The Prime Minister

Prime Minister longer than any other Canadian — that will be Mr. King’s record on June 8. Here’s the story of how he handles his job

BLAIR FRASER June 1 1946

The Prime Minister

Prime Minister longer than any other Canadian — that will be Mr. King’s record on June 8. Here’s the story of how he handles his job

BLAIR FRASER June 1 1946

The Prime Minister



ON JUNE 8 this year William Lyon Mackenzie King will have been Prime Minister of Canada longer than anyone else—for 6,938 days. That’s 24 hours longer than Sir John A. Macdonald—and just two days short of 19 years all told.

In that time one or another of the Mackenzie King Governments has faced, in some aspect, all the root problems of statesmanship in Canada. Mr. King took office for the first time on Dec. 29, 1921, in the middle of the postwar inflation, and served his apprenticeship as Government leader through the reconstruction period.

In the “constitutional issue” of 1926, the controversy with Lord Byng over the powers of a GovernorGeneral, and later the same year at the Imperial Conference which defined Dominion status, he played

a major part in establishing the relations which now prevail in the British Commonwealth.

Finally, in 1939, war brought him problems at home and abroad which have never been equalled in Canadian history—the problems of maintaining Canadian unity under unprecedented strain and of directing a Canadian war effort of unprecedented magnitude.

How has he done it? What techniques, what routines has he developed to deal with a job which, in his time, has multiplied beyond all prevision?

The core of it, of course, is beyond routine and beyond pattern, for the core of it is decision. The Prime Minister is responsible, more directly than most people think, for the whole conduct of government. He, not the department Minister, chooses the permanent head of each Government department. He, not the Cabinet, makes the major decisions of policy.

In practice, of course, a Cabinet decision is general and usually unanimous. Nothing is put to a vote; the Ministers proceed by agreement. If one faction is in an

evident minority, it may yield to the general will.

Mr. King, in minor matters, often lets himself be overruled by his colleagues. Contrariwise, he will delay action in deference to strong, principled opposition from even a single Minister. A recent case in point was the decision to centralize all authority over housing in the hands of Mr. Howe. It’s common knowledge in Ottawa that Mr. King first suggested this a year ago. Mr. Ilsley was then unwilling to have the National Housing Administration leave his department. Mr. King let it go, until time and events proved to the Finance Minister that he had been mistaken.

But when he wants to use it, decision is the Prime Minister’s prerogative. He can decide on policies a

Prime Minister longer than any other Canadian — that will be Mr. King’s record on June 8. Here’s the story of how he handles his job

majority of his colleagues do not like; he can, and occasionally does, make important decisions without even consulting them. Their recourse is to resign, that’s all. The responsibility is his.

These things a man must do alone. Nobody can help him. But where he can be helped is in the provision of the fullest information, so that every decision is based on complete knowledge of the facts, and in the organization of his work and of his time. Mr. King’s time is organized to an extraordinary degree. He has a fairsized staff, which includes some of the best minds in the Government service. Their job is to reduce the Prime Minister’s burden to dimensions that can be effectively borne by one man, and fitted into a single 14to 16-hour day.

Mr. King’s day begins a little before eight, when his confidential messenger, John S. Nicol, comes into his bedroom with the morning papers. The Prime Minister turns on a bedside radio, looks at the headlines while he waits for the eight o’clock news.

Before nine he’s up in the sunroom on the third floor of Laurier House, the grey stone mansion in Ottawa’s Sandy Hill district which used to be Sir Wilfrid’s home, anti which Mr. King inherited from Lady Laurier. Over a fairly substantial breakfast of grapefruit, egg,

toast and coffee he goes through the three newspapers that he reads every day, the Ottawa Citizen and Journal and the Montreal Gazette.

Other publishers often complain, privately, that the Prime Minister’s reading habits give these three papers an influence out of all proportion to their size. This is probably true. On the other hand, the Prime Minister himself has always maintained that he pays little heed to press opinions in forming policy. This contention seems to be borne out by the fact that two of his chosen newspapers are chronic opponents of his regime, and the third only an intermittent supporter.

In any case, this is by no means his only awareness of the press. Over in the East Block, the ancient stone pile on Parliament Hill that houses the Prime Minister’s office and Department of External Affairs, a staff of six works full time reading and clipping 35 English language dailies and eight French, besides a stack of periodicals. They take out 100 to 200 clippings a day from all the Canadian newspapers, The Times of London, The New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.

All told, the clipping room has pasted up 405,365 items in the 10 years since Mr. King began his present term of office. Banks of filing cabinets line the walls.

In closets are more cabinets, also batches of items on particular subjects, done up in brown paper parcels like laundered shirts.

From this great mass of stuff secretaries glean any sheets they think will be useful to the Prime Minister. Besides, senior aides every day read the Toronto Star, Montreal Star, Winnipeg Free Press, Le Canada and other metropolitan dailies. All in all, he is wellcovered on the day’s news.

Finished with his papers and his breakfast, Mr. King goes to the room variously described as library, study and office on the top floor of Laurier House. Not everyone realizes it even in Ottawa, but that room is a principal site of the Government of Canada. Mr. King does the greater part of his work there. He uses his office at the East Block for interviews, for his rare press conference, and for occasional bits of business before or after a Cabinet meeting. But the great bulk of his work is done at home in his own library.

One advantage of this system is that it keeps people away. A great occupational hazard of any prime minister, or indeed anyone in public life, is to have the whole day occupied in interviews. Mr. King has fewer, probably, than any other statesman alive. It’s much easier to avoid them when his secretary at the East Block can say, “The Prime Minister isn’t in the office.” As for the few people outside his staff whom he really does want to see, the Laurier House library is a pleasant place to receive them, and the business chat may be also a social call.

Morning Meditation Period

TOWARD nine-thirty each morning Mr. King goes into this room alone, shuts the door behind him, and for a period that usually runs about half an hour he is not to be disturbed on any account. This is one part of the day the Prime Minister regards as peculiarly his own. The secretaries at Laurier House know enough not to enter the library until he rings for someone.

When he does ring it’s usually for Edouard Handy, his confidential secretary.

Handy knows more of the Prime Minister s thoughts and feelings, his intentions and changes of mind, than anyone now living. Mr. King dictates to him, without hesitation or reserve, the most closely guarded papers, so that Handy knows more state secrets than any Canadian Privy Councillor except Mr. King himself.

The Prime Minister has a dozen senior aides, most of whom are identified as some variety of secretary. Eight of them are Oxford men by Rhodes or IODE scholarship, four taught at university before entering government service. But of all the secretaries, only Handy had secretarial training.

Despite his English name Handy is French Canadian, though he speaks English with only a faint accent, and can take shorthand in either language. When he graduated in 1928 from an Ottawa business college, he went into the External Affairs Department as a bilingual clerk stenographer in the decoding room.

Code work is highly confidential, as we have recently had occasion to remember. Handy’s talent for keeping things to himself must h^ve impressed his superiors. He left External Affairs for a better job in another department, but he wasn’t forgotten. When the present Mackenzie King Government took office in 1935 the late Dr. O. D. Skelton, Undersecretary of State for External Affairs, remembered Handy and drafted him for the Prime Minister’s office. He has been there ever since.

Handy would enter the Laurier House library to find, on a normal morning, the Prime Minister sitting down behind a stack of work on his desk. With Mr. King, as with most people, the first item on the daily agenda is the mail.

About 1,000 letters a week reach Ottawa addressed to the Prime Minister of Canada. It’s an inviolable rule of his office that an answer to each must go out, if possible, on the day of receipt, but in any case not later than 24 hours after the arrival time that’s stamped on every letter as it is opened.

Mr. King learned this rule from his old mentor, Sir William Mulock. “Nothing annoys people more,” he tells his staff, “than not knowing whether their letter has arrived.” The 24-hour delay is tolerated only in cases where a final answer can be given in that time; interim acknowledgments must go out immediately.

The only exceptions are campaign letters—those printed postcards that organizations give you to sign and send in, or any letters that can be detected as part of an organized ramp. And one other exception, the inevitable letters from cranks.

Some of these threaten Mr. King with the wrath of God. Others recount long and involved tales of persecution, or otherwise betray a mind not quite normal. One middle-aged Continued on page 79

Continued from page 8

lady in an eastern small town has been writing to Mackenzie King, for years, the kind of letter Frank Sinatra gets from his bobby-sox admirers.

But the ordinary mail is all answered, and it covers an amazing amount of territory—pleas for jobs, favors, permits, priorities, and, of course, any amount of free advice. Replies to 90% of these are signed by one of the secretaries. Mr. King sees nothing of them except a weekly correspondence report, telling him how many there were and on what topics.

Of the 1,000 letters that come in an ordinary week, perhaps 100 would get through to Mr. King. Some go through to him unopened, the really personal mail. Recognizing these is one of the skills of the correspondence clerk at the East Block—mail from members of his family, old personal friends and the like. Most of it has nothing on the envelope to identify it, but it s very seldom opened by mistake. Others that go to Laurier House unopened would be letters marked “personal” from Cabinet colleagues or Members of Parliament, provincial premiers or ministers, or from public men in other countries.

Then, on a typical morning, there would be at least one invitation to

speak somewhere in Canada or the United States. The Prime Minister usually has to refuse, so in most cases the invitation would be sent in to him with a draft reply, by one of his aides, attached, declining with thanks.

There might be one or more requests for a message—hundreds of these requests come in, and quite a number are granted. These, too, would have draft replies attached.

Such drafts have rather less than a 50-50 chance of going out unaltered. Mr. King is extremely careful of everything, however unimportant, that hears his signature. Even routine letters are likely to come bouncing back with whole sentences crossed out, and rewritten on the margin in his barely legible hand.

Speeches Worked Over

Working on material for his more formal utterances is a major duty of the senior aides, and one that probably takes more of their time than anything else. It’s not unusual for an important statement to be rewritten seven to ten times before delivery.

It is not correct to say that Mr. King’s speeches are written for him. Nothing, except some formal departmental reports from External Affairs, goes out in the Prime Minister’s name which he has not made his own. But

he does work from extensive and detailed drafts of factual material, prepared by his staff. And thé more experience a secretary gains the oftener he can put this material into a form the Prime Minister will adopt with comparatively little change.

Major speeches are usually drafted by Mr. King’s special assistant, J. W. Pickersgill. He is the administrative head of the Prime Minister’s office.

Pickersgill taught history at United College in Manitoba from the time he left Oxford in 1929 until he joined the External Affairs Department in 1937. He took a civil service examination, came out in first place, and duly was enrolled as a Third Secretary. Almost at once, though, he was sent “on loan” to the Prime Minister’s office, and he has been there ever since. Pickersgill is one of the most trusted of all Mr. King’s advisers on policy matters, and he is a key man in the Government of Canada.

Another man who does a lot of work on prime ministerial speeches is James Gibson, who assists Mr. King in his capacity as Secretary of State for External Affairs.

Gibson was a Rhodes scholar of the middle thirties, who then taught economics at the University of British Columbia until he, too, wrote a civil service examination and joined the Department of External Affairs. He

thought he was entering the foreign service, as he still may; instead he went almost at once to the Prime Minister’s office.

Nowadays he works at Laurier House, a kind of liaison man between the East Block, where the Department has its nominal headquarters, and the place where the Secretary of State for External Affairs does his work. All Mr. King’s files on international affairs are kept at home.

“If they ever do implement the bill to recreate a separate portfolio of External Affairs,” one of his aides remarked, “it would throw us into a housing crisis. There’s no place to put all that stuff except Laurier House.”

“That stuff” means the 100 to 200 dispatches from all over the world which are sent on to Mr. King each day by Norman Robertson or Hume Wrong, respectively Undersecretary and Associate Undersecretary of State for External Affairs. They are permanent heads of the department, and Mr. King’s principal advisers on international policy.

Reports by the Hundreds

Well over 400 people work in External Affairsabout two thirds of them in Ottawa, the rest in the 20-odd missions that the Canadian Government maintains in Commonwealth and

foreign capitals. Since one of their chief functions is the constant exchange of information, the flow of wordage among all branches of the department is colossal. Robertson and Wrong sift out the items important enough for the Prime Minister’s personal attention. Practically all of them will be dispatches from abroad.

There might be, for instance, a hatch of decoded cables on the blue sheets that identify messages from the Dominions Office in London. In an ordinary day’s bag there might be an account of developments in northern Iran, as seen by British consular agents on the spot; reports from similar sources on the tense situations in Palestine or Egypt or Greece or Yugoslavia or India. The Dominions Office sends out regular and very full reports on such matters to all Commonwealth capitals, information which is very highly valued by the Prime Minister.

Colors Identify Dispatches

The same bag would also contain decoded messages from Canadian ambassadors in foreign capitals, each typed on foolscap of its own identifying color. A pink sheet would be a message from Georges Vanier in Paris, perhaps about the French food situation, or the condition of the franc, or trends in French politics—anything of current importance.

Longer messages may have arrived by mail, in which case Mr. King would get the originals. Some are like personal letters—when T. C. Davis was High Commissioner in Australia he used to send in long, chatty, often amusing reports that he had typed out himself with two lingers. Others, depending on the individual, would be pretty stiff with diplomatic usage.

Out of the External Affairs memos and dispatches that arrive in the course of a day for Mr. King’s consideration, maybe half a dozen would require decision. L. B. Pearson in Washington, for instance, might be passing on enquiries from UNRRA or from the Combined Food Board that would need an answer declaring Canadian policy. At the other end of the scale it might he a relatively humble matter like an argument over water levels in a river that crosses the Canadian-American boundary — no major international issue, but important to the people who live there. Maybe Mr. King will give a decision at once, and dictate it on the spot; maybe he will hold it to think over for a while; maybe he will decide it should go before Cabinet.

The rest, the bulk of the material from External Affairs, is not sent down for decision but merely for information. Gibson has the job of receiving, classifying and filing it; it’s his responsibility to draw the Prime Minister’s attention to matters of immediate importance. If anything is really urgent, of course, Norman Robertson will have telephoned about it, but even the routine stuff basto be arranged in some kind of priority. Also, somebody has to keep track of the decisions that are made, and transmit them to the right people for execution.

All these things, domestic and external, pour into Laurier House in a fairly steady stream. This does not, of course, mean that the Prime Minister is able to handle them all as they come. Like anybody else, he gets behind.

He will start work on the heap about 10 in the morning, and occasionally— once a week or so—he will spend most of the day at it. These are the “cleanup” days, usually Saturdays.

Mr. King goes through a preliminary process of sorting out the papers in four or five neat piles, and in doing .so he probably mulls them over a bit.

Then he will sit down at a long table, with Pickersgill, Gibson and Handy, and deal with the items almost as fast as he can pick them up.

True, not all these rapid decisions are final. Many a page will be marked “Bring up later,” or, “Speak to me re” —favorite devices for putting things off. But with all allowances made, the Prime Minister does get through an astonishing volume and variety of work in these brief spaces of time.

On a good many days, though, he can’t get past the top of the pile. Cabinet meets for a full, agenda meeting once a week, Wednesdays at 11. Also, when the Plouse is sitting there is a Cabinet meeting each day at noon, ostensibly a brief session on the day’s legislative program, but actually an occasion for bringing up anything at all that’s urgent. Lately, since the war ended, Mr. King hasn’t been going to every session of Cabinet, but as a general rule, of course, he must be there. This means going down to the East Block.

Organizing the Cabinet’s work is the responsibility of Arnold Heeney, whose titles are Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary of the Cabinet. Pleeney was called to Ottawa from his law practice in Montreal, seven or eight years ago, to be Mr. King’s principal secretary. As the job grew, he concentrated on that part of the Prime Minister’s work which relates directly to the Cabinet. But he still works very closely with Mr. King and is, with Jack Pickersgill and Norman Robertson, one of the handful of senior advisers who are in constant touch with the Prime Minister and have access to him at all times.

Mr. King normally confers with Heeney either directly or by telephone just before a Cabinet meeting. He checks over the agenda, perhaps rearranges its order, refreshes his memory on whatever is likely to come up. Then he goes into Cabinet.

The opinion seems to be unanimous that Mr. King is a skilful, indeed a brilliant chairman. Plis performance in Cabinet, according to general report, is masterful.

He has the initial advantage of expecting and receiving deference. When the Prime Minister comes into a roomful of secretaries, the effect is the same as when the colonel comes into an Officers’ Mess. Everybody straightens up. They don’t actually click their heels, but the trend is in that direction.

Cabinet, wdth a slight modification of degree, does likewise. The Ministers don’t rise when he enters, but they do come to attention. In particular, they knock out their pipes and douse their cigarettes; Mr. King doesn’t smoke, and the fumes of tobacco bother him.

When the meeting gets down to business Mr. King makes a habit of letting discussion run its full course. This, in his view, is democracy at work. Every subject is thoroughly talked out, every Minister expresses his view fully and often repeatedly. At the end of it Cabinet takes its decision.

He Wears Out Opposition

In fact the decision is the Prime Minister’s. When discussion is complete Air. King sums up “the sense of the meeting.” His summing up is really the announcement of his own ruling. By that time (it may have been a couple of hours or more) even the most determined opponent of a policy may be too tired to argue any more. Mr. King proved, all through the war, that he can outlast any man in Canada, including men 25 years his junior.

Until very recently the Prime Minister seemed to be absolutely tireless. That is no longer true.

He is still in good health, astonishj

ingly good for a man of 71—he hasn’t even got a personal physician.

He still does literally nothing but work, for he has no recreations and his only exercise is occasional walk before dinner. BcRÄiowadays he is often tired. In that r*)ect, at least, he is beginning to feel hit 71 years. His average day would tire most men of any age, but only lately has it been tiring him.

However, there’s less occasion for marathon Cabinet meetings now that the war is over. Cabinet Ministers used to be lucky if they had time to bolt a sandwich in the cafeteria, and Mr. King would skip lunch altogether. Now the Ministers are usually at the Rideau Club or the parliamentary restaurant by 1.30. The Prime Minister goes home to Laurier House for a noon meal, which—when he has it at all—is generally a hearty one.

Three o’clock, whenever Parliament is in session, brings him unfailingly into the House of Commons. He misses Cabinet meetings often, Parliament almost never. He is in his seat halfway down the front bench every afternoon, and stays there until the question period is over and the Orders of the Day are called.

When he leaves the Commons chamber he goes across the hall to his parliamentary office. If it’s late, he’ll stop there for tea. A kettle will be boiling on a hot plate in the closet, and one of his chauffeur’s daily duties is to bring down from Laurier House a little medicine bottle of cream.

Mr. King may see one or two people in his office in the Commons—the Leader of the Senate, perhaps, or the Commons whip, or even a particularly importunate reporter. If he has had occasion to speak in the House that day, he does what every M.P. does—checks the report of his speech in Hansard. Then he goes back to Laurier House for more work, and perhaps a brief nap before dinner.

If he’s dining at home alone, as he does about half the time, it means the evening is clear for work—except for the fairly rare occasions when he has to go back to the House of Commons. Handy comes back after his own supper, at the other end of town. From about eight o’clock on, dictating rapidly, the Prime Minister hammers through the day’s accumulation. As a rule the 10 o’clock news is the signal to call it a day, but not always. If he’s working on anything urgent, he may go on until midnight or later.

Parliament, of course, is not the only thing that interrupts a prime minister’s routine. In session and out there are dozens of unavoidable formalities— greeting distinguished visitors, appearing at patriotic ceremonies and what not.

Even after all these years the Prime Minister still worries about protocol on

the ultraformal occasions. He has taken part in the opening of Parliament annually for 25 years, but each year he wants a complete and detailed program put before him, one that specifies exactly what he’s to wear, do and say, and timed to the minute. Once he gets these elaborate documents Mr. King sometimes pokes fun at their precision, but this fools no one. He still wants them to be precise.

With all these public appearances, people in Ottawa see the Prime Minister often—almost daily if they like. He has no bodyguard, nothing like the secret service cordon that surrounds the President of the United States. But seeing him is one thing, meeting him is another. Except for his Cabinet colleagues, not half a dozen people converse with Mackenzie King on an ordinary day.

He will, of course, see Handy and Gibson, when they’re on duty at Laurier House. He’ll see Gordon Robertson and Ross Martin, secretaries on duty at the East Block and at the House of Commons office, respectively. Beyond that Mr. King as a regular routine normally sees no one except Pickersgill, Norman Robertson and Heeney.

Social Life Restricted

Social contacts of a purely personal kind have dwindled sadly of late years. It isn’t true, though often said, that Mackenzie King has no personal friends. It is true that some of the closest have died since war began— Ernest Lapointe, the friend and colleague of many years; young Norman Rogers, on whom he looked as his political heir; the venerable Sir William Mulock, his patron of 46 years ago, the man who. started him in public life; many others. But there are some, too, not well known except in Ottawa, older families with whom he has been friends since his days as a young Deputy Minister of Labor.

Some of his official relations have also been personal ties. He enjoyed a firm and deep friendship with President Roosevelt, and still corresponds regularly with Mrs. Roosevelt. In a somewhat different way he is close to Winston Churchill—they’ve known each other since the elder statesmen of today were the boy wonders of their respective Cabinets, nearly 40 years ago.

Right in Ottawa, too, Mr. King has been fortunate in the people with whom he has had to deal. Malcolm MacDonald, who lately finished a five-year term as British High Commissioner here, stood high in the Prime Minister’s regard. He used to lunch or dine at Laurier House very often, visits that were one part business and three parts mutual relaxation. Mr. King, with that one famous exception in 1926, has had very pleasant relations with our gover-

nors-general. Lord Tweedsmuir in particular became a very close and valued friend»

But of ordinary mingling with other people he now does very little. He used to make a habit, for instance, of asking Members of Parliament over to dinner in small groups. Of late years he hasn’t been able to find time for this—there are some new Liberal M.P.’s in the present House who actually have never met him. Even his Cabinet colleagues, though they meet him daily in council, have little social contact with him.

As for his staff, there are senior men working right with him who sometimes go for days without laying eyes on the Prime Minister. They communicate with him, and he with them, by memorandum.

But whether he sees them or not, Mr. King keeps very close track of his staff, and gets a lot of work out of them.

Office rules, which are numerous, are strictly observed; opening and closing hours are enforced. But although there is great regularity about when a working day begins, there is none at all about when it ends.

No one has greater reason than his aides to deplore the fact that the Prime Minister has never married. He is completely and genuinely unaware that family life makes any demand upon a man’s time. Having no wife of his own to impose a schedule on him, Mr. King is able to work at any hour of the day or night. When he works his staff works.

A man may be in the very act of carving a roast before his guests when the phone rings. If it’s the office, he puts down his carving knife and departs. The busier of the King secretaries are accustomed to work three nights a week, and often work five.

Why do they stay on the job?

Some don’t. Quite a few able men have given up under the strain of it— even though it’s not easy to get a transfer from the Prime Minister’s office. As a rule his secretaries have considerable seniority in the civil service, an asset not to be thrown away. It’s obviously impossible to leave the Prime Minister’s office, without his consent, for another job in the Government he heads. And Mr. King’s consent to such transfers is given with great reluctance.

But it’s not mere impediment that keeps good men working in the Prime Minister’s office. Most, if not all of them, are held to him by loyalty, a personal loyalty of a curious kind. It has in it no element of intimacy—even the men working constantly with Mr. King know that he is remote from them. But they do, to a man, admire him. They feel they are working for a great statesman. To most of them, in spite of the fatigue, this makes the job worth while.