GUEST COLUMN

Taking modesty to extremes

The most enduring anecdotes about Canada’s most celebrated leaders are the ones that show them to be no larger than anyone else

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 11 1995
GUEST COLUMN

Taking modesty to extremes

The most enduring anecdotes about Canada’s most celebrated leaders are the ones that show them to be no larger than anyone else

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 11 1995

Taking modesty to extremes

GUEST COLUMN

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

The most enduring anecdotes about Canada’s most celebrated leaders are the ones that show them to be no larger than anyone else

Canadians, as we so often boast, are a modest, self-effacing people. One of the ways we establish our nobility is through frequent declarations of our moral superiority over the United States; another is to remind the rest of the world at every opportunity that the United Nations, in its annual survey on quality of life in different countries, thinks we’re No. 1. Wringing our hands about the fate of our nation is a daily condition: the only occasion more satisfying is one of those rare times when others are talking about us. In short, we may be the most immodestly modest people we know.

A nation of cheerful hypocrites, perhaps that is why we consider modesty an essential virtue among our political leaders. With the single, notable exception of Pierre Trudeau, the most enduring anecdotes about our most celebrated politicians do not concern acts of grandeur. Rather, they commemorate habits and moments that showed the leader in question to be no larger than anyone else in life. Along with being the Godfather of Confederation, John A Macdonald is remembered for his powerful thirst for rum, gin and anything else stronger than water. Louis St. Laurent, who presided over the most affluent period in the country’s history, became known as the ultimate Everyman, “Uncle Louis.” Lester Pearson, one former colleague recalls, used to interrupt meetings in the Prime Minister’s Office whenever his wife, Maryon, called. He could then be heard painstakingly repeating “two quarts of milk, one loaf of bread” as she read out the grocery list to him.

In more recent times, modesty is still the best policy. On the provincial level, Ontario’s Bill Davis, one of the most successful politicians in history, was Brampton Billy, personifying his home town, a place seen as being as safe and boring as, well, our national image abroad. René Lévesque, perhaps the most beloved provincial politician in history,

turned vice and vulnerability into virtues: his embarrassed shrug, facial contortions and chain-smoking evoked amusement and affection far more than opprobrium.

Flaws and brushes with misfortune only enhance the political image. Trudeau was never more popular than after his marriage breakup when he became, for the first time, the man who did not have everything. Robert Bourassa finally achieved widespread affection in Quebec more than 20 years after first entering public life when he courageously endured a very public bout with potentially deadly melanoma. Brian Mulroney, of course, provides a reverse example of the importance of modesty. Mulroney, so generous, charming and profanely funny in private, mutated into a pedantic, pomp-loving caricature at the sight of an audience. A favorite, enduring memory is of his visit to Moscow in 1989 when, rather than walk less than 200 m, he waited for more than 10 minutes to be driven for about 20 seconds by limousine accompanied by a long motorcade—to a ceremony celebrating the importance of exercise and physical fitness.

All of which leads to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Ontario Premier Mike Harris and Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. They are ar-

guably the most popular politicians in Canada today, and they have more in common than a passion for deficit reduction and cutting the size of government. All three have built long and successful careers based on straight talk, monosyllabic words—and repeatedly exceeding low expectations.

Chrétien, Klein and Harris understand that in today’s debt-driven politics, it is better to Just Say No, and thereby respect the intelligence of jaded voters, than to hide beyond buzzwords that everyone understands all too well. Is there anyone who doesn’t now know that “rationalize” and “reform” are government synonyms for “reduce”? Points, then, go to Harris, who did not obfuscate when he announced massive cuts in payments to municipalities: the reduction, he said, would be akin to an “amputation.”

All three have discovered that in politics, small really is beautiful. Chrétien will forever be the Little Guy from Shawinigan even though he has not lived there full time for more than three decades. Never mind that in private, Chrétien listens to classical music and has a highly sophisticated knowledge of art: it is his water-skiing exploits that his media handlers talk about. Similarly, try to find a newspaper profile that does not at least once refer to Klein as a “onetime television reporter”—although he has not been one for more than 20 years— or Harris as a “former golf pro,” although he was first elected to Queen’s Park in 1981.

Chrétien may be the first prime minister in this century who doesn’t mind being seen drinking a beer: that would have been considered too plebeian in the first half of the century, and too licentious in the latter half. One time, hours before leaving on his trip to Asia last fall, Chrétien was thirsty and restless: he had his driver take him over to Hull, where he dropped into a bar. Klein, of course, doesn’t mind being seen drinking many beers. There are still many more voters who drink beer than fulminate against it.

And there is golf. Harris endures jokes about his fondness for it with equanimity because they are true. Chrétien plays the game with a fiery passion—and with anyone, anywhere. He has been out early most mornings on Ottawa golf courses this summer. Many times, trios waiting to make up a foursome have been startled to find the Prime Minister of Canada suddenly looming before them, asking if they “would mind if I joined you.” When he hits a bad shot, he is visibly angry, and sometimes hits another ball in its place “just to show I can do it.” Even people who have never played golf can understand the frustration.

So beer and golf as the recipe for political success in the 1990s? No, but they give all three leaders the air of people who would be comfortable, down-to-earth neighbors. Do good neighbors make good policies? Not necessarily, but their mistakes are easier to forgive. The real lesson for politicians to be drawn from their success is this: be blunt and acknowledge your flaws, or count on voters to remind you of them.

Anthony Wilson-Smith is Maclean’s Ottawa Editor.