THE NATIONAL SCENE

David Lewis And Sophie And Michael And Stephen And Janet And Nina And...

WALTER STEWART April 1 1971
THE NATIONAL SCENE

David Lewis And Sophie And Michael And Stephen And Janet And Nina And...

WALTER STEWART April 1 1971

IT ISN'T COMPLICATED, as long as you remember that the last name in every case is the same — Lewis. David ran for Parliament in 1962; his son Stephen managed the campaign, and he won. In 1963, Stephen launched his own political career, and wasn’t available for David's reelection campaign, which he lost. Stephen, however, won, getting into the Ontario legislature with the help of his younger brother, Michael. In 1965, David ran again, Stephen helped him again, and he went back to the House of Commons. In 1967, Stephen was ready for reelection, Michael managed that effort, and it was successful. Then there was another federal election, in 1968. This time David asked Nina, Stephen and Michael’s young sister, to help out. She did, and David was reelected. Last year, Stephen ran for the leadership of the Ontario NDP, and Janet, Nina's twin, flew in from Vancouver to play a major part in that victory. This month, David is trying for the federal leadership of the NDP, with Michael playing an unofficial but important organizing role. It looks like a pushover. In the meantime, Nina has decided to enter active politics and, while the first name of her campaign manager is not known, the surname is a cinch. And don’t bet against her.

The Lewises are, in a way, the Kennedys of Canada. They lack the millions, the yachts, the impeccable background, but they have the same clannishness, the same brilliance, the same passion for politics, the same sense of style, and the same unshakable self-assurance. (When I asked Michael what qualities set the Lewises apart, he replied, “They're bright, articulate, dynamic, eloquent, decent, warm and sympathetic.” Tough? “Yes, tough, too, definitely, but with a fair bit of sensitivity.” He didn’t mention shyness or self-effacement.) Like the Kennedys, the Lewises represent, in a single family, a major political force. David, 61, is almost certainly the next federal leader of the NDP; Stephen, 33, is so clearly the real opposition leader in Ontario that the Tory government will run the next provincial campaign as if the Liberals scarcely exist; Michael, 26, is director of organization for the Ontario NDP, and one of the nation’s most respected political managers; Nina, 22, is in England, where her husband is at university, and Janet, her twin, is with her social-worker husband in Vancouver, but both will soon be actively embroiled once more. And, for the record, Stephen already has three children. “Everywhere you look,” an Ontario Liberal complained, “there’s another goddam Lewis popping out of the woodwork.”

Finally, like the Kennedys, the Lewises owe much of what they are to a strong-minded and beautiful woman. With the Kennedys, it was Mrs. Joseph. With the Lewises, it’s Mrs. David. Sophie. Sophie, of the velvet voice and the iron will. Sophie is the key to it all.

Sophie and David met in 1925 at Baron Byng High School in Montreal. She was in grade 11, pretty, witty and popular; he was in grade nine, an immigrant boy whose English, Sophie remembers, was “a little too perfect.” There was a reason for that. David came from the small town of Swislocz, in Poland. He was born in 1909 to Morris Los, a leatherworker and socialist leader, and his first memories are of political discussions in the family parlor, his next of his homeland being overrun, first by the Germans, then by the Russians, during and after World War I. There was no chance to educate David, his brother or sister, so, in 1921, Poppa Los moved the family to Montreal, where his brother-in-law owned a small clothing business. He changed the family name to Lewis, and sent David off to school. He was 12, in grade one, bewildered by a new language, humiliated at being placed in a class with children half his age. He begged his father to take him out of school, but Poppa, with traditional Jewish reverence for learning, would not. There was nothing for it but to master English. David went to a secondhand bookstore, where he bought the biggest volume he could find — Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. With that, a Yiddish-English dictionary, and a clutch of black notebooks, he set out to master a new language. For a year, he scarcely left home except to go to school, with results echoed today in the perfect periods of his prose. He still speaks Dickens.

Sophie was not particularly attracted to the dark, round-spoken, quick witted boy when he reached high school three years later. “I could see he was interested in me, but I wasn’t interested in him.” That changed after David caught up to Sophie in school. “I was not going to have her ahead of me, so I went to the principal and he let me accelerate.” After finishing high school in three years, David entered McGill, but Sophie, who had lost both parents, did not go on to university. Then David won a Rhodes scholarship, and Sophie, who had become almost a member of the Lewis family — she still cannot speak of Poppa, who died more than 20 years ago, without tears — went to England with him, to work, attend lectures at the London School of Economics, and travel during holidays. While David was piling up academic and extracurricular honors — he was the first Canadian to head the Oxford Union — Sophie set a record of her own. She was the first fiancée of a Rhodes scholar ever invited to live in Rhodes House. “Cecil Rhodes would not have approved, hut I went anyway.”

David had been politically active in Montreal, and in England he was taken up by Sir Stafford Cripps and other Labor Party leaders. He might have remained there, might have become a member of the next Labor government, but he was, he says, “too much of a Canadian for that. We came home.”

Sophie and David were married in 1935, soon after their return from England. David had studied law at Oxford, but only in preparation for politics, so, after a brief career as a patent attorney, he became, in 1937, national secretary of the CCF.

He held the post for 13 years, years of anguish, excitement, triumph and loneliness for Sophie. It was she who had to make David’s pitiful salary — $100 a month to start, $325 a month in 1950 — stretch from payday to payday, and it was she who had to borrow from friends and neighbors when the money ran out. Sophie used to pack bundles of sandwiches for David to take on the train, so he could save on meals. She never knew, when he left, exactly where he was going or when he would be back. He couldn’t afford to telephone, and was usually too harassed to write. Not surprisingly, Sophie was sometimes bitter about politics. “She was always reminding us,” says a long-time friend, “of the sacrifices David made for the party. Well, they were real sacrifices, but we didn’t like being reminded of them.” Nor is it surprising that Sophie became the dominant influence in the family. “Dad was important,” says Michael, “but Mum was the hub.” She had four children, all of them by Cesarean section, all after difficult pregnancies that required her to lie still for weeks at a time and presented financial difficulties, in a pre-Medicare world, that seemed crushing. “I wanted those children, and I fought to have them, but when I discovered I was going to have twins, I wept bitter tears. Where was the money to come from? Where?”

David was only partially involved with the money worries — “Sophie was always the manager in our partnership” — he was more bound up in the difficult task of making the CCF into a powerful force. That he succeeded is a matter of history (Professor Walter Young, in his history of the CCF, notes, “It is not an exaggeration to say that without Lewis the party might have subsided into nothingness altogether during the dark days after 1945, if not before”). How he succeeded is less well known. He badgered and bullied and wheedled; he persuaded candidates who had no taste for politics to run in ridings where they had no chance of winning, and to pay for the privilege. He was organizer, money raiser, spokesman, theorist and, sometimes, dictator. He led the fight against Communists infiltrating the Ontario CCF and worked with endless patience to build the link with organized labor that led, eventually, to the formation of the New Democratic Party as a joint venture of the CCF and the Canadian Labor Congress.

For years the CCF watchword was “Better check it with David.” His identification of himself with the party was complete. Once, during a Regina meeting of the national council, of which he was chairman, a CBC film crew arrived to interview David. He jumped up from the council table and laid down his gavel. “Talk about something unimportant while I’m gone,” he instructed the meeting, “talk about the Maritimes.”

His critical faculties, so evident in the House of Commons, were often turned on his colleagues. Once, when the Ontario provincial council was debating a complex money-raising scheme, David launched a devastating analysis of the committee report on which it was based.. At the end, a council member said, “Very well, David, we'll scrap the project. What should we do instead?” He had no idea. The scheme went through and was, as predicted, a dismal flop.

David often follows a phrase such as “If one may say so without arrogance” with something like “Anyone who attended that convention knows it was run by one man — David Lewis.” But on one occasion, his self-assurance faltered. That was in 1961, when the NDP was being formed, and a leader had to be found. Many CCFers thought David was the natural choice, and at first he was inclined to agree. But there was the matter of his Jewishness. Would Canadians accept a Jew? David thought not; at least not yet, so he declined to run. (Stephen says this was not the real reason. After so many years of running the party from behind the scenes, he says, David couldn’t steel himself to accepting the title. “The Jewish thing was a rationalization.”) The party turned instead to Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas and, when Douglas accepted, a celebration was held at the home of Andrew Brewin, now MP for Toronto Greenwood. David took up a commanding position near the fireplace and told the story of the campaign of persuasion. “I flew out to Regina and spoke to Tommy. Then I met with the cabinet, and his riding association. I told them they had to give Tommy up . . .” Suddenly, Brewin burst in, “For God’s sake, David,” he spluttered, “there were five of us out there! It was a committee!” David didn’t miss a beat. “Yes, yes, of course. When I say T,’ I mean ‘we.’ Then I talked to members of the provincial council. . . .”

Once Douglas agreed to run, David worked hard — and, for once, unsuccessfully — to keep anyone from running against him. Hazen Argue, now a Liberal senator, entered the lists, but not before a climactic debate in the living room of a party supporter, where a member of the Ontario executive and David stood nose to nose, bellowing at each other while, in the background, the wife of a prominent party member chanted noisily, over and over, “Hazen Argue is an s.o.b. Hazen Argue is an s.o.b.” A Labor MP from England happened to be visiting, and was visibly appalled. “What’s the matter?” someone asked him. “Don’t you people have arguments?” “Quite so,” he replied, “quite so. But never like this.”

One reason some stalwarts would have preferred David as leader was that, as one put it, “He was going to run the party anyway, so it was better to give him the title.” David denies that he ever ran Douglas, but his influence was certainly crucial. During the 1963 NDP convention in Regina, when the party was debating a resolution that Canada should stay within NATO, but work to make it a less military alliance, a left-wing faction mounted an amendment to take Canada out of NATO altogether, and it looked as if they might carry the day. (Later, of course, the Liberals trimmed our military commitment, and the NDP now supports complete withdrawal from NATO. Sic transit.) Douglas refused to speak on the controversial resolution, until David buttonholed him.

“Tommy, you have to talk sense to these people.”

“David, it is not the leader’s role to intervene on this kind of divisive issue.”

“That is precisely the leader’s role, Tommy. If not, whose is it?”

Tommy spoke, and the .original resolution carried.

While David was crisscrossing the nation, building the party, Sophie was at home, raising his family. What the children became, from their fondness for music to their debating skill (Michael remembers rehearsing for a public-school debate, over and over, with his mother acting as audience, critic and judge) to their clannishness, came from Sophie. Politics were often discussed at home, of course, and the children became socialists almost by osmosis, although the parents were careful to explain views other than their own. “One reason we all ended up in politics,” says Michael, “is that it was never rammed down our throats.”

There were many disagreements. “Oh, David,'’ Stephen would say, “stop being stupid.” (David was “David” to Stephen, even as a boy, but Sophie was “Mum.”) There still are disagreements. Stephen was for opting out of NATO long before his father came to that view, and openly attacked the federal NDP for not taking a more militant stand during the Nigerian civil war (in a brief excursion away from his political destiny, Stephen had been to Biafra as a teacher, and played a prominent role in promoting relief for war victims). But the quarrels are on matters of approach and timing, seldom on principle. On the issue of democratic socialism, the Lewises are, as always, a close-knit family.

It was partly to be closer to his family that David left his paid post with the CCF in 1950, and took up labor law. It was also partly because of money. He was deeply in debt, and, as a labor lawyer, often made in a day what he had once made in a month. Politics remained his compelling passion, however, and he always held a high post in the party. After his election in 1962, he became deputy NDP House leader, to the chagrin of some sitting members. “He burrowed straight for power,” grumbled one of them. But he was the obvious choice. He has no betters and few peers in the House of Commons. Despite the occasional sharpness of his tongue — he once remarked of the Prime Minister, “There but for the grace of Pierre Trudeau sits God” — his arguments are usually forceful, well organized and free of personal rancor. Charles Lynch of Southam News Services — no NDP fan — paid him the supreme compliment: “He is always worth listening to . . . Outside of Manitoba Premier Ed Schreyer, he is the most credible socialist I know, in the sense that one can quite easily picture him as prime minister, handling the reins of office with assurance.”

Stephen is not so readily accepted. He is as engaging as David, as bright, as articulate, but somehow tougher. Sophie remarked, “People say Stephen is David, but Janet is David. Stephen is his mother.” My mind flashed back to a CCF garden party years ago when David and I were talking, and Sophie came up. “It’s time to go, David,” she said. “Certainly, my dear,” he replied, and went on talking. She touched his arm. “I want to go now, dear.” He looked at her intently for a moment, whirled, and walked off, trailing a broken sentence to the exit.

Stephen has that kind of quiet assertiveness. In early 1968, when he was, after all, just an Ontario MPP, he decided that Tommy Douglas should step down from the federal leadership. No one else seemed to think so — or worse, they thought it, but wouldn't say it — so Stephen hopped on a plane for Vancouver and told Douglas. “He took it very well,” Stephen reports. But he did not resign.

With Stephen, the Lewis wit, the rolling phrases, the dark good looks, the mellow-muscled voice are all there, but they are underlined by an impatience David either lacks or has learned to mute. His friends call it the spark of idealism. His enemies say flatly that Stephen is an opportunist. And not all his enemies are outside the party. Donald MacDonald, Ontario leader for 17 years, was thrust aside when Stephen came to power, and that alienated some of the party’s right wing. Then Stephen clashed head on with the radical Waffle group on the left. When I asked Waffle leader Mel Watkins how an outsider could tell a Waffler from an ordinary NDP member, he replied, “You walk right up to him and whisper ‘Stephen Lewis.’ If his eyes go all slitty, he’s Waffle.”

Where his father debates points of principle, Stephen argues in personal terms. Like a good journalist, he always seizes some human example to thrust home a debating point. In his long, acrimonious battle to get more facilities for emotionally disturbed children in Ontario, Stephen poured out case history after case history of neglected, forlorn and brutalized waifs. Tory backbenchers jeered him for “headline grabbing,” but the headlines paid off. This month, Ontario launched a $ 13.6-million program for new facilities.

During that campaign, it came out that Stephen was receiving a $15,000 annual salary as national director of John Brown Camps Ltd., a private organization that cares for children, many of them placed in the camps by Children’s Aid Societies. Because Children’s Aid receives provincial backing, his Liberal and Tory opponents demanded Stephen’s resignation from the legislature. He was involved in a conflict of interest, they said, though how his position differed from, say, a schoolteacher MPP agitating for more education grants was never explained. More damaging than that charge, which he simply ignored, was the implication that while Stephen brimmed with idealistic fervor for the plight of neglected children, he was also picking up $15,000 a year off their backs.

“Social workers are paid,” he says. “I was doing social work and I was paid.” Perhaps so, but it’s a long way from J. S. Woodsworth.

Stephen thinks he is more heavily criticized than, say, Walter Pitman, against whom he ran for the Ontario leadership, because “I am more of a threat. I am more likely to win.” His socialism, like that of all the Lewises, is not tied to public ownership. “Nationalization is merely a tool, not some heaven-sent solution to all our problems. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.” The key to his approach, Stephen says, is “economic planning. That may mean more public ownership in some areas — such as resources — and it certainly means more regulation for the great corporations. But it doesn’t mean taking them over.”

If Stephen is the cutting edge of the Lewises, Michael is the organizing genius. He began in high school, with a successful campaign to end compulsory cadet training, and has been at it ever since, in BC, Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario. With Stephen, he has developed the technique of saturation campaigning to a high art. (During the 1962 election, David kept foraging out of his riding to make speeches for other candidates; Stephen told him that if he didn’t stay home, he was going to lose. He stayed home, and won.)

Michael, according to his father, is “the nicest and gentlest” Lewis, but he does not seem the one destined to reach the highest office. Nor does David. He puts his problem as leader of the federal NDP with brutal candor. “Fve been around too long. I’m not old — I’m five years younger than Tommy — but I've been around since the thirties.” If the right candidate — say, Charles Taylor, the Montreal political scientist — had offered, David would not have run for the leadership, but he does not consider that his current rivals (political scientist John Harney, Waffle candidate James Laxer, MPs Ed Broadbent and Frank Howard) have the stature for the job.

So David will stay in the forefront and lean, as ever, on Sophie. Although she does not mix much in the party, Sophie has strong political views and airs them, forcefully, at home. More important, she is that old-fashioned phenomenon, her husband’s inspiration. After 35 years of marriage, Sophie can still make David — super-smooth David — giggle like a schoolboy. The Lewises are openly affectionate — Tory MP Lincoln Alexander dubbed them The Honeymooners — but there’s more to it than that. Late at night, when David returns from a day of grinding tension, Sophie waits up for him. In the kitchen of their immaculately kept Ottawa home, when he crouches over his coffee and stares moodily away, Sophie pesters him.

“David, you’re not talking. That isn’t right.”

“Tomorrow, sweetheart, tomorrow.”

“Not tomorrow, David. That isn’t fair. You know I want to hear, and you need to get it out. Remember what the children say — ventilate.”

So David ventilates. Out it comes, the worries, the hopes, the frustrations, the thousand pinpricks that make up a politician’s day. And he feels restored.

Sophie accepts that he may never be prime minister, but believes that his influence on Canadian life, from the battle for old-age pensions to the debate on War Measures, mark him as one of the key figures of our time. “Poppa Lewis used to say that if you work alongside someone who is truly great, some of that greatness is bound to rub off on you. Well, I am still waiting for David’s greatness to rub off on me.”

Besides, for prime minister, there’s always Stephen, or Michael, or Janet, or Nina, or ...