MACKENZIE KING As I Knew Him
Beside a proclamation offering £1,000 for his grandfather dead or alive, Mackenzie King kept a parchment awarding him the Order of Merit. He was proud of both. This revealing paradox shaped the man and helped to shape a nation
SOME PEOPLE think that last journey killed him—the trip to London in October 1948 to the Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers. He never quite recovered from the breakdown he had there before the conference even began, so that he never actually got to its meetings. Yet, old and sick as he was, William Lyon Mackenzie King did a lot for the success of that conference. It cost him his health, but it may well have been his greatest service to the Commonwealth in his 50 years of public life. The object of that conference was to bring India into the Commonwealth as a full partner. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had misgivings on two grounds: How could India join an association based on allegiance to an alien crown? And how could he, personally, after eight and one quarter years in British jails as a political prisoner, become and be accepted as a loyal prime minister?
Mr. King had the answers. Pandit Nehru called to see him in the sickroom at the Dorchester Hotel. Mr. King talked about his grandfather, the rebel William Lyon Mackenzie. He told of the proclamation signed in the Queen’s name by Sir John Colborne, offering £1,000 for Mackenzie’s capture dead or alive. A copy of it now hangs outside his own study at Laurier House—and beside it the parchment that proclaims him, the rebel’s grandson, a member of the Order of Merit. This high order of British chivalry is limited to 24 persons.
“My chief reason for accepting the O.M.,” Mr. King used to say, “was to hang it beside that proclamation of the price on my grandfather’s
He told Mr. Nehru of his association with a whole line of sovereigns: he was sworn as a deputy minister under Queen Victoria, as minister of the crown under Edward VII; he’d served as prime minister under George V, Edward VIII and George VI; he’d been a guest at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and sent personal congratulations on the birth of Prince Charles. A day or two before King George VI had called to see him. Yet he had never, at home or abroad, concealed his pride in the grandfather who fled in 1837 to escape hanging.
A Week End in Ogdensburg
Mr. King could make that story a parable of Canada. For 100 years this country had been struggling for freedom—first the Responsible Government that his grandfather had fought for, then the full autonomy he himself had done so much to win—yet at the same time insisting on retaining its tie with the Crown and the Commonwealth.
Pandit Nehru was deeply impressed. I’ve been told this by Indians as well as Canadians. He called again next day. This time he stayed only a few minutes with the sick old man, but he brought a gift of jade that Mr. King valued highly. Not much was heard after that of Pandit Nehru’s personal misgivings.
Meanwhile Mr. King had been working on the other side, urging that the Crown should not be the principle of the Commonwealth because “the Indians can’t accept that.” Asked what, then, should be the binding common factor, he’d expound a theory of his own.
“The poor British could never understand it,” one of his aides said. “I think even Mr. St. Laurent had trouble. It was a bit too mystical for most people.”
But I remembered an occasion when he’d made it pretty clear—May 11, 1944, less than a month
before D Day, when Mr. King was in London at another prime ministers’ conference. I remembered him walking down the aisle with Winston Churchill (it was astonishing, after all those heroic wartime pictures, to find Churchill and King were exactly the same height) and speaking to both Houses of the British Parliament. It was one of his good speeches, the best I ever heard him make from a prepared text. In one of its paragraphs he said:
The British Commonwealth has within itself a spirit which is not exclusive, but the opposite to exclusive. Therein lies its strength. That spirit expresses itself in co-operation. Therein lies the secret of its unity. Co-operation is capable of indefinite expansion. Therein lies the hope of the future.
If you had to put the guiding principle of his whole life into one word, that would be the word— “co-operation.” Mr. King was proud of what he’d done to promote it within the Commonwealth. He was prouder still of his role between Britain and the Commonwealth on one side and the United States on the other. It was a larger role than most of us knew.
One Friday afternoon in August, 1940, Mr. King was at his summer home at Kingsmere. The phone rang; the Prime Minister answered it himself. He recognized the voice at the other end of the line, his old friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“What are you doing this week end?” the President said.
Mr. King realized without asking that Mr. Roosevelt had something definite in mind. “I’m at your disposal,” he said.
“Could you come over to meet me at Ogdensburg?”—the little border town in New York State, across the St. Lawrence River from Prescott, Ont.
Mr. King could, and did. The result, so far as we were told at the time, was the Ogdensburg Agreement that set up the Canada-U. S. Permanent Joint Board of Defense.
Actually, the so-called Ogdensburg Agreement was hardly more than an afterthought. Joint defense of the continent required very little discussion; the “agreement” was jotted down by the President on the back of an envelope and issued as a Press release to give a plausible account of what they’d been talking about. What they really talked about, from about 6 in the evening until 2 in the morning, was the exchange of American destroyers for British colonial bases announced a month later.
One evening at Laurier House (during one of the few private conversations I ever had with Mackenzie King) he showed me a copy of his cable to Winston Churchill after that Ogdensburg conference. It was still marked “Secret,” though the year was 1948 and the secrecy long spent. It was a fascinating document. I realized, reading it, that the British had a hard time understanding President Roosevelt’s worry about encroaching on American neutrality; while the Americans had no grasp of the
British reluctance to alienate colonial territory. Mr. King, the Canadian, could understand them both. His job was to explain each to the other and he did it superbly.
One thing that helped, of course, was the network of friendships in both countries built up in 40-odd years of public life. Everyone knows of his relationship with the Roosevelts; it’s often forgotten that he and Winston Churchill had been friends for a much longer time. That went back to 1908; how it began was one of Mr. King’s favorite stories.
He’d met young Churchill briefly in 1903 or ’04, when he was out here on a lecture tour, and he disliked him at sight—thought him a bumptious, conceited young jackanapes. In 1908, as deputy minister of labor, King was in England on a mission connected with East Indian immigration; by that time Winston Churchill had become a boy wonder of British politics, a cabinet minister in his early 30’s.
“You must see Churchill,” somebody said. “He knows more about this than anyone else.”
“Anybody but Churchill,” Mr. King replied. “I’ve met him and he’s the last man in England I want to see.”
But when he got back to his hotel a few hours later he found a hand-written note from Churchill asking him to lunch the next day in terms he could hardly refuse.
As King walked into the club lounge the following noon Churchill met him with a grin and an outstretched hand. “We met in Canada four years ago, I think,” he said. “I did make a frightful ass of myself on that trip, didn’t I?”
A Slogan that didn’t Sizzle
King looked him right in the eye and smiled back. “Well, Mr. Churchill, there were many Canadians who thought so,” he said, “and I was one of them.”
With that they sat down to an excellent lunch; they rose fast friends. The friendship was mutually useful 30-odd years later.
Introducing Mr. King to the British Parliament in May, 1944, Mr. Churchill said: “I say without hesitation that there was no other man, and perhaps there was no other career which any man could have followed, which would have enabled our honored guest of this afternoon to lead Canada united into the heart of this world-shaking struggle.”
Three years earlier, in a private message (lately published in the appendix to his memoirs, volume III), Mr. Churchill had put the same thought in even warmer terms: “What a pleasure it is to see
the whole Empire pulling as one man, and believe me, my friend, I understand the reasons for your success in marshaling the great war effort of Canada.”
Such words must have warmed Mr. King’s heart for they touched on the proudest achievement of his whole career. At his last Press conference, on the day in 1948 when he finally retired as prime minister, someone asked him what he regarded as his outstanding work. He said, “Keeping Canada united through the war.”
For such men as Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Mr. St. Laurent, members themselves of an ethnic minority, the concept of Canadian unity was part of their heritage; it was in their blood. For Mackenzie King, as for Sir John A. Macdonald, it was not. Both were Scots Presbyterians; neither spoke French at all; neither had any special fondness for French Canadians as such. But both had the wisdom, the penetration to grasp this root problem of Canadian statesmanship, and both had the skill to devise solutions for it.
Perhaps “solutions” is too positive a word for the subtle compromises they worked out. Controversy still swirls around the most famous, or notorious, in Mackenzie King’s career—his manpower policy during World War II. “Not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary.” Hardly a ringing slogan for a nation at war; hardly a phrase to lift men’s hearts.
Yet it worked, in its fashion. To English Canada, angrily demanding a Continued on page 62
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total war effort, it offered a barely tolerable minimum. On French Canada, violently opposed to conscription and furious that the pledges against it should be broken or even modified, it imposed a barely tolerable minimum. Neither side liked it; both put up with it.
Whatever you may think of Mr. King’s manpower formula there is no doubt what he thought of it himself. He thought it was an achievement. I believe he regarded the conscription crisis of 1944, and his own feat of coming through it with a reasonably intact cabinet and a vote of confidence from parliament, as the triumphant climax of his whole career.
Tough, Hard As Nails
If that crisis showed his skill as a compromiser it also showed another of his qualities—ruthlessness. That never came out more clearly than in his treatment of the late Col. J. L. Ralston.
Grant Dexter, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press and an intimate friend of Col. Ralston, published an account of this incident when Col. Ralston died in May, 1948. He referred to Mr. King’s announcement that Col. Ralston had “resigned,” and went on:
What actually happened is without precedent in this country. Mr. King dismissed Col. Ralston while the cabinet was in session and while both men were seated at the council table. He simply said that the colonel would no longer be the Minister (of National Defense) and that General McNaughton would take over.
Thereupon Col. Ralston rose, walked around the table, shaking hands with the men who had been his colleagues, and walked out of the Kast Block a private
member. He did not shake hands with the Prime Minister. He did not become a Kinghater, like many others, but from that day forward he never had respect or affection for Mr. King.
Another colleague, who had a great deal of respect and affection for Mr. King, said, “Don’t be misled by appearances. The public thinks this man is flabby, weak, indecisive. In fact he is tough, hard as nails, and absolutely ruthless when he wants to be.”
It’s a paradox, one of the many in his complex character, that this “tough, hard, ruthless” man should also be the Great Conciliator, a genius at bringing men of opposite views together and composing their differences.
When he was deputy minister of labor he handled about 40 industrial disputes; only two developed into strikes. Working for the Rockefeller Foundation during World War I he smoothed out labor troubles in several of the biggest war plants in the United States. His book “Industry and Humanity,” if rewritten into less ponderous prose, could still be used as a textbook in personnel relations.
To the end of his days Mr. King considered himself a radical; nothing annoyed him more than people who thought there was no difference between the Liberal and Conservative Parties. About five years ago a Mend of mine introduced to him David Lewis, then national secretary of the CCF.
“I’m very glad to meet you,” said Mr. King. “You know, we ought to he in the same party. All the progressive people should be together.” Take a look at the King records: Fair Wages Resolution, 1898 (to forbid sweatshop practices on government contracts: this was introduced as a result of Mackenzie King’s articles in the Toronto Mail and Empire). Railway Disputes Act, 1903. Industrial Disputes Investigation Act, 1907. Bill
to establish eight-hour day on public works, 1910 (Mr. King introduced it and it passed the Commons but the Senate killed it). Combines Investigation Act, 1922. Old Age Pension Act, 1927. Unemployment Insurance Act, 1940. It may have taken a long time, but it adds up to a lot.
Here’s a paradox again, though. This man who spent so many years improv ing the lot of the working man was, himself, a very hard man to work for. He was the first Canadian statesman to seek legislation for an eight-hour day, but he worked his own staff like galley slaves, night after night.
To some extent he could plead necessity; after all, a prime minister has to be busy, especially in wartime. But he had a total disregard for a man’s family obligations or private plans; nothing mattered but work.
At the same time he required his staff to be very considerate of him not just efficient, but obsequious. One young secretary fell permanently out of favor when he failed to turn up to welcome the prime minister home from a journey. When the same man forgot to see him off on the occasion of the next trip he very nearly lost his job.
Yet this same Mackenzie King, notorious as a hard master, was famous for acts of consideration and kindness, even to the merest acquaintances.
One Christmas Eve not long ago a couple who knew Mr. King only moderately well came home to find a large bunch of flowers on their doorstep, with Mr. King’s card. Christmas morning the P.M. himself rang up: “I was so sorry not to find you in when I took those flowers over last night. I’d got so many I didn’t know what to do with them all so 1 made up a few bunches and took them around to friends.”
Not long ago he gave an interview to
a visitor from out of town who’d lost his wife a few months before. The visitor didn’t know Mr. King very well and it was no surprise to him that Mr. King made no mention of his bereavement. Next morning, by special messenger, came a hand-written letter from Mackenzie King, two pages long. Mr. King hadn’t known of his visitor’s tragic loss, had learned of it only after the man had left. Then followed a message of condolence which was a mzsterprice of good taste and genuine sympathy.
Mackenzie King Speaking
In 1943 a Conservative editor, who’d fought Mackenzie King continuously and bitterly for 30 years or more, got word that his son was missing in action overseas. It happened during the first Quebec Conference with Mr. Churchill and Mr. Roosevelt. At midnight the telephone rang; it was Mr. King calling from Quebec to express his sympathy and concern.
This was one situation where his thoughtfulness was absolutely unfailing; it extended to friend and foe. His heart went out to any acquaintance, however slight, who’d suffered any bereavemeht, however remote or even trivial.
I once owned an Irish terrier that ran off and got lost. I put an ad in the paper, stating the breed of the dog and giving my name and phone number. About 10.30 that evening the phone rang.
“Fraser? This is Mackenzie King speaking. Have you found your dog?”
That was the only personal call I ever got from Mr. King and I was more than surprised, I was astounded. For weeks I kept it dark, thinking it might have been some Press Gallery wag with a gift for mimicry. But when I finally
plucked up courage to tell one of his secretaries about it he said, “Oh, that was the P.M. all right. He does that kind of thing all the time.”
On the Monday after Mr. King died the Ottawa Citizen alone carried seven by-lined stories by different staff reporters, all on the theme “I knew Mackenzie King.” The degree of acquaintance varied a good deal, but all these stories are absolutely genuine. Mr. King wasn’t the hermit he was painted.
Except for his old friend Senator Charlie Bishop, who’d known him as a green young deputy minister in 1900, he had no intimates among reporters here. But the rest of us did see a bit of him from time to time, in spite of our constant moans about how seldom he met the Press.
We didn’t see him casually or easily. Mr. St. Laurent can be buttonholed as readily as any other minister. He walks alone to work every day, often goes alone to lunch at the Rideau Club and sits at the nearest club table that has a vacant chair. Mr. King never did things like that. We saw him by appointment, and rarely.
But when a reporter did get a private interview Mr. King treated him as a guest. Often the appointment would be at Laurier House, for tea in that famous top-floor study. If you were especially lucky it might even be out at Kingsmere (that never happened to me, but it has to some people). Or it might be just a brief chat in the office at the House of Commons or the East Block. Wherever it was Mr. King always behaved like a host, never like a busy executive.
If the talk was off record, as it usually was, Mr. King would sometimes talk with astonishing frankness. I remember one time in his last year as prime minister; a colleague had just brought in a highly controversial measure. Mr. King, as head of the government, was just as much responsible for it, in theory, as the sponsoring minister, but he said quite bluntly that the whole thing was a great mistake.
“I don’t blame the minister so much, I blame his officials,” the Old Master said. “You know, Fraser, ministers listen far too much to their advisers nowadays. That’s something I learned not to do when I first went into Sir Wilfrid's Cabinet . . .” and he drifted off into anecdotes of political life 40 years before.
Friendless? Yes and No
To meet Mr. King at close range like that, to listen to him talk, was to realize the charm he had and to know why he was such a forceful personality at international gatherings. In public he was both cold and dull. In 50 years of practice he never learned to read well from a prepared text; his oratory, on these formal occasions, was usually stiff and artificial. Privately he was just the opposite. His public speeches were all wrapped up in cocoons of qualification and reservation; his private talk was blunt, forthright and memorable.
He could be very witty, too. The funniest, the best, and in a curious way the most moving speech I ever heard him make was at the Press Gallery dinner in 1948, when he told us for the first time his full plans for retirement. For the first 15 or 20 minutes he gave a burlesque of himself—first an ambiguous sentence, then a demonstration of all the fantastic meanings editorial writers would read into it. We all laughed until our sides ached.
And then, almost imperceptibly, he grew serious. I don’t remember what he said, and it was all off the record anyway, but I do remember the quiet that fell on a rather rowdy and bibulous
audience and the ovation he got when he sat down.
No man who could talk like that would ever lack invitations, even if he weren’t the prime minister. Mr. King would have been a welcome guest anywhere.
So in that sense the picture of him as a friendless man is quite false. He had hundreds. I saw the heaps of his mail on his 75th birthday; baskets and baskets of it from all over the world.
Still, it is significant that he was sensitive on this point. Nothing hurt his feelings as much as the statement, often printed, that he was a man with few friends. It hurt because, in a different but very real way, there was some truth in it. I don’t think many people were really close to Mr. King, or he to them.
Partly it was the penalty of his job. When the late Robert Manion became Conservative leader in 1938 Mr. King invited him out to Kingsmere and offered him just one piece of advice: “Try not to see too many people. There is nothing more fatiguing. You must ration very carefully the number of people you see each day, or you can’t carry on as a party leader.”
Partly, too, it was his own choice. Some years ago, talking to a Liberal official of gregarious habit, Mr. King said, “You’re seeing people too much. I’ve always found I can control people better if I don’t see too much of them.”
Partly it may have been the impact of bereavement, for Mr. King wasn’t always thus remote. In his first years in Ottawa he had a dear friend and departmental assistant, Henry Albert Harper. They had been friends in college; in Ottawa in the new Labor Department they worked together, roomed together, walked and talked interminably together. Harper was drowned in 1901, trying to rescue a girl who fell through the ice; King later wrote a memorial to him called the
“Secret of Heroism,” which showed just how deep and close their friendship had been. One passage reads:
Harper and his friend (King) had lodgings in common and his diary is full of mention of the evenings they spent together in company with books, from which each in turn read aloud to the other, and which were laid aside only that a deeper searching of the heart might follow, accompanied by pledges of mutual loyalty and resolve, long after the embers had burned out upon the hearth, and all things were in the sacred keeping of the night.
In his latter years Mr. King had no friendships that close. It’s usually said, and I think rightly, that the Rt. Hon. Ernest Lapointe was the closest friend he ever had among cabinet colleagues. Mr. King used to call Mr. Lapointe “Ernest.” But Mr. Lapointe, to his dying day, never called the prime minister anything but “Mr. King.” That’s why there were few mourners in the nearest, deepest personal sense when he died. Most of his immediate family were already dead and so were the old dear friends. Of those still living, the men who’d been closest to him physically were the very men who knew how far he had kept himself away from them.
Neverthless, he was mourned.
While his body lay in state in the Hall of Fame a friend of mine overheard a mother who’d brought her little boy to see him. The child didn’t know who Mackenzie King was; the mother was trying to tell him.
“He was a great prime minister,” she said, “and he was prime minister longer than anybody ever was before. He did great things for Canada. The things he did will make Canada a better place for you to grow up in. He was .
Quite suddenly she stopped talking and began to cry, and then she turned and went away.
Of all the millions of words poured out in tribute to Mackenzie King none gave him surer promise of immortal memory. A