The man behind the party’s new Mike Pearson— he’s still a diplomat in politics

Peter C. Newman October 22 1960

The man behind the party’s new Mike Pearson— he’s still a diplomat in politics

Peter C. Newman October 22 1960

The man behind the party’s new Mike Pearson— he’s still a diplomat in politics



Peter C. Newman

One of the most frequently heard remarks in Ottawa these days is how his two-and-a-half years as leader of the Opposition have radically recast the personality of Lester Bowles Pearson. “Not the same old Mike.” is the usual assessment. “He’s a political animal now. He may even smoke cigars soon and slap some Liberal crony on the back.”

Outwardly. Pearson certainly has changed from the boyish “Mike” with the bow tics who made this country a world influence during the postwar years. He can hardly be described as boyish any longer, since last month he became a grandfather for the seventh time. He has abandoned his bow-tie trademark for more dignified cravats. There is only one reminder in his parliamentary office of the dominant role he so recently played in w'orld affairs: a glass frame preserving the tattered Canadian ensign that flew from the RCAF plane that took Pearson to Ceylon in 1950, where he helped establish the Colombo Plan.

Pearson is deliberately remaking his public image. He spent most of a week recently at the Toronto offices of the MacLaren Advertising Company, viewing clips of his past television talks, with professionals advising him on how to improve his performance. It has been decided, for instance, that as many words as possible containing the letter “s” will be dropped from his future scripts, so that viewers won’t be bothered by Pearson’s lisp.

But while his image is being changed, the man himself remains remarkably the same. Pearson still smiles when he’s angry, he loves to twist phrases into doubtful puns, and his so-called blossoming into a politician doesn’t prevent him from admiring good ideas, whatever their source. He is as relaxed as Diefenbaker is intense; his office is as untidy as Diefenbaker’s is neat.

After he took over the leadership of the Liberal party in January 1958, Pearson’s friends felt that his thirty years of diplomatic insulation from domestic politics would leave him floundering hopelessly before a parliamentary veteran like Diefenbaker. They were right. The crackle of intellectual electricity that brought him the Nobel Peace Prize seemed only to hamper Pearson in the cut and thrust over domestic issues in the House of Commons. It's not easy to be urbane when you’re making a twenty-minute attack on government price support for hogs.

This initial ineffectiveness has now been replaced by a remarkable resilience in Pearson’s handling of the opposition chores. He is finally at ease in the House and that means he’s one of the best men in it, but it doesn’t mean that the man has transformed himself into a politician. He has merely succeeded in applying the intellectual depth that helped him master international affairs to the country's domestic problems.

This absence of any real metamorphosis prevents Pearson from extending his understanding of Canadian issues into politically effective jabs at the Tories. He often tries to rationalize an opponent’s argument, mortally weakening his own replies in the process. He was too long a diplomat suddenly to lose a diplomat’s distaste for aggression. His thinking is too constructive to make him a full success in the opposition, where, as most of his predecessors have demonstrated, a certain fondness of irresponsibility is often useful.

Pearson would like to regard politics as a calling equal to diplomacy, but his real feeling shows up in the story he loves to tell about a recent Gallup Poll in the U. S. The survey claimed that nearly a hundred percent of all mothers questioned wanted their sons to be the country's president, but seventy-three percent didn’t want their offspring to become politicians in the process.

Few if any of the Liberal party strategists are at all unhappy about Pearson's reluctance to make himself into The Compleat Politician. “We’re far better off presenting the voters with a calm, rational alternative to Diefenbaker's emotionalism” says one of them. “Besides. Pearson fits perfectly into our party’s ‘Great Man’ leadership tradition.”

Pearson has already hinted that in the next federal election campaign he’ll leave attacks on Diefenbaker to others. He plans to hit the Tories’ administrative record. His campaign will be based on reminding the voters of the things that have gone wrong in their lives during Conservative rule, because of government maladministration or inaction. "The administrative inefficiency of the present government,” he says, “is in startling contrast to the business efficiency of the previous administration — which is admitted even by those who opposed it politically.”

The Liberal leader has not yet decided how far Left he should take his party in the next campaign. “We shouldn’t be afraid to use government intervention when it’s necessary to protect and advance the welfare of the individual,” he says, “but we oppose state intervention that doesn’t have this result.”

The old idea that the Liberal party is the political force most capable of guiding Canada out of economic recession will be revived, but there will be no contest to outdo Diefenbaker in his expected attacks on American investment. “We stand for the maintenance of a strong Canadian identity,” Pearson says, “but not through panic action and emotional appeals.”

In charge of the Liberals’ next election campaign will be Jim Scott, a 43-year-old former professor of English from the University of Western Ontario who has been interested in politics since he was thirteen, when he memorized the Liberal Speakers’ Handbook, so that he could talk to his local MP more intelligently. For the past ten months, Scott has been traveling across the country, reviving dormant Liberal constituency organizations. “I’m trying to get the party machinery into that kind of shape which will allow me, in the time it takes to make one phone call, to know exactly what’s going on inside any riding in the country,” he says.

Organizers from every constituency will meet in Ottawa during the national rally of the Liberal party from January 9 to 11, which is intended to complement the intellectual stimulus of September’s Kingston conference with practical policies. “By next spring,” says Scott, “I hope to be able to get our electoral machinery rolling across the country on twenty-four hours’ notice.”

Scott and his fellow strategists don’t al! agree on the exact path of the Liberals’ climb back to power in the next federal election, but this is the Liberal consensus in Ottawa on how such an upset might develop:

In the Maritimes, the Liberals hope to increase their current total of eight seats to eighteen, by winning W. J. Browne’s seat in St. John’s and nine more ridings in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The Liberals must get at‘least forty more seats in Quebec to win a federal election, but this, they claim, they’ll be able to do quite easily. Federally ambitious Jean Lesage, the man who smashed the Union Nationale electoral machine, will be anxious to show his Ottawa colleagues how well he can deliver the Quebec vote.

The Liberals expect to gain four seats from the Conservatives in B. C., none in Alberta, and at least five each in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. But it’s the results in Ontario, where the Liberals now have only fifteen seats, that will decide who forms the next government. This battle will be fought largely in the Golden Horseshoe between Niagara Falls and Oshawa. To help their drive in this vital territory, the Liberals have hired 35-year-old Bruce Powe, an Edmonton-born economist, as the new executive director of the Ontario Liberal Association.

The guessing in Ottawa is that this month’s four by-elections won’t prove much about Liberal prospects. The traditionally Tory ridings of Royal in New Brunswick and Peterborough in Ontario are expected to stay Conservative, while Niagara Falls and Labelle in the Laurentians go Liberal. The real testing of Pearson’s leadership is yet to come, ic