MACLEAN'S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA

Diefenbaker won the campaign, but Pearson won the election

PETER C. NEWMAN May 4 1963
MACLEAN'S REPORTS

BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA

Diefenbaker won the campaign, but Pearson won the election

PETER C. NEWMAN May 4 1963

BACKSTAGE IN OTTAWA

MACLEAN'S REPORTS

PETER C. NEWMAN

Diefenbaker won the campaign, but Pearson won the election

THE ILLOGICAL RESULTS of the election campaign should teach a hard lesson to the new generation of young men eager for leadership in our political parties: no matter how much we pretend Canada has become a great trading force and an arbiter of significance in the Cold War, the real source of political power in this nation still springs from the narrow self-interest of each voter.

Lester Pearson counted on common sense to create a separation between the people’s material aspirations and his appeal for the strong, stable government we so desperately need. The urban voters responded to him, because he was outlining the kind of wide, sophisticated world which might further their own ambitions. But the rural electorate stayed with John Diefenbaker: unlike Pearson, Diefenbaker was an eloquent spokesman for their world, with all its frustrations, hardships and futile attempts to get something from the economic establishment.

To gain the powerful majority he so desperately wanted, Pearson would have had to find a way of instilling in the rural voters a positive sense of longing for his leadership, a longing that would transcend their self-interest.

This he never came even close to achieving. He flinched from the ultimate commitment to politics which such leadership demands. He continued to be hobbled by the attitude of disengagement that harmed him in his previous attempts to marshal the people’s confidence. Typical of his attitude was an off-the-cuff remark he made at an election rally in Kingston, Ont., on March 27, on the evening of a National Hockey League playoff game. “I want to watch the hockey game on television as much as anyone else,” he told the crowd, as he cut short his speech. But on the same night, in Port Credit, Ont., John Diefenbaker was delivering a marathon address, in which he solemnly thanked the audience for “taking your responsibilities seriously enough to give up the NHL playoff for a political rally.”

Diefenbaker waged what in time surely will be recognized as one of the most peculiar political campaigns in Canadian history. Although he had been in office for six years,

he all but ignored his record and instead presented himself lo the electors as a destinydriven historic force — a man who should be cherished for his symbolic value, rather than his abilities as prime minister.

His choice of strategies was a revelation in itself. He came at the people like some mythological deity, a heroic figure tantalizing them with the idea that by keeping him in power they could make a political miracle come true. “I see, as 1 climb the hill — and oh, it’s a long hill — I can see the dawning of a new day,” he whispered to a hushed rally in Moncton. N.B. Then he whipped himself up into an Old Testament wrath, pointed his Moses-like finger at the hapless Liberal Truth Squad huddled beneath the stage, and hollered: “For while the light holds forth to burn, the greatest sinners may return.”

That there was no logic or structure in his appeal, no sense of reality beyond that of a man trying to vindicate himself, was certainly not due to any lack of self-confidence on Diefenbaker’s part. But fo the unsympathetic, no matter how eloquent or impassioned he became, he sounded like a man asking to be rescued by the voters, rather than a leader willing and able to come to aid them in facing the uncomfortable facts of this atomic age.

This appeal for sympathy pervaded his every appearance. He ranted against the powerful interests arrayed against him — against the Americans, the generals, Newsweek, the “press barons,” and even his own advisors. (“Last time they were telling me: take an airplane ... ”) But at least some of the undecided voters who turned out to hear him must have questioned the basis of his position. After all, the prime minister is the most powerful man in Canada, and this particular prime minister had ruled with the largest parliamentary majority ever accorded a Canadian politician.

But once he had established his claim to martyrdom, Diefenbaker could not purge himself of it, and on April 8 more voters decided to tie themselves to the less tarnished star of Lester Pearson. And so the Liberals almost won the election, though Diefenbaker won the campaign.

In only eight of Canada’s twenty-six general

elections since Confederation has a sitting government been repudiated, and each time for a specific reason: scandal (1874), depression (1878, 1930, 1935), internal leadership difficulties (1896), reciprocity (1911), agrarian revolt (1921), and arrogant senility (1957).

None of these causes was applicable in 1963, since the breakup of the Conservative cabinet never really became an issue. Instead, John Diefenbaker floundered for a very special reason of his own. He had given the people a leadership cult, without leadership.