Column

Bayonets beware—Joe ‘Cecil Trueheart’ Clark is loose among the landed gentry

Allan Fotheringham January 29 1979
Column

Bayonets beware—Joe ‘Cecil Trueheart’ Clark is loose among the landed gentry

Allan Fotheringham January 29 1979

Bayonets beware—Joe ‘Cecil Trueheart’ Clark is loose among the landed gentry

Column

Allan Fotheringham

The problem is that Joe Clark really is a nice guy. He is kind, he is considerate. He would never do anything intentionally rude. He is, in a way, a sort of sociological freak, a mutation from the 1930s in the way he acts. Watching him carefully at close range over an extended period of days, one gets the impression of Cecil Trueheart, the second lead in a Noël Coward play set in the landed gentry belt of Kent.

Clark himself, who in private devastatingly analytical about himself, even knows the reason why. High River, Alberta, despite its Gary Cooperish-name, was one of those prairie towns populated in early days by remittance menthe semi-failed heirs of the English genteel, sent abroad to lose themselves so as not to disgrace the family name. In High River, of all places, they played cricket when Clark grew up. As he explains, it g was a town where mand ners meant something. It x wasn’t Gary Cooper at all. i It was Noël Coward, z within sight of the SE Rockies.

Watching Joe Clark day in, day out, night in, night out, as he circled the globe on an indoctrination tour that may have been the worst political decision since Suez, one is reminded constantly of that self-description of his background. It is the vicar’s tea party across four continents, a continual “thank-you-very-very-much” while stepping backward for fear of giving offence. Thank-you-very-very-much became the catchword of the Clark tour. Within days, after hearing it incessantly directed at prime ministers, subway attendants, minor officialdom and any potted palm that twitched, the Clark entourage mocked it, imitated it, repeated it, set it into iambic pentameter and Gilbert and Sullivan rhythms. If it is not a star turn at the March Parliamentary Press Gallery dinner, along with poor Joe doing his Mack Sennett act plunging face-first into a military guard of honor, then satire indeed is what closes Saturday night.

There is something worth examining

in that fullback plunge into the bayonets of the honor guard. Clark, as voters will discover during the spring election campaign, is a man who gives the impression that he is never quite sure what to do with his body.

Everything seems out of sync when he walks, his arms swinging to the beat of a different drummer, the wrists and hands only vaguely connected to the arms. He is one of those rare people who does not appear comfortable walking. You want to shove a chair at him to put him out of his agony. Those long spindly

hands flit about nervously, rubbing one another, flying to the pockets, fitfully tapping on the table or whatever is available. One suspects his aides wish he would take up smoking, just as René Lévesque is hiding his habit.

All this physical awkwardness has nothing to do with the ability to govern, of course, but it may affect his ability to get elected. Mackenzie King did not rule in the age of television. Clark never really appears at ease in public; once he senses the cameras are on him, he freezes even more and tends to bump into things, including bayonets. A Gerry Ford image, once acquired in the press/public mind, is a difficult albatross to shake.

The other factor that became revealing on Clark’s snapshot tour of the globe is his difficulty in speaking English. It must be understood that, as a high-school debating champ, he grew up in the era of Diefenbakerese and, whether he realizes it or not, talks in the convoluted, Rotary-impressive style

of that genius of circumlocution. A query for directions becomes the Gettysburg Address. Clark to a guide in a Jordan farming area: “You are not anticipating a significant cereal production?” Clark to a guide in impoverished India: “What is the totality of his land?” Clark to doomed women in a dismal Indian village: “I very much appreciate the very cordial greeting.”

The ingrained habit of parliamentary pomposity could not be diluted by poverty, travel, illiteracy or informality. One of the TV cameramen who recorded his every motion from close range for two weeks concludes: “He’s got no street smarts at all.” One of his own entourage, after Clark visited the sick bay at the Canadian peacekeeping camp on the Golan, side-mouthed: “Watch out. He walked into the needle.”

His surprise in discovering that he needed translators in Japan meant conversations were “a bit like an arthritic ballet.” The searing experience of an Israeli exhibit showing how the Nazis exterminated six million Jews showed “the utter carelessness of human life.” That’s not what he really meant, but those are the things that come out of a mouth conditioned in teen-age Diefenbakerese. His twitchiness of tongue and body was contrasted even more in the late stages by Maureen McTeer, genuinely pretty, now stylish, relaxed and pleasant, chattering away in French to a Canadian soldier, possessing just the right touch of light banter needed for these stiff occasions. Her presence emphasized the stick-man image of her uneasy husband.

He is a creature of the parliamentary system, painfully uneasy once outside the formal structure of the high-school debating atmosphere. Voters will make up their own minds over the pressures of a 60-day, camera-saturated campaign—especially considering the insufferable arrogance of the Trudeau gang—but I think for a start we should hide all the bayonets. Thank-you-very-very-much. O