Canada

JOE'S BACK

At 59, Clark is about to become Canada’s Comeback Kid

BRUCE WALLACE November 2 1998
Canada

JOE'S BACK

At 59, Clark is about to become Canada’s Comeback Kid

BRUCE WALLACE November 2 1998

JOE'S BACK

Canada

At 59, Clark is about to become Canada’s Comeback Kid

BRUCE WALLACE

There is not much Canadians don’t know about Joe Clark by now. He is an eternal optimist to some, a punching bag for others, and that combination has set him up for some of the more humiliating political defeats of his generation. So the broad grin that creased his face last Saturday night when he stepped onstage in Ottawa to acknowledge the cheers of supporters betrayed a sense of satisfied vindication. Clark’s 48.5-per-cent showing on the first ballot of a quirky and largely ignored Conservative leadership race was short of the quick victory he wanted—but so close to a majority that it makes the next round on Nov. 14 anti-climactic. “It looks to me like second down and an inch to the goal,” said a buoyant Clark over the cries and shouts of what passes for pandemonium at a Tory party gathering these days. And then the optimist in him dutifully promised to lead them back to power.

It will be a very long march. When Clark unlocks the desk drawer in the leader’s office, he will find the party wanting for both members and money. The Tories are $10 million in debt, stuck in last place among five parties in the House of Commons. Although Clark crushed his leadership opponents in Alberta, the party was still only able to sign up 7,800 members in its onetime heartland. The Tory establishment regards most of the 8,600 members in British Columbia as a nuisance: they are anti-free-trade activists, signed up by nationalist candidate David Orchard, and most of them will likely leave the party when the race is done. The Tories are virtually moribund in Saskatchewan and support is spread too thinly across Quebec to have much of an impact in an election. Fifteen years after surrendering the leadership to Brian Mulroney, Clark is set to inherit the tattered remains of a onetime political colossus.

And the Tories were flying blind on the day of the vote. Not even party insiders knew how many of the 90,000 members were sufficiently committed to bother casting a ballot. In the end, slightly more than half voted. Of those, the largest number chose to risk their future on Clark’s ability to at least get a sympathetic hearing from Canadians, rather than rolling the dice on lesser-knowns Hugh Segal or Brian Pallister. (It is those no-shows that the also-rans are counting on to keep Clark from winning on Nov. 14.) A crushed Segal ran 30 percentage points behind Clark—unable to turn his Montreal roots into significant support in Quebec, shut out in most of the West, and trounced by Clark in Ontario, the province that was supposed to be Segal’s bedrock. Pallister, whose Manitoba base gives the Tories at least one new building block, was hampered by his lack of French and organizational depth. “Recent elections have proven that Canadians no longer cast ballots based on the familiarity of a given candidate or vague memories of campaigns past,” Segal warned in a speech on election eve. “There is no room for holding patterns or nostalgia.” But in the end, the Tories followed the advice of an elderly woman in a Clark promotional video. “Experience,” she said, “is better than experimentation.”

Clark’s return to the front pages of Canadian politics was as unexpected as it was remarkable. After choosing not to run in the disas-

trous 1993 election that blew the Tories onto the political fringes, Clark approached post-political life like a retiree who cannot decide on a hobby. He accepted an offer from the United Nations to mediate the cold war between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, an effort that predictably went nowhere. He taught university courses in California, served on the editorial board of the Canadian history journal The Beaver, and started an oil-and-gas venture business with longtime brother-in-arms Harvie Andre. The commendable anti-apartheid credentials he earned as External Affairs minister in the 1980s left him with high-level contacts in Africa, which he used to drum up business for Canadian companies—including his own.

But Clark could never get politics out of his blood. Just before the Tory leadership came open, he was in Congo pushing for Canadian companies to be granted mineral licences from President Laurent Kabila’s new regime. But Clark also offered Kabila advice on how to manage a promised transition to democratic rule (which Kabila subsequently scrapped in favor of waging a civil war against an insurgency) . Some of Clark’s old Tory friends mocked his trip to Congo, suggesting it revealed Clark at his naïve worst: the ever-eager boy scout who believed he could inject democracy into the blooddrenched politics of Central Africa. Others say it simply marks his strong sense of public service. “Joe was legitimately determined to

do everything he could to help the prospects for democracy,” says former Mulroney aide Bill Fox, a senior adviser to Segal.

“He was there for the right reasons.”

Friends and critics alike agree that Clark found his life outside politics unfulfilling. By the time Jean Charest jumped from the Tory leadership to the Quebec Liberal party last March, Clark and his wife, Maureen McTeer, had relocated back to Ottawa from Calgary. (The move prompted I-told-you-so nods from an antiClark faction in Alberta that believes he long ago forfeited his western credentials and became a creature of Ottawa.) “On all those flights home from Africa, I’d have time to think, and I never had the same satisfaction after closing a business deal that I got from my days in public service,” Clark told Maclean’s during a campaign stop in Montreal last month. “I think I did fine in the private sector. But at heart, I’m a public-sector person.”

Still, when Charest’s job suddenly came open, Segal was the bestpositioned Tory to grab it. The combative Kingston, Ont.-based

First-ballot results of the Tory leadership race: *

Joe Clark ....................48.5%

Hugh Segal..................19

David Orchard ..............16.4

Brian Pallister..............12.3

Michael Fortier ..............3.8

* 298 of 301 polls reporting

¿OURCE: PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATIVE PARTY

businessman and political junkie had slogged through party gatherings across the country for the past four years, relying on his quick humor and deep affection for the party to collect chits for that very eventuality. He locked up many of the party’s best organizers early on. By contrast, Clark launched his campaign by letting word leak out that he would consider running for the job if there was a groundswell of support for him. He hoped a draftClark movement would arise, something like the wave that swept Charest into Quebec.

It never really came. Even many of Clark’s friends urged him to forget it. They warned that the party would use him to get through its current crisis, then dump him after the next election for a new face. They worried that a loss “would destroy him,” as one friend said. When he pressed on, some people close to him said he was refusing to listen to reason. By April, McTeer was telling people at Ottawa dinner parties “we’re running.”

Despite his three decades in politics, Clark is far from ready for retirement. At 59, he is younger than both Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, 64, and Liberal heir-apparent Paul Martin, 60. “He’s still the same old Joe,” a close friend says, laughing. “He’s out of shape, eats badly, won’t take care of himself.” Clark’s aides said he was, at least, eating better on this campaign, suggesting that his daughter Catherine’s vegetarianism was having a beneficial influence on his diet. But “the same old Joe” was exactly what worried many other Tories. They saw his mere presence as a sign of a party unable to renew itself with fresh talent. “The problem is that his image remains the same: he’s a doofus,” said one frustrated Segal adviser. “And that is terrible for the party.” Clark did not do much to challenge the retread image. Running a campaign unburdened by policies, he never told the party what he had learned from his five years on the sidelines. Other than a call to restore the House of Commons’ power to approve government spending, the Clark program included only the usual banalities of Senate reform and more free votes for MPs. “I am not one of those people who believes you have to be a policy wonk to be leader of a party,” says an ally. “But I wish Joe could have had at least one or two ideas.” Instead, Clark ran almost exclusively on what he sees as his trustworthiness. ‘When I mention Joe’s name in my riding, the phrase I hear most is that he was ‘too honest’ for politics,” says Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison, a Clark supporter. Yet Clark is proving to be one of the most durable political beings Canada has seen. And if all unfolds as expected, he looks ready to stick his chin out again. It should not have surprised anyone. □