’s reiterated demand for “more facts” about defense, and for the steady hail of criticism in parliament and press which Claxton has been getting for the past five years.

Claxton affects to disregard these attacks—he keeps a file of John Collins’ “Babbling Brooke” cartoons in the Montreal Gazette and in Saturday Night, and two or three Collins originals hang on Claxton’s office wralls. In fact, this bitter and long-sustained assault has been extremely painful to him. Its effect has been to make him almost morbidly sensitive to criticism and, accordingly, somewhat preoccupied with the mechanics of publicity. Meanwhile he seems confirmed in his resolution to defend his record and his department against every slightest imputation of flaw.

A Lesson in Tactics

Lately, though, his advisers scored one triumph in this regard which raised their hopes considerably. At a press conference in Rotterdam last fall Claxton was talking about Canada’s contribution to NATO. The Canadian Press reported, under Douglas How’s by-line, that he had said Canada would pay for European airfields up to a cost of one hundred million dollars.

As a matter of fact the story was not true How’s cable had been expanded on a rewrite desk to put words in Claxton’s mouth that he hadn’t used. The press conference had been taken down on a tape recorder which proved, beyond all challenge, that the Minister hadn’t said anything new in Rotterdam.

Nevertheless various friends and advisers persuaded Claxton not to defend himself. He went to Parliament and said in effect “I didn’t mean to say anything amiss, but if I did I’m sorry.” Disarmed, the Opposition dropped the matter for good. Whether or not this will turn out to be a lesson to Claxton in parliamentary public relations, it’s still too soon to say.

By an odd irony this question of paying for airfields, which Claxton was supposed to have settled so blithely at Rotterdam, was the occasion for one of his more spectacular exploits as Minister of Defense at Lisbon a few months later. Claxton was made chairman of a NATO subcommittee on “infrastructure,” the high-priced word by which NATO denotes its own establishment costs (airfields, barracks, sig-

nal equipment and so on). It was about the knottiest knot NATO had to untie; efforts to do so had failed in Rome and the pessimists expected failure in Lisbon and a serious inner breakdown of NATO’s effectiveness.

Claxton literally sweated an agreement out of his eleven colleagues. He called fourteen meetings in ten days, including one which (to the horror of weekend-conscious Europeans) began at eight-thirty Sunday morning and went on all day.

He began by asking each country to tell him, confidentially, the maximum amount it felt able to contribute to infrastructure. The total of these bids came to sixty percent of infrastructure costs. Then he asked each country to submit its own confidential appraisal of what the other eleven countries could produce. This total came very close to his own estimate of the whole amount required. Thereafter it was just a matter of a twelve-sided horse trade to close the gap. Claxton ended, on the last day of the Lisbon conference, with a firm commitment covering ninety-five percent of infrastructure costs and a hasty agreement to share out the balance pro rata.

Altogether it was just the kind of endurance contest at which Claxton ! excels. Most politicians like parliament but dread elections; Claxton loves them. At least once every five years, everybody has to move at the pace he prefers all the time.

Of Pomp and Circumstance

i During the 1949 campaign he made hardly any speeches of his own, but he volunteered for the major chore of making sure that all advertising and publicity material of the Liberal Party followed the same line in French and in English. He moved into a suite at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal where, for two or three weeks, he reveled in a feast of twenty-one-hour days and gorgeous monumental confusion.

One of his younger aides, taking part in an election for the first time, came in at eight o’clock one morning with a feeling of considerable virtue. He found Claxton sitting in his underwear, with a telephone in each hand; on one he was talking to C. D. Howe in Toronto, on the other to Jimmy Gardiner in Saskatoon. Claxton didn’t see anything unusual in the spectacle he presented. He’d been on the phone since a quarter to seven and hadn’t had time to dress.

Some people, watching this fury of activity and this frank delight in politics, in pomp and circumstance, in publicity, jump to the conclusion that Claxton is hoping to be the next prime minister. Those who know him best disagree. They say he may have harbored this ambition at one time, but that he gave it up entirely when he tackled the unpopular job at National Defense.

To close friends, Claxton occasionally talks about being weary of the continual rat race in which he has been caught for the last twelve years. He would like more time at home, which i he has always enjoyed, and more I chance to see the children of whom he j is enormously proud. (John is now a practicing lawyer in Montreal, David j and Helen Jane, called Boo, are at McGill.) Claxton talks wistfully of going back to private practice or to I some job in industry, or even to the cloistered calm of the Bench.

The sophisticated listener, when these bubbles are blown in his direction, has no trouble puncturing them. He simply points out that in no job, at no salary, under no circumstances could Claxton have as much fun as he is having now. it