Will Diefenbaker Lead the Tories?
Mackenzie King called him "a natural Liberal." Some men in his own party suspect that, too. But if George Drew steps down, John George Diefenbaker is odds-on favorite to step up
THE Progressive Conservative Party, still reeling from its defeat last August, hasn’t yet made up its mind whether or not to replace George Drew as party leader. All it has decided is to postpone the decision: a Progressive Conservative Association
meeting planned for October was called off. Drew—openly blamed by some Tories for the party’s poor showing—will carry on until next year and perhaps longer, while the party ponders its future.
Several names are mentioned as possible successors—Donald Fleming, the Toronto MP who was a candidate in 1948; Davie Fulton, the bright young man who sits for Kamloops, B.C. George Hees, another Torontonian, was amazed to learn that someone was collecting money in September for a “George Hees leadership campaign.” (Hees put a stop to it.)
But if Drew does retire in the near future (as his wife has wanted him to do for years) the odds are that the leadership will go to a more familiar figure than any of these. John George Dieferbaker, QC, Member of Parliament for Prince Albert and the only Saskatchewan Conservative to survive the last two elections, is the party’s heir presumptive.
Already there have been attempts to put Drew out. Diefenbaker himself stopped one of them. When he was guest speaker at the British Columbia Progressive Conservative Association meeting in October, the executive told him they’d got resolutions from two local associations expressing non-confidence in the present leader and demanding a convention.
Diefenbaker advised them to tear up the resolutions and suppress the whole topic. Disloyalty of that kind, he said, would ruin any party—the thing to do was stand firmly united behind the chosen leader, whoever he might be, and build up the organization across the country. They took his advice.
That incident, soon noised abroad, has helped to smother piecemeal attacks on the leadership from provincial groups. It does not, of course, rule out the possibility that the national Conservative organization might call a Continued on page 95
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convention next year or the year after. In that event John Diefenbaker will almost certainly be a candidate for the third time running, and this time he will probably be the favorite.
Diefenbaker is a tall, thin, curlyhaired widower who at fifty-eight, (sixteen months younger than Drew) looks boyish in spite of greying hair and a rather frail physique. A non-smoker who drinks seldom and very sparingly, he retains enough of a Raptist upbringing to decline political speech-making on Sunday, and he looks more at home at a church supper than at a stag party.
Nevertheless he has been the Conservatives’ sharpshooter and parliamentary hatchet man for a dozen years—almost since he first entered the House in 1940. He is usually rated as the party’s ablest debater and he has probably made more Liberals more indignant than any man in public life except maybe George Drew.
On Conservative audiences he has the opposite effect. In last summer’s election campaign he was the speaker most often requested by candidates; except in Quebec, Drew ran him a poor second. Organizers give Diefenbaker credit for winning three Ontario ridings which they had crossed off as hopeless. Even his enemies in the party, who number not a few, concede that the Conservatives would have won more seats under Diefenbaker. In six Ontario and seven Maritime ridings the Conservative was beatén by a thousand or less. Many party men think Diefenbaker could have taken these thirteen and maybe more.
I talked to one of the unlucky thirteen last month. “A lot of people said they’d have liked to vote for me but they didn’t like Drew,” he said. “I figure half of them were just making an excuse—they’d have voted Liberal anyway. I think the other half were telling the truth—and that would have been enough. If we’d had John instead of George, I’d have been elected.”
Yet it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that Diefenbaker could win the party leadership. Even though few dispute his ability to win more seats than the present leader or any other now in sight, a powerful fraction of the Conservative Party is still against him.
This is just one paradox in a paradoxical career. Diefenbaker the Conservative sharpshooter was elected in Prince Albert by eight thousand Liberal votes (the total Conservative vote there in 1949 was far less than Diefenbaker’s majority in 1953). Diefenbaker’s personal popularity, especially out west, is partly due to the very fact that he’s unpopular with a section of his own party. Diefenbaker has struck many people—including the late W. L. Mackenzie King—as a natural Liberal unaccountably strayed among Tories.
This political ambiguity is regarded with profound distrust by some old-line Conservatives. It explains in part why Diefenbaker is not a sure bet for the leadership of a party in which he seems the most popular figure, and why he failed to win that leadership at two party conventions.
Actually the 1942 defeat needs no explanation because Diefenbaker was not a serious candidate. In 1948 he really tried to win and still thinks he would have if delegates had been allowed to make up their own minds. Diefenbaker was opposed and Drew was supported by a group of men, mostly Torontonians, who have much to do with collecting party funds. Re-
sides helping to finance the party’s election campaign they financed George Drew’s campaign for party leadership on a scale far beyond anything the Diefenbaker forces could match.
That’s what Diefenbaker men mean when they say he was “beaten by Bay Street.” They claim that watchers were posted outside Diefenbaker’s headquarters in the Chateau Laurier, noting who went in and ostentatiously writing their names in a little black book. Later the delegates would hear the blunt warning:
“You want campaign funds, don’t you? Drew can get the money; Diefenbaker can’t get a dime.”
According to Diefenbaker’s friends, the “Bay Street Colonels” think he is too progressive. Some, they say, are suspicious of his good relations with organized labor (Diefenbaker has been giving free legal advice to trade unions for years). Still others dislike his campaign for a Canadian Bill of Rights, which to them has a radical sound.
A few years ago some Conservatives decided on a campaign to “outlaw Communism.” George Drew had no objection; the project got so far along that the literature was actually printed and awaiting distribution. Diefenbaker fought the idea in caucus, using the same arguments as Stuart Garson, the Liberal Minister of Justice, uses in public—that to outlaw Communism merely drives the party underground; that you can’t put a man in jail for his beliefs, no matter what they are. Diefenbaker carried his point. The campaign literature, still in bales, was carted away and burned. But the incident did nothing to allay the suspicions of those who call Diefenbaker a “Leftist.”
However, there are some who share Diefenbaker’s concern for civil liberties and still don’t like his Bill of Rights. They say it’s unsound constitutionally and some of them add that Diefenbaker is too good a lawyer not to know this.
Perhaps the doubters of this type are more often Liberals than Conservatives, though. What worries Conservatives more is their doubt of his ability to swing his own personal following to the Conservative Party.
Help From the Opposition
His election campaign last summer was a perfect case in point. Prince Albert has been Diefenbaker’s home town for thirty years, but not his parliamentary constituency—he sat for Lake Centre, in central Saskatchewan about halfway between Regina and Saskatoon, until it was wiped out by redistribution last year.
Prince Albert hadn’t gone Conservative since 1911. The Conservative candidate in 1949 got only twenty-two hundred votes. Local Liberals were thunderstruck when Diefenbaker got ten thousand, a plurality of more than three thousand, and put his Liberal opponent in third place.
It was a personal triumph of the first magnitude, but Conservatives are still wondering whether it was a party triumph. Many think it wasn’t.
Diefenbaker’s principal backer, financial supporter and campaign manager in Prince Albert was self-made merchant Fred Hadley, who had always been an inactive but loyal Liberal. Another leading organizer, Ed Jackson, is still a member in good standing of the CCF. Jackson’s approach to the Prince Albert voter went something like this:
“I’m no more a Conservative than you are, but I think John Diefenbaker deserves a seat in parliament.”
Hadley and Jackson started work six months before Diefenbaker had
even decided to run in Prince Albert. They studiously avoided the old Conservative organization there and made their campaign a personal appeal for Diefenbaker as “The Voice of the North.”
His old Lake Centre organization turned out to be personal, too. Most of its key men came up to Prince Albert to “help elect John.” They showed no interest in the hapless Conservative in Moose Jaw-Lake Centre, the new riding which contained at least two-thirds of the voters who’d elected Diefenbaker in 1949. This time the Conservative ran a bad third to the CCF’s Ross Thatcher and a Liberal.
This personal support is only partly due to Diefenbaker’s parliamentary renown. Much of it he earned as a prairie lawyer with a reputation for defending little men’s interests.
Ten years ago, for example, a group of farmers near Prince Albert sold alfalfa seed to a big grain trader who’d been their agent. They lost money on the deal and he made a big profit. They decided to sue him, but seven lawyers told them they had no case. They went to Diefenbaker, who won the case for them and recovered a substantial sum.
In previous .elections these farmers had voted solidly CCF. Last summer they all voted for Diefenbaker.
Roman Catholics in Saskatchewan are mostly Liberal—they’ve never forgiven the Conservative Party for the school law, passed more than twenty years ago, forbidding nuns to wear the costume of their order when teaching in public schools. However, Diefenbaker once successfully defended a Catholic school trustee against a charge of violating school laws; and last summer one solidly Catholic village which had never before voted anything but Liberal gave Diefenbaker a majority.
Such incidents raise doubts in many Conservative minds as to whether these personal Diefenbaker supporters would ever vote for the Conservative Party as such even if Diefenbaker were its leader.
Another doubt, and this one is shared by some of his best friends, is whether Diefenbaker has the physical stamina for party leadership. He is not robust, he has had pneumonia several times in the last ten years, and even admirers wonder whether he could stand the heavy strain that falls on a party chief.
Aside from physique, Diefenbaker has a vulnerable temperament. He is by no means a recluse and he enjoys good conversation, but he is not gregarious as most politicians are. Except for annual fishing and hunting trips with old Prince Albert friends, he has no hobbies. He and his wife Eldna, who died two years ago, used to lead a very quiet life in Ottawa, usually living in one room at the Chateau Laurier and returning to the small house in Prince Albert they occupied until they moved to a new, bigger house not long before Edna Diefenbaker died.
Diefenbaker is almost morbidly sensitive to criticism. He can be cut to the quick, and thrown off stride, by things a tougher politician would shrug off’. He even seems to have infected some of his workers with this tenderness of skin.
In Prince Albert last summer the Liberals circulated half a dozen antiDief’enbaker cartoons. Diefenbaker workers told me about them in tones of horror. Diefenbaker himself said “they made votes for us, not for the Liberals,” but he plainly thought they were a pretty low smear. In fact the “smear” consisted mainly in the charge that John Diefenbaker was running as a George Drew Conservative. But one Diefenbaker man saio: “I just don’t
think John is the type of man who should be cartooned.”
If Diefenbaker ever be party
kader he and his followers will be cured oí that notion.
Diefenbaker’s thin skin is related to another charge made by his critics—the most frequent and the most serious. This is the charge that he doesn’t work veil with other people, that he’s poor ai team play, a good stick-handler who wm’t pass the puck.
It is certainly true that Diefenbaker has had differences with other Conservative leaders, and it’s probably no coincidence that the Diefenbaker supporters in parliament are mostly, though not all, backbenchers who have little voice in policy. It is also true that Diefenbaker doesn’t always manage to conceal his low opinion of certain colleagues. He has a sharp
tongue and some talent for mimicry, and he can be very funny at the expense of colleagues.
In some relationships, though, Diefenbaker has proved he can work very well with other people. Friends have been equally amazed and amused to see how he gets men to work for him in his own riding.
On an organizing tour of Lake Centre some years ago, Diefenbaker was told by his representative lining up delegates for the nominating convention in one district: “There’ll be nobody but
me, my wife, my sister and her husband. We’re the only Conservatives hereabouts.”
“That won’t do,” said Diefenbaker briskly. “I’ll have to get someone who can do better than that. Who’s the leading Liberal around here?”
It turned out to be a farmer down the road a piece. Diefenbaker drove there at once, found his quarry was at work in the field, and said: “I’m
John Diefenbaker and I’d like you to organize this poll for me. Will you do it?”
The erstwhile Liberal said he would, and he did.
It’s part of Diefenbaker’s inheritance to be politically ambidextrous. Like his personal friend and political foe Mackenzie King, Diefenbaker had an ancestor on both sides in the Rebellion of 1837. Great-grandfather Diefenbaker, who’d come to Upper Canada from Germany in 1818, was a Loyalist. His Scottish great-grandfather Bannerman, who came out with Selkirk to the Red River and who paddled and portaged to a spot near Toronto when that venture failed, was a supporter of William Lyon Mackenzie.
By 1895, when John was born, both sides of the family had become Liberal. Diefenbaker remembers most clearly a childhood admiration for Sir Wilfrid Laurier. His father had taught the young Mackenzie King at Berlin, Ont., and they remained friends until the
elder Diefenbaker’s death. In 1903 the family moved to Saskatchewan, where Conservatives were almost as scarce as now.
The 1915 Class Prophet of Saskatchewan University predicted that Diefenbaker would end as Leader of the Opposition—Sir Robert Borden’s Conservative Government was then in office. In 1923 when he was a young lawyer in the village of Wakaw, Diefenbaker was even elected secretary of the local Liberal Association, a fact which Hon J. G. Gardiner exhumed in parliament with obvious x'elish a few years ago.
Diefenbaker says these appearances are misleading—that he has always been a Conservative. The Liberal post in Wakaw was just a mistake, he says; he wasn’t active in politics there and the Liberals elected him when he was out of towix. He isn’t sui’e what switched him over from the family’s politics—maybe it was the election of 1911, when the recipi'ocity issue was often presented as the Empire versus the U. S. A. Diefenbaker at seventeen was a strong British Commonwealth man, as he still is.
After he graduated in Arts he spent two years in the army—got overseas but was invalided home in time to finish his law coui'se by 1919.
Northern Saskatchewan in those days was a lawyer’s paradise. It had lately been settled by European immigrants, many of whom were free citizens for the first time. There is no better way to prove you are a free citizen than to take your neighbor to court. Young Diefenbaker got his share.
His first case was heard on his twenty-fourth birthday. His client was accused of attempted murder—he had shot a neighbor after threatening to do so for years, and could think of no better excuse than to say he thought the victim was a wolf. The judge gave a charge which, it seemed, practically di'ected the jury to ccnvict, and Diefenbaker resigned himself to losing his first case.
Ten minutes later the jury was back with the verdict “not guilty.” The judge was furious, and scolded the jurymen befoi'e dismissing them. Diefenbaker concealed his elation axxd his astonishment with equal difficulty. A few days later he met the jury foreman and asked:
“Frankly, how on earth did you find that fellow not guilty?”
“We talked it over,” said the foreman, “and somebody said ‘After all, it’s the kid’s first case.’ Then somebody else said ‘And it’s his birthday.’ That settled it—we all voted for acquittal.”
That story isn’t typical but it is symbolic, for Diefenbaker has always had a way with a Saskatchewan jury. In a great wave of fraud cases that followed the collapse of a farm cooperative, Diefenbaker had sixty-two jury trials in his first twelve months of practice. He won about half of them, aixd came out with a tremendous reputation as a defense counsel.
It wasn’t entirely a local reputation, either. Diefenbaker became mildly famous in the early 1920s among the lawyers of Saskatoon. Rumors spread about a youngster just out of law school who was making pots of money in some godforsaken place called Wakaw, and putting his money into safe investments so that he could afford to go into politics as soon as possible.
Neither rumor was groundleas. Die fenbaker had wanted to be a member of parliament since he was ten years old. After five prosperous years in Wakaw he moved to Prince Albert and plunged into Conservative politics.
In the 1925 election he was beaten
by a Liberal named Macdonald. Macdonald resigned to give his seat to Mackenzie King, so in 1926 Diefenbaker was beaten by King. In the provincial election of 1929 he was beaten by Hon. T. C. Davis, now Canadian ambassador to West Germany.
Looking back now, Diefenbaker thinks all his defeats were blessings in disguise, and particularly the one in 1929; he escaped the taint of association with the Anderson Government, the only Conservative regime Saskatchewan has ever had, and still linked in western minds with the Ku Klux Klan and the Great Depression. Instead of a colleague Diefenbaker became a successor; he took over the provincial Conservative leadership when ex-Premier Anderson resigned in 1936.
Diefenbaker did his best, with no money and no encouragement, to get a field of candidates nominated for the provincial election of 1938. Many dropped out before nomination day for lack of funds. All the rest were beaten, including Diefenbaker himself in Arm River, which by a portentous coincidence is part of the federal riding Lake Centre.
Diefenbaker’s wife Edna had the same low opinion of politics at that time as most politicians’ wives have. To her enormous relief John said he was through with politics for life. After five defeats in thirteen years (he’d run for mayor of Prince Albert, in a momentary aberration of judgment, and lost that too) he was ready to give up all idea of becoming an MP.
Drafted Against His Will
One year later he and his .wife were at Humboldt, Sask., where Diefenbaker was counsel in a law case, when he got a call from Lake Centre. A federal nomination meeting was being held there next day. Would he come down and speak, just to thank the voters of Arm River for having come within three hundred votes of electing him? Diefenbaker said he would.
“You’re not weakening, I hope?” said his wife as they set off.
“Certainly not,” said Diefenbaker. “I’m driving down there to make a speech, that’s all.”
When he got there somebody put his name in nomination. Diefenbaker said it would be a great honor, and if there were no local men available he might accept, but there were three Lake Centre men to choose from and he withdrew in their favor. He thought that was the end of it—the convention went ahead and nominated the local Conservative Party president.
The Diefenbakers were just getting into their car to drive back to Humboldt when the new candidate came running out: “We’re re-convening the convention; don’t go for a minute. Come on in.”
Inside, the new candidate addressed what was left of the convention: “John Diefenbaker said he’d accept nomination if there were no local men available. I and the other two local candidates think John would be a better man than any of us, and we are retiring in his favor right now.”
Before Diefenbaker could think of anything to say his nomination was confirmed and the convention broke up. He got into the car beside his indignant wife and they drove for twenty miles before either of them said a word. (Edna Diefenbaker got over her resentment in the end; for the last ten years of her life she took as much interest, and almost as active a part, in politics as her husband did.)
But it didn’t look then as if he’d be back in politics for long. In many
a Lake Centre village he couldn’t find a single Conservative. He became so self-conscious nbat he’d park his car outside town and wait until dark before slipping into a Grit stronghold to confer with some lone Tory. But to everyone’s surprise, not least his own, he won by eight hundred and fifty-six votes.
That election was perhaps the worst of the Conservative catastrophes. The party was not only decimated, it was decapitated—its new leader, Hon. Robert Manion, was defeated in his own seat, and resigned. With a few exceptions like Howard Green of Vancouver and the late Gordon Graydon of Peel, there were no distinguished figures among the bedraggled handful cast up on the beach after the shipwreck of 1940.
Against this dun background, newcomer John Diefenbaker stood out. He became a leading Conservative debater almost at once, and got more favorable publicity than any of his colleagues. He has been doing so ever since, with mixed effect on his popularity with other Conservatives.
Toward the end of Diefenbaker’s first term, the Mackenzie King Government introduced its Family Allowances Bill. Progressive Conservative Leader John Bracken, who had no seat in the House at the time, called it a “political bribe.” George Drew, then Premier of Ontario, promised to do all he could to prevent it from going into effect. It was taken for granted these views would be endorsed by Conservative MPs with a unanimous vote against Family Allowances.
Diefenbaker, supported by Howard Green, stood up in caucus against the party leadership. He remembered his own childhood on a western homestead, he said, and how much a family allowance would have meant to his own parents. The rest might do as they liked, but he would vote for the bill. Other MPs were emboldened to take the same stand. In the end not a single Conservative vote was cast against Family Allowances—the one diehard opponent, Dr. Herbert Bruce of Toronto-Parkdale, was persuaded to be absent when the vote was taken.
In three campaigns since then the Conservatives have spent much time denying that they’re against Family Allowances. A recorded vote on the Bracken-Drew line would have made this denial sound pretty hollow. Diefenbaker’s revolt against the party line of 1944 made possible the party lines of 1945, 1949 and 1953.
Naturally this did Diefenbaker very little good. Politicians don’t like a man who was right when they were wrong. They prefer the loyalty of the Light Brigade or the Boy on the Burning Deck.
But though his tendency to follow his own judgment has not made Diefenbaker a favorite witli party leaders it hasn’t by any means disproved his capacity to be a party leader himself. The open question, among friend and foe, is “How much difference would it make?”
Certainly the party would not move any further to the Right, but would it move to the Left either? In most of the big choices of the past ten years, Diefenbaker and those who think like him have, anyway, been able to halt the Old Guard’s rush to the Right.
Probably the party would gain more seats—but would it gain the ninety more seats that it needs for a working majority?
If Conservatives decide that the answer to that question is “yes,” a convention will certainly be held and Diefenbaker will certainly win it. Meanwhile, most of them are still undecided. it