MEET MIKE PEARSON
The man who speaks for Canada at the UN and who may be our next prime minister also shovels his own snow and once played semi-pro baseball. He’s our mosttraveled diplomat blit gets sick on planes and can’t sleep on trains. The home in Ottawa he rarely has time to enjoy is run by the pretty girl who married the teacher
Maclean's Ottawa Editor
SIX YEARS AGO Lester Bowles Pearson, O.B.E., M.A., LL.D., was promoted from Envoy Extraordinary and Minister-Plenipotentiary to be Canadian Ambassador to the United States. He was one of the first career diplomats to head an important mission. J. Hugh Campbell, CPR public relations chief who was then on loan to the Government in Washington, thought this was an occasion for a Grade A press conference with all the trimmings.
Half an hour before the appointed time the photographers arrived and took charge. Anyone who happened along was conscripted to move chairs, set up lights, carry cameras. Finally everything was ready. The crew chief said, “Bring on your ambassador. Where is he?” Campbell pointed to a stocky boyish fellow in a rumpled suit who was lugging in a coil of cable for the Klieg lights. “That’s him,” he said. Mike Pearson grinned, dusted off his hands, sat down at the big desk, and the press conference began.
Three years in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for External Affairs haven’t changed him in this respect. They’ve aged him a bit and tired him a good deal—when parliament is in session Pearson’s working day averages 15 hours instead of the 11 or 12 he used to put in. They have also made him famous. Two newspaper polls last Christmas named him Canada’s Man of the Year and he’s now rated the likeliest Liberal to succeed Prime Minister St. Laurent. His work last December on the three-man cease-fire commission of the United Nations, trying to find a peaceful settlement in Korea, brought him publicity and floods of mail from all over the world. Pearson continues to behave like the most ordinary of average citizens.
One Sunday last month a reporter and a photographer called at the Pearson home in Ottawa to take some living room shots. Unluckily they came exactly on time. Had they arrived half an hour early they’d have got a much better picture -the Secretary of State for External Affairs was out shoveling the snow off his roof.
At the San Francisco conference in 1945 a women’s-page reporter
said to him, “Oh, Mr. Pearson, what is it you’ve got that other diplomats haven’t got?”
Pearson said, “I think I may be the only diplomat here who has ever been paid money for playing baseball.”
Those are typical Mike Pearson stories, and there are hundreds of them—mostly true, but adding up to a misleading impression. They imply that all you need to be an ace diplomat is a big smile, a bow tie and a talent for games. Pearson has all these things, but there’s more to him than that.
“Mike is a very complicated character,” said a close associate. “The first thing you find out, working with him, is that he’s not the simple barefoot boy that people think him.”
He has, for example, the good diplomat’s gift for appraising situations. In the year that followed Munich most of his departmental superiors accepted the Chamberlain Government’s view that there would be no war with Nazi Germany. Pearson didn’t believe it. He was then secretary of Canada House in London, and he kept writing long personal letters to Ottawa arguing that war was imminent.
In the summer of1939 he came back to Canada for three months’ home leave. He spent July with his family at a summer cottage near Winnipeg, but as the days went on he felt increasingly restless. Then he saw in the newspapers that Hitler had “raised the question of Poland.”
“This is it,” Pearson said to his wife. “This means war.”
He took the next train back to Ottawa where he found everything calm and peaceful—nobody at all excited. Prime Minister King heard he was in town and asked him out to tea at Kingsmere where King spent an hour or two explaining why Pearson was all wrong—there wasn’t going to be any war. Chamberlain was certain of that.
Pearson decided he’d better get back to London. Canada House was short-handed and he could imagine what would happen there when war did break out. He went to Dr. O. D. Skelton, Under-Secretary for External Affairs, and asked for an immediate return to duty.
“You’ve still got two months leave
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Continued from page 7
coming to you,” Skelton said, “but if you insist on going back that’s up to you.”
Pearson said, “I not only want to go back, I want to fly. If I go by ship I’m afraid I’ll be too late.”
Flying to England is commonplace today, but in 1939 it was sensational —no Canadian government servant bad ever flown the ocean in the line of duty. However, Skelton agreed. Pearson phoned New York, persuaded a friend at Pan American Airways to drop one steward to get him aboard a fully loaded plane that night. Then he got another friend to fly him to Montreal to catch the connecting plane for New York.
Flying over, Pearson noticed with interest that most of his fellow passengers were German and Polish reserve officers, called home. He got to London just five days before Hitler invaded Poland.
Another of Pearson’s unboyish qualities is an enormous capacity for work. Normally he gets up about 8 and is on his way to the office by 8.30. Occasionally he walks the mile or so from his house in Sandy Hill to the East Block; more often he drives his own car, then has a messenger take it home later in the morning. In either case he is usually the first to arrive. His staff doesn’t know exactly what time he gets to work, but they think it’s about 8.45. He’s there when they come in at 9, anyway.
He finishes between 11 p.m. and midnight. If the House is in session he spends most evenings in the office. If not, he goes home to dinner about 7 with a brief case full of dispatches.
John Doe Often Writes
Pearson’s days haven’t much pattern but they all begin the same way. First he reads the morning papers—Ottawa Citizen and Toronto Globe and Mail. (He breakfasts with the Montreal Gazette.) Pearson goes through a newspaper very fast but he doesn’t miss much; in all his years of weekly press conferences I don’t remember anybody referring to a press report Pearson hadn’t read. He covers front page, editorial page, sports pages in that order, then scans the inside.
After the newspapers, the morning telegrams. One of his associates showed me a typical day’s batch—18 documents running to 42 legal-size pages. One was a long draft report from a United Nations committee of which Canada was a member. Another was a top secret military report from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. From that they ranged all the way down to the one I was allowed to read:
TOP SECRET. Sorry, Foreign
Minister leaving town and cannot
see me until next week. CANADIAN AMBASSADOR.
If he has time Pearson then deals with his mail. He has a fair flow of official correspondence but he also gets a good many letters from private citizens. All letters marked “Personal” come to his desk, and any others his staff thinks might interest him. Some are obviously from cranks and crackpots, but many are from ordinary folk who are worried about the international situation.
Pearson takes these seriously. He has strong views about the public’s right to be informed about foreign policy (that’s why he makes so many speeches) and he answers as many private letters as he can. Often he will dictate a reply several pages long.
He dictates fast and smoothly, shifting from one topic to another without pause or effort, but he seldom gets through the morning’s accumulation before it’s time for his first appoint ment. This is usually a brief conference with his special assistant, Douglas Le Pan, or with Under-Secretary Arnold Heeney, or both. Anyone in charge of a division where things are happening is likely to be called in too.
At staff conferences Pearson is a good listener and a rapid reader of complicated memoranda. One External Affairs man said: “Mike used to scare the daylights out of me, he’d sign things so quickly. I’d bring in something that seemed to call for very careful thought and Mike would approve it in about 45 seconds. Then I noticed that this only happens in nine cases out of ten. The tenth case, the one he holds up, is the only one in the whole batch that might have got us into trouble.”
Reporters Don’t Let Him Down
Occasionally he might spend most of the day in External Affairs conferences; as a rule he can’t. Cabinet and its various committees take a good deal of time. Most of the 26 ambassadors, ministers and Commonwealth high commissioners in Ottawa have frequent occasion to see him. Almost anyone home from a Canadian mission abroad reports to Pearson in person. Reporters also pester him a good deal. It’s the price of Iris unique popularity with the Press that we all feel entitled to ring him up at any hour of day or night.
Pearson’s relations with the Press Gallery are unusual. It’s not just because most of us call him Mike—half a dozen other cabinet ministers are on first-name terms with any reporters who know them at all. His weekly press conferences are invariably well attended but they seldom produce much news. Pearson gives away no state secrets. One of the few things that make him really angry is a “leak” of information.
What he will do, though, is tell you his own opinion with extraordinary frankness. Quite often he puts his official life in reporters’ hands with a clarifying, but grossly indiscreet, interpretation of the known facts. So far, he says, nobody has let him down.
Maybe that’s one reason we all like him—he trusts us. But a more important reason is simply his astonishing gift for making friends. You meet Mike Pearson two or three times and you begin to think of him as an old pal.
Apparently he has some of this effect even on the enemy. At a recent UN Assembly meeting Soviet Foreign Commissar Andrei Vishinsky said, “I always listen with great attention to the Canadian delegate (Pearson) because he often says what others think but are afraid to say.”
Certainly his greatest single qualification for diplomacy is this knack for getting on with other people. Pearson says he inherited it from his parents —his father, a saintly and devout Methodist minister who never outgrew his skill and delight in games; his mother, now 84 and nearly blind but still, her son says, “getting more out of life than anybody I know.”
Whatever he inherited he undoubtedly owes a lot to his upbringing as a minister’s son in half a dozen Ontario towns.
Pearson’s official biography says he was born in Toronto which is not technically correct—his birthplace is Newtonbrook, five miles outside the city limits. He was born on April 23, 1897, second son of the Rev. Edwin Pearson.
From then until 1913, when young
Lester entered the University of Toronto, the Pearsons moved five or six times to parsonages in North Toronto, Aurora, Chatham, Peterborough, Hamilton. For most youngsters the experience of moving to a new school is unnerving; Lester Pearson enjoyed it.
“My younger brother used to hate the idea of leaving his old friends,” he said recently. “I always thought of making new friends.”
He was well endowed for it, a good student who was also a good athlete. Pearson can’t remember learning to play hockey or to throw a ball; his earliest recollections are of doing both in the back yard with his father and older brother. He first played football in Hamilton’s “Ninety-Pound League.”
He had won his letter at Toronto University by the middle of his sophomore year, when he left college to enlist.
A Hockey Star at Oxford
Pearson wrote his second-year examinations in an army camp in the spring of 1915. Overseas service (first in Salonika, then as a Royal Flyihg Corps pilot until he cracked up and was invalided home) gave him credit for another college year. He was able to graduate with a B.A. in the spring of 1920 and went to Chicago to work for a meat-packing firm in which an uncle held a high position.
Two years there (starting as a laborer in the stockyards, working up to an office job in the fertilizer division) convinced him of two things: he
didn’t want to stay in business; he did want a real college education. He came back to Toronto, got a Massey Foundation scholarship and went to Oxford.
Arnold Heeney, now Pearson’s righthand man as Under-Secretary for External Affairs, went to the same Oxford college the year after Pearson came down. He still remembers being asked “How’s Mike Pearson?” and the look of incredulous contempt when he admitted he’d never heard the name before. Pearson had been president of the amalgamated athletic clubs of St. John’s College, star of Oxford’s champion hockey team, in all respects a famous man. Anybody who didn’t know Mike Pearson was obviously not a Canadian at all, probably an Eskimo.
Meanwhile Pearson had come back to Toronto University as a lecturer in history under the great George M. Wrong (whose son Hume has been Pearson’s colleague in External Affairs for 23 years). He’s remembered as a surprisingly good teacher who looked and acted like an undergraduate—lived at his old fraternity house, went to student parties, gave no sign of having either a care or a serious thought.
His fellow lecturers, who were also young bachelors, noticed with some indignation that Pearson had the job of assigning senior history students to their respective seminars, and that all the prettiest girls happened to be assigned to Mr. Pearson. Within two years he was married to one of them —Maryon Elspeth Moody—of Winnipeg.
In the summer of 1928 the Pearsons went to Ottawa to work in the Archives. Mike was preparing a book on the United Empire Loyalists (he still has his notes, hopes to finish it some day). He had lately been promoted to assistant professor and he was also coaching both football and hockey, so that altogether he had a pretty good income for a young history teacher. Nevertheless he decided before the summer was out to write the examinations for External Affairs. He came out at the top of the list and entered the department as a first secretary at $3,600 a year.
It was soon evident that Pearson had
found his vocation. He came in under a Mackenzie King government; he got on equally well under R. B. Bennett. By 1934 he had attended four international conferences, two as Canada’s representative, in addition to doing an important job at the Ottawa Conference of 1932. For his work as secretary of the Stevens Commission on Price Spreads in 1934 - 35, Bennett got him an OBE and a special bonus of $1,000 (duly voted in External Affairs estimates).
The Stevens Commission job showed his skill in more ways than one. When the final report was being drafted, and circulated chapter by chapter among commission members, each secret installment turned up next day on the front page of the Toronto Star. Bennett was furious. Pearson, whose friends in the Press Gallery were already numerous, was worried lest he be suspected himself of what really was a grave breach of secrecy.
One day a friend of his noticed a messenger leaving a brown envelope in the pocket of the Star man’s overcoat. The reporter phoned Pearson: “I think I’ve located your leak.” But they still didn’t know who had sent it.
When the next chapter was completed the same thing happened, but this time Pearson’s friend took the envelope out of the overcoat pocket and hid it under his blotter. Then Pearson telephoned every member of the commission; there had been an error in transcription, he said, and all copies were recalled for correction.
Came the Day of Decision
Within an hour all but one were on Pearson’s desk. He telephoned the delinquent: “Would you mind sending it along, sir? The Prime Minister is particularly anxious to have them all in today.”
“I’m looking for it,” the member replied. “Can’t seem to lay hands on it. I think I may have sent it home by mistake.”
“I’ll have an RCMP constable call for it there, sir,” said Pearson.
“No, no, don’t do that. Leave it to me—I’ll find it all right.”
Another hour went by; then the conspirators slipped the envelope back into the Star man’s pocket. Within 10 minutes the missing copy arrived in Pearson’s office. He told the whole story to the Prime Minister. Bennett never forgave the offender, but his opinion of Mike Pearson went higher.
That summer Pearson was posted to Canada House, London, and his career from then on is well known. Back to Ottawa in 1941 as assistant undersecretary; to Washington in 1942 as minister - counselor, then minister, finally ambassador; Ottawa again in 1946 as permanent head of the Department of External Affairs. Then, in 1948, the great decision to enter the cabinet, and the hazards of party politics.
Pearson took the step with considerably misgivings. His wife not only shared them, she has them yet. The life of a politician has some compensations; that of a politician’s wife has none.
Even a diplomat’s family has a lot of special problems. Housing, for one. The Pearsons had bought a house in Rockcliffe, Ottawa’s best residential district, when Mike came back from London in 1941. They were appalled at their own audacity and their for-
midable mortgage, but they loved the place. Exactly one year later they were moved to Washington.
In 1945 they sold their house at a modest profit—renting it was a bit of a nuisance and there seemed no prospect of Mike returning to Ottawa. They were back the following year, lucky to get a rented place in Sandy Hill, a pleasant but. ailing old house with 1900 plumbing. They have now lived there longer than anywhere else in 26 years of marriage.
All that was trivial compared to the miseries of politics. To mention only one small point, the voters of his riding, Algoma East, disapprove of women smoking; Mrs. Pearson not only smokes but (insult to injury!) she uses a cigarette holder.
For this they gave up the security of 20 years in the Civil Service, the pleasant alternatives of a top job in Ottawa or embassy life in Washington, London or Paris.
Pearson felt he had no choice. “A civil servant can only go so far in determining policy,” he told a friend at the time. “When the essential decisions are made you’re not even in the room.” Pearson thought the next two or three years would be crucial; Louis St. Laurent, whom he trusted implicitly, was leaving External Affairs to become Prime Minister and no one knew who would succeed him if Pearson turned down the External Affairs portfolio. Pearson took it.
He was badly scared at the prospect of a by-election campaign, but to his astonishment he found he rather enjoyed it. It was another field for his aptitude in making friends. Also he had his usual good luck.
Once he was on a campaign trip in Blind River, Ont. He found the populace greatly agitated because they couldn’t get Hydro service; it was a provincial matter, of course, but Pearson agreed to meet a delegation at lunch and talk about it.
That morning he got a telephone call from Robert Saunders, chairman of the Ontario Hydro Electric Commission, who was anxious to talk to him about diversions of water at Niagara.
“I’m up at Blind River,” Pearson told him.
“I’ll fly up there to talk to you,” Saunders said.
“Fine,” said Pearson.
As the local delegation filed in, their MP was able to say, “You wanted to talk about Hydro, and here I’ve got the chairman of the Hydro Commission to lunch with us.”
He likes being an MP, too, likes hearing people’s problems and trying to straighten them out. He hasn’t much time for it though; it’s nearly a year since he has visited his riding.
The fact is, he hasn’t much time for anything these days, except work. This means a great distortion of his character and natural inclinations.
Pearson is a family mam for one thing. He used to like nothing better than playing with his two children when they were small. Jn the last ten years he’s had little chance even to talk to them—for long stretches he was in England or in Washington while his son (now 23) and daughter (now 21) were in boarding schools in Canada.
Also Pearson is fond of a good time. He’s never been a playboy in the ordinary sense—even after 23 years of diplomatic cocktail parties he can’t tell the difference between rye and scotch whisky, and he hates staying up late
at night. But he does like going to shows and going to ball games.
Pearson was never offered Happy Chandler’s job as U. S. Baseball Commissioner, in spite of sports-page rumor stories to that effect. If he had been, he would not, of course, have taken it, but he admits he would have been tempted. “Imagine, $65,000 a year for going to ball games! Florida every year for spring training! What a life!” Pearson did, however, make some money from his favorite sport for a short time he was an infielder, for a semi-pro team in Guelph, Ont.
Tennis is the only game he still plays (except for a spot of golf occasionally) and he likes that. Pearson at 54 is still in pretty good shape, and he has learned to use his head instead of dashing all over the court.
He used to get a lot of pleasure out of music too. On an Information Please program in New York last year Pearson was the only one of four “experts” who answered the musical question correctly; he’s proud of that. As a child he took piano lessons for about a year and he still surprises people once in a while by playing.
Finally, he has a keen appreciation of pure unadulterated loafing. One good way to spend Sunday, in Pearson s opinion, is not to get dressed at all lie around all day in dressing gown imd slippers, listening to the radio and falling asleep in a chair.
I hese are unexpected qualities in a man whose distinction in a very hardworking department is sheer industry. His aides admit they can’t keep up with him. Pearson gets tired, but he doesn’t stop.
Stamina is the first thing his staff mentions. The second is good temper.
“No matter what the flap may be,” one of his subordinates said, “we always know the minister hasn’t blown up, and won’t blow up.”
Both these virtues are made possible by Pearson’s ability to relax at a moment’s notice. He can fall asleep in a chair for 20 minutes and wake up fresh enough for another long siege of work. He never worries about decisions, past or future; he can always go to sleep at night. (Except on trains, oddly enough. Pearson does more traveling than any other minister with the possible exception of Brooke Claxton, but he still has trouble sleeping in a berth and he still gets airsick.) To a rare degree he has what psychologists call “security”—self-confidence without vanity.
All these are valuable assets in a statesman. What about drawbacks?
It’s hard to get Pearson’s staff to admit he has any faults at all. If pressed, they’ll concede a few:
He isn’t a good administrator. Pearson’s interest is in policy, not organization. When he was under-secretary work tended to clog up among the few he knew and trusted most; others might be chafing for something to do. Also, in spite of his own talent for human relations, he isn’t particularly good at putting the right men to work together.
He dislikes being wrong. If other people make mistakes Pearson doesn’t fuss about it, though he always wants to know exactly whose mistake it was. But he does quite a bit of wriggling before he will admit that he made a mistake himself.
Another criticism is negative — a doubt, not a charge. Pearson has been popular all his life. He has seldom had to do anything really unpopular. He has never faced a hostile House or an angry crowd, and every politician must take this hurdle sooner or later take it or refuse it. His friends are confident Pearson can take it.
Also a doubtful point is his ability as a speaker. With a small intimate audience Pearson is superb—nobody in Canada has a quicker wit, a more engaging manner, a greater ease or fluency in delivery. In a big hall with a big audience he is less effective; his voice is light and rather high-pitched and the effort of getting it across to the back row impairs his easy informal style.
Finally, political confreres complain that he has little interest in or knowledge of domestic problems—no great lack in a minister of external affairs, but fatal in a prime minister. Colleagues keep urging him to take some other portfolio for a while, learn more about what makes Canada tick (and learn how it feels to have to choose among a set of unpopular alternatives).
So far Pearson has ignored this advice.
This is a proof of his sincerity when he says, as he does to friends, that he has no wish to be prime minister. Men close to Pearson believe he really has no ambition beyond his present job. But they know, and Pearson must know, that he might have no real choice.
He could serve quite happily under some prime ministers (notably Doug Abbott, the other leading contender for the succession). But Abbott doesn’t want the job either; he’d rather get out of politics altogether. There are other possible successors to St. Laurent under whom Pearson wouldn’t want to work. He might again, as he did in 1948, have to go into a new field or risk having his life work frustrated.
Under those circumstances Pearson would probably run for the leadership, and he’d have an excellent chance of ge;ting it. *