MIKE PEARSON He remembers a tintype town and a “rare" teacher, an old movie and new comedians
“The minister’s kid is always subject to a certain amount of attention”
On the Friday morning following their Monday discussion with John Diefenbaker, the same three members of Maclean's panel gathered in a small suite in the Royal York Hotel in Toronto and chatted for an hour or so with Lester Bowles Pearson, the leader of the opposition.
The private side of politics: MIKE PEARSON
“The minister’s kid is
always subject to a certain amount of attention”
n the Friday morning following their Monday discussion with John Diefenbaker, the same three members of Maclean's panel gathered in a small suite in the Royal York Hotel in Toronto and chatted for an hour or so with Lester Bowles Pearson, the leader of the opposition.
Mr. Pearson came directly from his train, having arrived only that morning from his nomination meeting in his constituency of Algoma East. That afternoon he was destined to make a major policy speech in Hamilton—the opening gun in his Ontario campaign. Now he relaxed in an easy chair and talked, as John Diefenbaker had, of non-political matters-—of parsonage life at the turn of the century, of his fascination with television, of his Biblical tastes, of his brief abortive struggle with a law book — and of the loneliness that comes upon a man as he approaches the summit.
Here is the tape-recorded transcript of the conversation:
Mr. MacLennan: I should like to start with something of a novelist's question. Mr. Pearson. In establishing a human character one always thinks of his parents, and I wondered if you would care to tell us how your parents seemed to you when you were a boy—-in terms of their influence on you and your life?
Mr. Pearson: My earliest recollections of
parsonage life are very happy indeed: of a mother, who is still active at ninety, who had to work in a way which young mothers now wouldn't like even to consider (pulling water out of the well, and all that kind ot thing) yet never gave us any impression that she was working too hard; and of a father who was a Methodist minister, but who made us feel that it was important to go to a ball game as well as to prayer meetings with him. It was a nice combination. He was a very cheerful person as well as a very religious person. And our home was a very happy one. 1 may sound a little pompous, but 1 have often put it that we were very rich in everything except money. My father’s average income when he died, after I think thirty years of preaching, was under a thousand dollars; but, 1 have no recollection of ever having been poor.
Miss Moon: Mr. Pearson, what was their general approach to bringing up children? Mr. Pearson: Well, I think it was more
kindness than kicks. 1 don't remember very much hard disciplinary action. Perhaps I could put it this way: I do remember so
vividly the two or three occasions that it had to be done that obviously it wasn’t done very much.
Mr. Bannerman: What's the very first thing that you can remember, VIr. Pearson?
Mr. Pearson: 1 can remember, in North
Toronto (where 1 lived from one to four),
being frightened to death because there was a hand-organ going on across the street. The music was coming from some mysterious source that 1 couldn't understand, and this frightened me. That's my first conscious memory.
My next one is very vivid: being taken by my father to a baseball game. He was playing centre field and 1 was allowed to sit on a bench on the field with other men who were in baseball uniforms. I've learned later that this was a very revolutionary thing because father was a Methodist minister, and Methodist ministers in those days at the beginning of the century didn't play on baseball teams.
Mr. Bannerman: Well, sir. do you happen to remember the first very bad and terrifying dream that you ever had?
Mr. Pearson: I used to have nightmares
when I was a small boy. Not serious, but very often 1 would be found walking around at night giving a shout. The nightmare was a common one: neat, fiery circles going round and round in my mind. Perhaps they still are! 1 lost those nightmares because I was given a black pill when I was about ten. 1 suppose there was nothing in the pill at all, but I was told that if I took that I’d never have a nightmare. Well. I never had a nightmare after that, and I gradually began to realize that I didn't have to take those black pills—until I came back from the First War: then 1 began to get them frequently again.
Mr. MacLennan: Would you tell us of some of your boyhood friends?
Mr. Pearson: Well, I'll go ahead now, to public school in Peterborough—we moved around all over the place. There was a boy in our class and he and 1 were always sort of struggling together for first place on the list of examination results. His name was Laid law' Anderson, and we were together a great deal. He is the one I remember most vividly. He was killed almost at the beginning of the First World War; nearly all my friends of those days were killed in the First War. But, more vividly than him, I remember my teacher in this public school. He is still alive. He is eighty-three, and 1 still see him when I go to Peterborough. His name is Downey and he was one of those rare beings who could teach in a way that made an impression on you and you never forgot it. He excited in me an interest—not in mathematics because nobody could do that —but in history, and in language and literature. He got me curious about things: about the past, and about words. And there was another teacher in Hamilton, named Mike McCiarvin, who had the same effect on me later in high school. Nobody at the university had exactly that effect on me! Miss Moon: Are continued on page 58
Mike Pearson continued from page 17
“My most poignant memory is of not being able to buy a bike: every boy in the block had one”
you aware of any character who planted in you the desire to either excel or to do well to satisfy your own standards? Mr. Pearson: I think perhaps my par-
ents, especially my father, who had— not a morbid interest—but a very appealing interest in our work at school. If I did well in Latin grammar at school he got more of a kick out of it, almost, than I did. He didn’t worry me if I didn’t do well, but he was so obviously interested in the examination results.
Mr. Bannerman: Did you do pretty
Mr. Pearson: I did pretty well in the
subjects in which I was interested. I was terrible in things like arithmetic. Miss Moon: Is there any tragedy from your childhood that stands out at all? Mr. Pearson: No, I don’t really think so. The most poignant memory I have is not being able to buy a bicycle. I said we never felt poor, but this was one occasion when all the boys in the block had bicycles and I didn’t; and that was pretty hard.
Mr. Bannerman: What bothered you, I presume, was that you were not sort of conforming like the others.
Mr. Pearson: No, I don’t think that conformity was as much of a passion in those days as it is now. We weren’t exposed to so many mechanisms of propaganda and information, like radio and television, where you are told to be like everybody else. It was simply that I couldn’t bike out into the country unless I borrowed somebody’s bicycle.
Miss Moon: Mr. Pearson . . . have
you, so far as you know, pretty much carried out your parents’ precepts in bringing up your own children—or do you consciously differ from them?
Mr. Pearson: Oh, J think we differ from them. I think we tried to establish the same kind of atmosphere but it was so very different. You see when they were young we were over in London in the war. They had to come back here to go to school and they were away from us.
And, then, after the war we moved to embassies and they were back here in school.
Miss Moon: But, in general, you approve of the way your parents brought you up? Would you call it a normal home?
Mr. Pearson: I think it was pretty normal. I think it was abnormal in that in those days you didn’t find very many Methodist ministers who had my father’s sort of whole-souled joy in living outside the church as well as in the church. He loved sports; he loved curling; he loved bowling; he loved baseball.
Miss Moon: Did being part of a minister’s family sometimes tend to turn the family back on itself?
Mr. Pearson: Oh, the minister’s kid is always subject to a certain amount of concentrated attention.
Mr. Bannerman: Moving into the area of food, Mr. Pearson; have you any particular favorite dish?
Mr. Pearson: No. Nothing exotic. Poached eggs are the things 1 like. Whenever I come home tired I ask for poached eggs.
Miss Moon: Let’s go on into the whole area of taste then. Did you have enough funds when you were young to go to motion pictures?
Mr. Pearson: They were just beginning then, and they only cost a nickel. The first one I can remember—and I can remember this as if it were yesterday— was in Peterborough about 1907 or 1908. It was a train robbery, of course. We had a maid then, a Barnardo girl. We didn’t have to pay much to her except give her a home. She was very religious and when she heard about this she went inside and pulled my brother and me out. She thought we really were exposing ourselves to the devil. My father didn’t think movies were good things then. W'e were only allowed to get into them legitimately when another theatre opened up, and the owner belonged to our church. That made it all right. The first picture I saw there was Ali Baba
and Ihe Forty Thieves. I remember how we went around behind the Central School, in the playground, and acted it out.
Mr. MacLennan: Do you remember any more mature pictures that have appealed to you?
Mr. Pearson: Yes. One or two in the Twenties. I am thinking of a German picture particularly, about the futility of war, directed by Erich Von Stroheim. It was a great picture.
Mr. MacLennan: But, since then?
Mr. Pearson: I still go to the movies
occasionally. Not so much now since television has come.
Miss Moon: Do you have any favorite TV programs?
Mr. Pearson: Wayne and Shuster are
very funny. They were certainly funny the other night. I nearly missed the train going up north because I was determined to see the end of that program . . . Mr. Bannerman: What about radio?
Mr. Pearson: Oh, 1 always like Bannerman’s talk! 1 tun more selective in radio than in TV. I have a sort of childish weakness to turn on the picture and look
at it, even if it is not worth looking at.
I find it hard to turn it off.
Mr. Bannerman: How long have you
had TV, Mr. Pearson?
Mr. Pearson: Only a year or so.
Mr. Bannerman: Well, you just wait.
Mr. Pearson: I’m getting to the point
now where I get very interested in certain television shows. The ones that irritate me the most are the musical ones, because they can be done better on radio, I think.
Mr. Bannerman: And that brings us to music.
Mr. Pearson: I’m fond of music but I can’t say I’ve got an informed appreciation of it.
Mr. MacLennan: What composers do
Mr. Pearson: Well, the one that I like, if it’s records, is Brahms.
Mr. Bannerman: Which of Brahms’
music do you prefer—the symphonies or the concertos?
Mr. Pearson: The concertos.
Mr. Bannerman: This brings up opera . . . Mr. Pearson: Well, I'm not particularly interested in opera. I go when I am in New York because it is a lot easier to go, but I’d rather have a good musical comedy than a bad opera.
Mr. MacLennan: How about comic
strips? Do you read the comics?
Mr. Pearson: No 1 don’t. My wife is an avid reader of them, but 1 just never got around to that.
Mr. MacLennan: I was wondering if you could tell us if there were any books when you were growing up that really had a basic influence on your career? Mr. Pearson: Yes—and this is a horrible confession to make—but the books that interested me most, and did have a very basic influence on my bent toward teaching and history, were those of G. A. Henty. I’m sure I read every Henty book.
Mr. MacLennan: He was a wonderful
Mr. Pearson: 1 became very conditioned to the past because of the way he told his stories. They covered a lot of history.
Mr. MacLennan: Is there any formal
historian’s view that appealed to you? Mr. Pearson: No. I can’t think of any particular one. You see, I got into uniform in 1914 when I was seventeen years old and 1 spent my eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first birthdays in uniform, most of them as a private soldier. Those arc the four years in which most men mature through reading and I lost them all. And the two years afterward.
Mr. MacLennan: But the war itself.
Did that affect you when you came back?
Mr. Pearson: Well, in my case when
1 came back, I got a war degree. I only had to go back to college for a few months. Then 1 decided to study law, and I went down to Osgoode Hall and was articled to a firm to which my father had once been articled. (He switched after six months into the church.) I remember the head of the firm, old Mr. McLaughlin, gave me a book which was called Anson on Contracts. I read about fifty pages and said: “If I’ve got to do this for three years, l just can't do it.” 1 went down to Osgoode Hall right afterward and tried to get my fifty dollars back which 1 paid for entering the college. 1 got it back, chucked the books, and went and got a job in the packing plant of Armour and Company for a couple ol years. Then l went to Oxford.
Mr. MacLennan: Are you interested in fiction at all?
Mr. Pearson: Yes, in those earlier days
when I was at high school. We didn’t have a very big library and it was mostly the British classics. Dickens loomed very large in our reading. We read all of his books out loud and that may have given me a certain humanitarian approach to public problems. Mr. MacLennan: Would you care to name a few novelists whose work has appealed to you in later years? Mr. Pearson: I haven’t done very much reading of that type except the modern novels as they come out. I can’t think of any that may have made much impression on me. 1 haven’t really become engaged in the study of Proust, or some good novelist. I read far more biographies. Mr. MacLennan: Could you talk about some that have impressed you most? Mr. Pearson: Well, I used to be very interested in the biographies of the nineteenth-century British Victorians. Gladstone, for instance. That gave me a bent toward politics. Mr. MacLennan: Lincoln, perhaps, too? Mr. Pearson: Yes, of course. Miss Moon: Napoleon? Mr. Pearson: No, I was never very much interested in Napoleon. Mr. Bannerman: How about Palmerston? Mr. Pearson: Oh yes—and Melbourne. Mr. MacLennan: If you could ever get a vacation for three months, and you are in good health but just want to read, what books would you select? Mr. Pearson: I think in this I could join nearly everybody else in picking the Bible as the first one. Largely because I have never had a chance to study it, though I’ve read at it all my life. Mr. MacLennan: Are there passages in the Scriptures apart from perhaps reading as a matter of guidance or for a spiritual need that you enjoy for the sheer beauty of language? Mr. Pearson: Oh, I think the Songs of Solomon. Mr. Bannerman: Do you find, considered purely as reading, that you are attracted more to the Old Testament than to the New? Mr. Pearson: It used to be the Old Testament, but now it would be the reverse. But certainly the Bible would be one book that I think almost anybody would want to take on a reading trip. I’d also like to take along a book on some other kind of religion or theology. And 1 would certainly want to have something about Lincoln with me. He must surely be the man most public men would like to follow. Especially his conquest of failure; you remember what a terrible time he had for five or ten years trying to get elected to anything, and how he failed every time, and the abuse and vilification he took! Any time I get worried reading the Globe and Mail I think of the things they said about Lincoln when they really didn’t pull their verbal punches! Mr. MacLennan: From what you said of Napoleon, I gather you haven’t been interested too much with military memoirs. Mr. Pearson: Yes . . . I like to read military historians, particularly Liddell Hart. I have talked a lot with him. and I’ve read, I think, all of his books, and I've become interested in the last year or two in the theory of a limited war. I think he is the best and most readable military author today. Mr. MacLennan: Can you name any other books you'd take on a holiday? Mr. Pearson: Well, if 1 were going away for a month on a holiday ... I think I would take practically all 1 could get of Trollope. They are so far removed from the contemporary scene, and so
well written—in an almost childishly clear style. And I think that would he good reading in the present atmosphere.
I find now I am reading far too much in books on international affairs, as they come out.
Mr. MacLennan: Let me ask you a personal question about your two years at Oxford. Did you find, as I did, that your time at university in the Old Country made you much more aware of your own country than you had thought you had been before?
Mr. Pearson: Oh, yes. There was never any temptation for me to stay over there.
1 think it did two things to me: it gave me a chance to recover from the war and it did make me feel very happy about coming back to Canada. My first and abiding impression was that it was the best two years I ever have had or ever will have. It was just perfect! It was a realization of an ambition, a passionate ambition, 1 always had and that I was certain 1 could never achieve: to go to Oxford.
I got that ambition because every Christmas, from the age of about six to twelve, my parents gave me a book called Chums. (My brother got The Boys’ Own Annual.) It opened up a new sort of life. I thought: “Someday I’ll go over there and be a student at Oxford.” And then during the war when I was sent back to take my commission from the Mediterranean, I was sent to an officer-cadet battalion at Wadham College at the end of April. And I thought: “If I get through alive (which I didn’t really expect) I’m coming back here as a student.” It took me about three years. Miss Moon: Mr. Pearson, are you yourself aware of how you learn your lessons? Some people learn them from books by themselves, some from contact with a single person, some from a concentrated atmosphere. How about you? Mr. Pearson: I don’t know. I think in the last months I’ve been learning from bitter experience. Trial and error, perhaps.
Mr. Bannerman: You don’t systematize your experiences?
Mr. Pearson: No, I don’t. I’m not a systematic person. One reason why, perhaps, I’m not systematic is that I’ve never had—apart from going to Oxford—any special goal that I was determined to achieve. I’ve never had any desire, any ambition to achieve any particular job. Miss Moon: Do you yourself have any strong moral feelings that this is or it isn’t a good attitude?
Mr. Pearson: Perhaps that goes back to my training. My family would say: “Well now, the Lord will provide; don’t worry if you can’t have milk tomorrow; you can have buttermilk. If you can’t be the first in your class, be second: don’t worry about that, everything will work out — there’s a Divinity.” 1 don’t like to say that I haven’t a goal; I like to do every job I am given as well as I can. But I’ve never had a goal in the sense of a position I wanted. Not having that kind of passionate desire makes me very impatient of some people who have, because I think it leads to intolerance. Mr. Bannerman: What do you think of the dictum that power corrupts?
Mr. Pearson: Oh, I’ve heard it so many times that perhaps it doesn't make any impact on me. I think it probably applies to most people and to most situations. But there are lots of people who have not exemplified it in history. Take Abraham Lincoln. He must have had some driving ambition because he kept trying and trying and trying, and yet he never gave the impression of ruthless determination, and it certainly didn’t corrupt him when he got it.
Mr. MacLennan: I believe, as I get older, that life becomes very mysterious and one has to learn to listen inwardly every now and then and certainly not be sure one understands what destiny is.
Mr. Pearson: My own career, perhaps, is an illustration of that, because 1 have never had any conscious influence, let alone determination, over events. It’s been accidental. I was teaching happily at the university here without any desire to leave. My last year there I was coaching the football and the hockey teams; and with that additional income to my historian lectures 1 was doing all right.
It was a pure accident that I went to Ottawa to do some research on the United Empire Loyalists and ran into Dr. Skelton. And he said, “Why don’t you come down here and join the Department of External Affairs?”
Miss Moon: What was the temptation there that made you go?
Mr. Pearson: Oh, I was teaching diplomatic history and all that, and it was sort of exciting to be associated with the new foreign office.
Mr. MacLennan: Would you care to tell us anything about your working habits? Mr. Pearson: I'm not, as my secretary will tell you perhaps, a very systematic worker. If I’m writing a speech, after about fifteen minutes I'm inclined to get bored with that speech and switch to correspondence and when I get bored with that, to pick up a memorandum. I tend to move around from one thing to another but I get most things done on time.
Miss Moon: Are you a riser at seventhirty?
Mr. Pearson: Yes, I get up early and I like to get down to the office around half past eight.
Miss Moon: Do you work at night?
Mr. Pearson: I bring stuff home to read. Miss Moon: When do you find you work most effectively?
Mr. Pearson: When I’m home.
Mr. MacLennaiK When you go to bed, can you sleep?
Mr. Pearson: I certainly can.
Mr. MacLennan: You can close the
doors on the problems?
Mr. Pearson: Yes. I always take some kind of reading with me that has nothing to do with what I am working on.
I like looking at a television play, or a wild-west picture. I like reading some detective stories, that kind of thing. I like reading a sports magazine. It is so far removed from what I’m doing that I get relaxation from it.
Mr. Bannerinan: Do you find it a problem to get the time to be by yourself and simply think?
Mr. Pearson: Oh, yes! Just look what I've got to do in the days ahead. I’ve got to make three or four speeches every day from now on. How can you do them decently? I haven’t a prime-ministerial staff working on these things. I his is an exceptional situation, but even in Ottawa the men who have responsibility are given no time to think. Isn t this one of the great dangers of our approach to problems?
Mr. Bannerman: It seems to me one of the imminent dangers of all public men of prominence nowadays is that they just don’t have time to reflect.
Mr. Pearson: 1 went away for four days last week to work on some of these economic ideas without anybody bothering me, and I got very badly criticized by some of the people for leaving at that moment.
Miss Moon: Do you find that, in your position, you have moments of loneliness?
Mr. Pearson: Well, I’m becoming lonelier now. 1 think when you get more re-
sponsibility you’re off more on your own and there is nothing you can do about it.
Miss Moon: You find that you are
thrown on your own resources?
Mr. Pearson: It is part of the price you pay for increased responsibility. 1 don't want to appear pompous again, but as you approach the summit, there is not so much room for other people to be with you and you become a little frightened because so many of them want to be with you for their own reasons. So you cling to a few people whose friendship has been tested—and then you get criticized because you have a little group and you’re not paying enough attention to the others.
Miss Moon: Do you react to personal criticism?
Mr. Pearson: Oh, 1 don't like it but I take it pretty well. A great friend of mine came to me when I was going into politics ten years ago, and said. “Don’t do it. You will have the most awful time. You’re too thin-skinned. You’ve never been exposed to criticism. Everything has come easy to you. You’ve been happy—you’ve been lucky. Now, all your life you’re going to have a terrible time: don't do it!” He’s told me since that he thought he was mistaken. I’ve had some rough times: the Suez situation, and then the Norman case, and the present situation. I don’t like criticism of course—but I don't mind it too much. It's supposed to be good for your soul, you know!
Miss Moon: It doesn’t stampede you in any particular direction?
Mr. Pearson: No. Perhaps it worries
those who are close to me: my friends, my wife, and my mother.
Miss Moon: Have you got a temper, Mr. Pearson?
Mr. Pearson: Oh, I think perhaps I have. My people are Irish, you know. My mother’s people came from Tipperary and were inclined to be hot-tempered. But 1 seldom burst out. Maybe I will in the weeks ahead.
Miss Moon: It doesn’t cause you any
trouble—keeping your temper under control?
Mr. Pearson: No, probably because 1
know that it could get me into so much trouble.
Mr. MacLennan: Do you feel able to
cope with the fact that so many people who feel aggression for private reasons always tend to take it out on the statesmen and on the leaders? Are you able to handle these quite irrational attacks that seem to be personal but, of course, are not? Does it bother you?
Mr. Pearson: The thing that angers me most is the misrepresentation of motives. Misrepresentation of facts is a human failing. I don’t get too upset about that. But misrepresentation about motives does make me pretty angry because at least you should know your own motives. Miss Moon: One last question, Mr. Pearson: what else do you think, ideally, you might have been qualified for? What do you think you might have done well if you hadn’t reached your present situation?
Mr. Pearson: I think I would have been a good manager of a major-league baseball team! It is something that 1 would have loved to have done. I was never a great baseball player; I get mixed up now and then with my brother who really was, and who could have gone on to the big league. But 1 loved everything about baseball, and I still do. (I can tell you the batting averages for all the top people last summer and next summer.) Yes, I would have loved to have taken on the job of a big-league manager. ★