There are too many politicians, as we know, in this country, the most over-governed country on earth. It’s probably because of the vast, underpopulated space—the politicians feel they should be portioned out on a per-square-mile basis, the people being secondary to the acreage. There are not enough politicians who are unique, who are special. Richard Hatfield was one of them.
Hatfield, as his friends have pointed out since his death, was the rare (the only?) Canadian politician who did not separate his public persona from his private life. He never tried to be what he was not. He enjoyed life too much and, as proof of his philosophy, was closer to more journalists and good friends of more journalists than any other high political leader in the land.
An essential media groupie, he enjoyed the company of journalists—even better so at 3 a.m.—and because we enjoyed his company so much, we treated him more kindly than most of his equivalents on the national scene.
A season ago, this scribbler came out with a tome called Birds of a Feather, arguing that the press and the politicians were bonded in ways neither one would admit—the public being kept, as usual, on the outside. Sandra Gwyn, one of the more elegant writers in Canadian journalism, a few years back did a long and fond piece on Hatfield in Saturday Night. Next time I saw her I asked, If Hatfield were the only married premier in Canada while all of the nine others were bachelors, would she have mentioned it?
Somewhat puzzled, she replied, “Of course.” Why then, I asked, did she never mention once in her admirable profile that he was the only unmarried premier in the land? She seemed quite stunned; it simply had never occurred to her to mention the fact. Even unconsciously, we protected him—when he didn’t need it.
One of my favorite Hatfield vignettes is a provincial premiers’ conference in Fredericton when he was involved in the flashy and goofy dream to remake New Brunswick’s economy with the futuristic Bricklin gull-winged car,
sold to the affable premier by the now-discredited American promoter.
As we left the conference in a smelly bus for the inevitable cocktail reception across town, Hatfield zoomed off in the dishy Bricklin plastic car before the nation’s press. Several blocks later, at a red light, we passed him—the dream car broken down and collapsed beneath him. As we hooted out the windows at him, he grinned and took it—he could always laugh at himself, a gift possessed by too few politicians.
He was the only Canadian guaranteed an invitation to Truman Capote’s parties. When the Liberal opposition dug into the travel records and found that he had been in his province only 168 days the previous year, his close friend Dalton Camp invented the famous quote: “Richard was elected to govern New Brunswick—no one said he had to live there.”
At federal-provincial conferences, where the real business as usual was done in private
sessions after the fake presentations before the TV cameras, reporters stopped whining about the arrogant secrecy. They would merely appear at the Four Seasons Hotel in Ottawa in Hatfield’s suite, somewhere approximating dawn, when the sage of Fredericton would spill all.
His fellow premiers of course didn’t like him, because they didn’t understand him, their wives least of all, knowing that while their husbands were on the golf course in Palm Springs, Richard was in Morocco and probably having more fun. Only Trudeau sort of appreciated him, because of Richard’s stout support for the bilingualism principle. As a frequent flyer, the two might have been tied for the record.
When his loyal rural constituents complained about the raucous trend of table dancers in New Brunswick pubs doing unspeakable acts, he solemnly brought in a bill empowering the New Brunswick Liquor Licensing Board to police suds parlors that were too licentious. The name of the legislation? Bill 69. He was, indeed, sui generis.
One of the most adamant backers of bilingualism, mier of the only Canadian province that is officially bilingual from stem to stem, he has been accused of possessing only “Diefenbaker French.” That didn’t happen to be quite tme. I heard him once, delivering a speech in the Acadian north of his province, stubbornly forge on for 30 minutes in a language his tongue fought all the way; but he wanted to make a point, and he did.
A scene that will never be erased from memory is a late night in Montreal when Jack McClelland, the famed late-night Toronto publisher who had never met Hatfield before, sat crosslegged on the floor before a fireplace and shouted that the premier—this being some Meech Lake nonsense—“was not a Canadian.” Hatfield simply grinned. He never grew angry, because he loved Canada too much.
I once tried to persuade him to marry a lady he liked very much. The lady, present at the same table, urged him to do likewise. He simply grinned and refused to respond. He was married to politics, right to the end.
In Hatfield’s final hours, after being comatose for days, the Prime Minister and his bride visited him. Hatfield raised himself from his stupor and had one final request: a $2-million contribution for the Beaverbrook Gallery in his beloved Fredericton. It was promised.
The best obit of all came on the afternoon of the day he died. The ineffable Vicki Gabereau, finishing off her CBC Radio show, said simply: “It’s going to be dull, dull, dull without you, honey.”
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