Closeup/ Politics

Winning by default

For Joe Clark, it has been a very good year

Robert Lewis February 21 1977
Closeup/ Politics

Winning by default

For Joe Clark, it has been a very good year

Robert Lewis February 21 1977

Winning by default

Closeup/ Politics

For Joe Clark, it has been a very good year

Robert Lewis

It is fifteen minutes before eight on Sunday morning in Toronto when the hotel telephone rings. It is a message from Joe Clark. “The leader,” says the Tory advanceman, “has decided to go at eight instead of eightfifteen. We can probably get breakfast at the airport.” Outside the hotel lobby, ready for the start of the western leg of a five-day tour, Joe Clark, leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, crisply organizes the seating arrangements in the car. En route to Toronto airport, Clark’s eyes linger over a front-page photo in Toronto’s Sunday Sun. The day before, in the Toronto borough of Scarborough, while reaching over the head of a child to shake hands at a shopping centre, Clark entangled his long fingers in the little girl’s hair. Now, looking at the picture of himself, recoiling with evident surprise and with visions of Robert Stanfield’s dropped football shorting his sensitive political circuits, he surmises dryly: “I’m dead.”

Upon arrival at the Toronto departure terminal, Clark queues with the rest of the Vancouver-bound passengers, loading a reporter’s bag onto the conveyor ramp along with his own. On the way to the departure gate, Clark stops to introduce himself to a beaming woman who recognized him at the counter. “Hi, I’m Joe Clark,” he says. “What’s your name?”

A politician out of power is forced to spend much of his time searching for votes. The simple fact that Clark could react so quickly to the lady in the airport, and do the right thing, is a measure of his skill at the nitty-gritty of his trade. Not being in power is a problem in itself. Clark has, for example, no bodyguards hovering around him, nor any of the other perquisites of the man who lives at 24 Sussex Drive. But in style and training, Clark adapts naturally to handling details himself. By instinct he is a man of simple tastes with no leanings to political grandeur or armored cars. Until he was elected to the House of Commons in 1972 at the age of 33, he had spent 13 years organizing and writing for others: first John Diefenbaker, then Davie Fulton and Robert Stanfield. Now, 12 months after assuming the Conservative leadership as the second choice of most delegates to a fragmented convention, he is doing many of the political chores for himself,working the country as if it were one big electoral district.

“I am an organizer,” he told the Tory delegates who elected him last February. In his first 12 months as leader, Clark proved that. He traveled 84,078 miles in Canada, spending 137 long days on the

road visiting such places as Quiet Lake in the Yukon and Witless Bay, Newfoundland,and a lot of the towns and cities in between. On the basis of the evidence manifested by the Gallup poll in January, Clark may be poised to assume the country’s highest office. But, to date, this restless, wandering and relatively unknown soul has arrived where he is largely by default, through the decline in the fortunes of Pierre Trudeau. “He’s backing right into it,” concedes a Clark associate. “Joe has any number of policies,” adds an active party worker in Toronto. “What he hasn’t enunciated is a philosophy.”

Clark is aware that he is “not the great-

Slowly and methodically, Clark is going to the people, through hot-line radio shows over plastic cups of cof fee in pubs and on the good old 'Main Streets' (In this case Kingston's, with Flora MacDonald)

est.” But he believes he is “the best available” leader of Canada. That is, maybe, a refreshingly realistic reading for a political figure to ofi'er. It also reflects a certain insecurity about his grasp on the party. A revealing glimpse of this uncertainty surfaced during a recent conversation about John Turner, the former Liberal finance minister who very likely has designs upon Pierre Trudeau’sjob. It is Clark’s view that Turner’s star has dimmed, that “I don't think it’s there anymore.” But when someone observed that there was still a lot of talk about Turner becoming leader of the party, Clark asked: “Which one?”—betraying a fear that Turner might conceivably wind up ousting Clark as head of the Progressive Conservatives.

Probably the central fact that attaches to Joe Clark’s political future is the uncertainty over the fate of Pierre Trudeau. “There is one man who holds it all in his

hands right now,” says a seasoned Toronto Tory. “He can decide who gets elected, Clark or Turner, and he’s Pierre Trudeau. If Trudeau holds on, Clark will be Prime Minister.” That judgment may be premature for such a tough infighter as Trudeau. But the prospect of his leaving focuses new attention on the man from the foothills of the Rockies. It raises new questions too. “He has been a partisan since puberty,” notes one Clark observer. “He loves to campaign against Grits. I j ust wonder if he loves to lead.”

The question of leadership ability is the one that dominates reactions to Clark. On the surface, as he moves about, there is no hostility. Indeed, he evokes genuine interest and some affection. One reservation that lingers, as Clark himself concedes, is “whether I can do it.” Private party polls reflect the same unease. Clark gets high marks for sincerity, openness and honesty,

but falls short of Trudeau on toughness; the polls also show that Trudeau is viewed as more likely to come first in an exam— and also more likely to cheat.

Still, it is obvious that Clark has to be doing something right. That, essentially, seems to be the fact that he is a creature of his times. The days of political idealism, of unbounded faith in government, are over. Clark is there to symbolize that change. He has no magic solutions, and he offers none. His people are the politicians from the campuses of the Fifties. Now, after earning their law degrees or moving into business management, they have come back to try to run the country in the orderly manner that characterizes their own lives. They have not mused in universities nor written scholarly dissertations; they have done things and invented useful devices.

One of Clark’s Quebec party organizers owns a patent on a machine that shoots hockey pucks. An Ontario Tory operative was in a business that designed a plastic supermarket bag. If there is anything disturbing about the people around Clark it is the sense they give off that they now believe they can invent a new Tory Prime Minister. If there is anything unsettling about Clark, a man who is, off camera, witty and candid, it is the hint that he will go along with their schemes, that in the crunch he might not be his own person.

One of Clark’s accomplishments to date has been to keep his 95 fractious and disparate MPS more or less in line. There are ominous signs, however, that he has not stamped his brand on the entire herd. By late last month Quebec’s Claude Wagner had stirred up a ripple of muddy water during a three-hour appearance on a radio talk show in Montreal, during which Wagner was less than vigorous in answering phone-in complaints about Clark. On the western wing there have been rumblings from John Diefenbaker about Clark. Member of Parliament Jack Horner, who is struggling to work on Clark’s side, blew a chance to demonstrate his loyalty during an appearance on Peter Gzowski’s 90 Minutes Live late-night TV show. When asked how things would be different had Horner won the leadership, Horner pointedly volunteered a half dozen areas in which things would have been decidedly different. Clark acknowledges that the Tories’ greatest threat lies within themselves. At a party caucus in Ottawa, he bluntly declared: “The election is ready to be won in the country. It’s waiting to be lost in the caucus.”

It is after 10 p.m. on Wednesday when Clark’s chartered five-seat aircraft touches down at Kingston, Ontario. A volunteer driver is on hand to take two reporters to a pub at Queen’s University where Clark does an hour of table-hopping. The next night, prior to Clark’s appearance as the featured attraction at a university lecture, dinner is laid on for the reporters at a local eatery called Aunt Lucy’s. The discussion

between the journalists at the table is dominated by the discovery that Clark’s “lecture” is a recycled version of a speech he gave in England last summer. “1 hear you find the speech familiar,” says Clark, as he goes by the table to a room curtained off for a private meal with university officials. Later, a Clark worker emerges from the back room and says, rather blatantly, to our table: “Nice to see you’re being taken care of, boys.” The owner, who declared earlier that “there are no Liberals on this payroll,” stops by to announce that dinner is on the house.

Tories, suppressing their ancient suspicion of the media, have lately come acourting, going to lunch with the editorial boards of newspapers, issuing invitations to dinner parties, and making regular use of private polls and tips on how to use television and radio. One memo to MPS urges that they wear knee-length socks and shave for TV appearances, and warns against “flashy accessories, such as large cuff links,” and eye movements that “appear shifty.” Conservatives are cautioned to be “the nice person” and. when in doubt, to evade tough questions.

In the meantime, Clark is working on his image, his physical health and intellectual scope. Ungifted in sports, he recently signed up at the new Ottawa Athletic Club. He has taken up cross-country skiing with his wife, Maureen, and has started building time into his schedule for visits to the theatre and hockey games. People who w'atch Clark closely worry about the driven quality of the man. In the early days his personal schedule resembled that of a busy dentist, with half a dozen appointments slotted in the morning, a dozen more in the afternoon. He continually rushes from speeches and meetings, announcing his next engagement on the way out of the first. His interests in reading are almost exclusively political; he is something of a junkie when it comes to political reporting,

avidly consuming what is written and spoken about him and his rivals.

Clark tends to view everything in terms of votes. At the height of the mild controversy last fall over the feminist views of his wife, Maureen McTeer, who still insists on using her maiden name, Clark commented that “the net result is a very substantial plus.” He approves of his wife’s public speaking and leans heavily on her for political advice. Polls show that Clark is making headway among women voters—perhaps, a party official suggests, because of his appearance of vulnerability and Maureen’s liberated outlook. But Clark exudes none of the macho magnetism of Pierre Trudeau. The PM can be coy

and playful and is not averse to throwing off the occasional come-on. A lady friend of a Tory official professed to be totally charmed one day when Trudeau eyed her on his way into the House of Commons and remarked that “I’d rather go outside and rap with you than go in there.” Women who have spent time around Clark are, on the other hand, struck by his seeming lack of interest. Says one of his close advisers: “Joe isn’t a lady’s man.”

Such matters of style in the age of the media super-star are obstacles along Clark’s route to the prime ministership— unless he is successful in his effort to strike sharp contrasts with Trudeau. Despite the accusation that he is vague on policy, Clark has been surprisingly definite on issues that respond to trends:

• He stands to the right of Trudeau on such issues as the New Economic Order advocated by Third World nations. The Liberals are shifting ground in line with some other Clark thrusts: his emphasis on ties with traditional allies such as the United States, his skepticism about unemployment insurance and local initiative programs, his commitment to maintaining defense capabilities commensurate with Canada’s obligations to NATO and United Nations peacekeeping.

• On the evidence to date, he is a genuine proponent of a more open and accessible form of government. He advocates release of more government information.

• He is a stout defender of federal bilingualism. At a Tory meeting in Toronto, Clark, when told that Trudeau was “shoving Trench down our throats,” dismissed that as a “bum rap” and declared that “one of my goals would be to have a large number of strong Lrench-Canadian ministers sit in my cabinet.”

What kind of Prime Minister would Joe Clark be? He would be highly political, partisan and organized. He would likely

also be opportunistic, even ruthless. Despite his flaccid image, says one staffer: “He is no cream puff.” Clark would probably make his share of bum judgments, because he tends to make quick ones. Clark would be more open and accessible than Trudeau. But he might tend to be intolerant of people who do not share his lifestyle and outlook. (He said he’d enjoyed watching Dinah Christie in a revue, “until I found out she is a Scientologist.”)

One of the most attractive features of a new Clark government might be its willingness to shake up a secretive and hidebound civil service. Clark believes that bureaucrats have become too powerful and uncaring, and advocates sabbaticals to send them out among the people. At the same time, Clark and his aides display an unnerving, almost Nixonesque, concern about “loyalty.” One top mandarin is convinced that the Tories are keeping a “hit list” of Liberal civil servants who would be dumped. (When Peter Lougheed became Premier of Alberta, with Joe Clark as one of his key strategists, the provincial Conservatives called for reports on all the top public servants, sacking those who were Social Credit partisans.)

To a large degree, Clark’s chances of success are still beyond his control, as they were in the leadership race a year ago. If the Liberals replace Trudeau with Turner, the indications are that Clark’s fortunes would diminish dramatically. A poll in the sprightly tabloid BC Today showed that in three BC ridings, including Justice Minister Ron Basford’s, Clark’s Tories currently are leading Trudeau’s Liberals 49% to 20%. With Turner as leader, however, the preference would be 42% to 29% for the Liberals. Equally important is English Canada’s perception of Clark’s ability to respond to the election of a Parti Québécois government. The indications of the latest Gallup poll were that Quebeckers no longer consider Trudeau to be the only man for the issue, but the implications for Clark are impossible to read yet with any certainty. A measure of Quebec’s reaction to Clark could come from the five by-elections expected in Quebec this spring. Clark’s bet is that he will be able to come to an informal alliance with both the PQ and the Union Nationale, two parties that share a determination to dump Trudeau. The Péquistes worked actively on behalf of Tory MP Jacques Lavoie, who defeated Liberal Pierre Juneau in a Montreal by-election in October, 1975, and, says one Montreal Tory organizer, “We’ll get help from the UN because we’ve helped them. I’m sure the PQ would rather face Clark than Trudeau.”

That kind of political opportunism raises anew the most fundamental questions about Joe Clark—the questions of just who he is and what he stands for. So far Clark has mainly held out a simple—and transparently inadequate—promise that, in the words of Calgary Tory MP Harvie Andre, “at least, we’d be different.” Ç?