FICTION

MR. KING

Blair Fraser February 1 1945
FICTION

MR. KING

Blair Fraser February 1 1945

MR. KING

Blair Fraser

WHEN Parliament is in session Mackenzie King’s Cabinet generally meets at noon. One day last summer, when its members hadn’t had a proper noonday meal for months, they miraculously cleaned up the agenda at ten to one. Ministerial mouths were watering at the thought of something better than a three o’clock sandwich. But Mr. King looked at the clock, smiled cheerily, and said:

“Ah, we’re through early. We’ve time to tackle . . and he mentioned a topic which at that time was the boniest bone of contention Cabinet had to chew on. They chewed for two hours, broke up at ten to three.

For the Ministers it meant sandwiches as usual. For Mr. King it meant no lunch at all. During sessions he often goes straight from Council to the House. After question time, which may mean four o’clock or later, he will take a cup of tea and a biscuit in his office.

Incidents like this help explain the extraordinary mixture of respect, exasperation and awe Mr. King inspires among those who work with him.

Sometimes the Ministers wonder if Mr. King does such things on purpose. They may even suspect him of starving them into acquiescence. But it’s seldom that he tries to ppsh his own view through Cabinet; he’s a thorough democrat with the patience to wait for discussion and full consent. At the end of a discussion he sums up what he conceives to be the “sense of the meeting,” and thus reveals the decision that he, as Prime Minister, has taken. Cabinet Ministers do sometimes feel they’d argue the point a little longer if they weren’t so hungry.

To look at Mr. King in the midst of his wartime Ministers, present and past, you’d think him a tender shrub in a grove of oaks. Ralston, for instance, looks as if he were carved out of flint—was famed and feared among secretaries for his ability to wear out whole staffs while he worked 18 hours a day. Ex-hockey player “Chubby” Power, when he really got down to business, used to start his working day at 5 a.m. and keep going until nearly midnight. Howe is the tense, executive type, radiating energy; Angus Macdonald looks as rugged as his native Cape Breton. Brooke Claxt.on’s idea of a rest, after a practically sleepless week, is to go out on Saturday and chop down some trees.

But Mr. King, who is 70 years old, and who even in youth was no athlete, is tougher than any of them. They may have stamina, but he is tireless.

Ability to get along without food is only part of his remarkable physical endurance. Sleep, too, he can take or leave alone with equal ease. Nothing keeps him awake at night— insomnia, the bane of executives, has no terror for him, for he sloughs off his worries with his clothes, and

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drops off to sleep as easily in the midst of crisis as if he were on a fishing trip. He also has the ability to sleep at any time of day or night, for any length of time, at a moment’s notice. If he has a free half hour in the afternoon he may lie down for a refreshing nap.

But he can also work most of the night; and despite his 70 years he often does. At the end of the Cabinet crisis, when he hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep for about six weeks, he still looked his usual self—which is to say, about 10 years younger than his age.

This toughness is only one of the bundle of anomalies that are William Lyon Mackenzie King. Among the men who know him well, it’s difficult to find many who will attempt to sum up

his character. “He’s a strange man,” they’ll say, or, “He’s a very elusive personality.” But they will insist that most of the popular beliefs about him are wrong.

For instance, to look at Mr. King, to talk to him, to read his speeches, you’d think him the most methodical of men. He keeps his desk clean as a whistle, too, seldom has more than one neat file on it. Everything about him is neat and tidy.

But, according to co-workers, this is misleading. In fact, they say, he’s an unpredictable worker, and so preoccupied with the longer view that in routine matters he’s not a good organizer. A former secretary of his once remarked, “We get along fine at distributing the work in the East Block so long as we can keep the PM from getting hold of it first. Whenever

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page he does he sends everything to the wrong person.”

Again, all Mr. King’s prepared words, whether spoken or written, are full of laborious logic which sometimes unintentionally obscures his meaning. For example, Gresham’s law can be stated in five words: “Bad money drives but good.” Mr. King, in his book, “Industry and Humanity,” restated it in 34 words.

But in private they say he’s quite different. “If 1 had to choose two adjectives to describe Mackenzie King,” one of his close associates said, “I’d take the words ‘indiscreet’ and ‘violent.’ ” And he proceeded to tell anecdotes, all off the record, to back up his opinion. Apparently the shatterproof discretion that Mr. King maintains in public is the result of long, careful self-discipline.

Privately, even to people he has no particular reason to trust, he’s likely to express opinions pretty freely. And he speaks, especially if he’s a bit annoyed, in terms that bite. Not that he uses profanity—he doesn’t—but he has a gift for the pungent word that’s twice as effective.

He also has a great capacity for fast and firm judgment, and he can make up his mind on a lot of different things in quick succession, like a chess wizard playing half a dozen games at once. Sometimes, after a hard evening or morning by himself, he’ll come into the East Block “fairly spraying decisions,” as one colleague put it.

Knows the Public

Mr. King’s decisions are not always, as you’d think, conclusions of slow reason. Often they are brilliant intuitions, which he achieves by flashes of insight after having put off action and even consideration until the latest possible minute. Only then, after the decision has been taken, does the Prime Minister sit down to spin those fine webs of logic you read in Hansard.

But of all the anomalies in Mackenzie King’s personality, perhaps the greatest is his lack of contact with the rest of the world.

Here is a man who is very likely, I think, to go down in history as our greatest Prime Minister. He has won four of the last six general elections, held office 18 of the past 23 years, and led Canada, united, into the greatest war and through the most dangerous crises of her existence. When he speaks for Canada abroad, as he did in London last May, opposing Parties generally agree he has expressed the view not only of his own Party but of the nation. No statesman in our history can exceed that record.

If you were asked to name his greatest single quality as a statesman, you’d probably choose his uncanny ability to sense the basic trend of publicfeeling, and give that trend guidance and expression. He seems to know by instinct when the people are ready for a certain policy. And, even more difficult, he can devise just the middle way which will be accepted by all men when they are clamoring for opposite courses. Yet despite this sensitivity to publicfeeling Mr. King is about as accessible to any individual among the publicas the Dalai Lama.

A year ago September the Liberal Federation met at Ottawa. The Party had been taking a beating, partly because some war Ministers had been forgetting they were just politicians after all, and this meeting was called deliberately to remind them of that fact. It was informal, even clubby. People milled around the lobby in a jolly mob, trampling on Cabinet Ministers’ toes like anyone else’s. One

Minister was complaining bitterly because someone had sat on his hat, but all the notice he got was laughter.

Then a couple of bellboys started to hack a path through the crowd. The milling Grits caught on, and fell back— a glance showed them Mr. King, waiting in the corridor until a way should be cleared to the platform. Even among friends he doesn’t like to be jostled.

That incident was typical. From the moment, as a rule rather late, when he wakes at Laurier House in the morning until he closes the last file at midnight or after, Mr. King’s day is planned for privacy. Often he doesn’t come down to the East Block office before noon. He prefers to work at home, partly because it enables him to avoid callers without offending them.

Once at the office he sees, of course, his colleagues. He sees the senior men from the three busy secretariats—the Prime Minister’s office, the Privy Council office and the Department of External Affairs—whose work goes across his desk in a continual flood. He sees, by appointment, a few others in the course of the day: a labor leader perhaps, or a dollar-a-year controller from Munitions and Supply, or one of his top-flight political advisers.

But these meetings are kept fairly formal. Even in the office his casual contacts are few, and as the years go by they seem to get fewer. When the long day ends and he leaves for Laurier House, or, in summer, the cottage at Kingsmere, it’s always with more work under his arm to fill the evening or the week end, which he spends almost always alone.

He doesn’t take any precautions to keep himself invisible or invulnerable to the ordinary passer-by. He wanders unattended around the House of Commons; in the old days, when minutes counted for less, he used often to walk home from the office, and he still does once in a while. Occasionally you’ll see him, after an official luncheon at the Chateau Laurier, go down alone for a haircut in the basement barber shop. But appointments are kept to a rigid minimum, and social engagements, formal or informal, aren’t very frequent. Evenings and week ends too are filled with work.

Has Many Friends

Mr. King is annoyed and hurt that the world thinks he has few personal friends. He insists he has many, more than most people have. In fact he and the world are both right but they attach different meanings to the word “friend.”

Forty Years ago Mr. King, then Deputy Minister of Labor, wrote a book called “The Secret of Heroism.”

It was a memorial to his aide and roommate, Henry Albert Harper, who had lost his life in a fruitless attempt to save a young woman from drowning. That little book reveals, among other things, what Mackenzie King means when he says “friends.” It shows that there existed between these two young men a bond of spiritual intimacy such as few people experience, a thing of profound reality and beauty.

Men who have known such a bond as that don’t confuse friendship with the casual associations of office and club, still less with the thousand-odd contacts of the professional politician.

Of friends, as he understands the word, he has indeed had many. Those best known to the public are dead— Ernest Lapointe, his dearest colleague, and fellow protégé of Laurier; Sir Wilfrid himself; Norman Rogers, the brilliant young scholar, whom he loved like a son and hoped to have succeed him as Liberal leader. But there are other intimates of whom the public never hears, mostly oldOttawans

whom lie has known since his days as Deputy Minister. It’s an unwritten but unbroken law in the Press Gallery that their names are not to be printed. Oddly, many of them are Conservatives.

When he does meet people privately, whether they’re old friends or not, Mr. King reveals himself as a man of great personal charm. His handshake is warm and firm, his eye bright with humor, his smile both cordial and contagious. He talks very freely and frankly, answers questions without hedging—there are none of those qualifying clauses with which he adorns the pages of Hansard.

You remember, when talking to him, that he first made his mark in the Labor Department as a conciliator, an agent who could reconcile opposing points of view. You see why it is that he, who speaks practically no French, should have spent his life trying to bring the two races of Canada together. You get an over-all impression of reasonableness, which is the secret of his genius.

Aloof Hut Charming

It’s been a great loss to him, and indeed to Canada, that he can’t transmit his innate charm to the general public. In spite of his success in democratic politics he’s no hand at all at popular appeal. He is anything but photogenic—few of his pictures carry even a hint of the character and intellectual power visible in his face at close range. Nor do these qualities get across from the platform, except at informal meetings.

Besides Mr. King really thinks public deportment should be restrained and dignified. He may sometimes envy the showman’s popularity, but he has a profound contempt for showmanship in public life.

He’d no more think of putting on an act like that of the late Wendell Willkie, drawing beer for press photographers in an English pub, than he’d think of turning handsprings like Billy Sunday.

It’s not surprising therefore that Mr. King is not known to the public at

large as the man he is. Rut in addition there is a strange remoteness he manages to preserve even from those with whom he works from day to day. Among his colleagues and staff you’ll find all admire him and most respect and like him. But none speaks of him with the warmth of intimacy.

In part this arms-length attitude is deliberate. Mr. King has found, in politics, that you can control people more easily when you don’t see too much of them.

Beyond any conscious withdrawal, though, Mr. King’s nature sets him apart from most men. He can do things they can’t do, seems untouched by feelings that sway them. His judgment is as cool under pressure as it is under none at all. Men admire him for this, although they may not really like what appears to be an immunity to the emotional excitement which disturbs them.

But all this still begs the essential question, “How does he do it; what is the secret of his power?”

Mr. King himself doesn’t know. Lord Beaverhrook once asked him how he managed to read enough newspapers to keep so closely in touch with public opinion. Mr. King confessed to the press baron that he read few newspapers, and paid little attention to them in forming his judgments. His secretariat does keep close track of press trends for him, and a succinct report of both news and editorial opinion is put on his desk every morning. But the record certainly bears out his claim that he isn’t guided by it.

He thinks his ability to gauge the average man’s political thinking is partly the result of experience—after all, he’s been nearly 45 years in public life—and partly inborn. Political sense, he believes, is inherent, like artisticsense or a talent for music.

But there’s one thing more. “I have a great respect,” he said once, “for the ordinary man’s essential rightness of judgment. If, when I have to make a decision, I take the course I honestly and sincerely believe to be right, then I believe the public will support me in it.”