HOW THE CHIEF LOST (AND WON) THE ELECTION
When all the votes were in, John Diefenbaker had frustrated the Liberals’ demand for a majority and confounded experts who had already counted him out. Here’s how he did it
IT WAS NOVEMBER 4 — four days before the election — and John Diefenbaker was still acting like a man who was certain of victory. Yet, strangely, his words on that bleak, snowy Edmonton night sounded almost like a valedictory:
“Almost a final personal word, ladies and gentlemen,” said the seventy-year-old Chief, leaning intimately toward the microphones in the Jubilee Auditorium. “You’ve lavished me with everything, since my humblest of beginnings. You raised me to the responsibilities of leadership, you gave me everything, and in the service of my country I have given the full span of man’s normal years. I'd like you to think, I hope you will believe, that whatever my shortcomings, these years were not unworthy.”
Snow had just come to his prairies and the east was beginning to chill. The pollsters and pundits were predicting an end to his career and their words, in those last days, seemed to weigh heavily on his mind. He had campaigned for seven weeks and was hoarse and weary; perhaps he was preparing himself for defeat, for the prospect of the Liberals gaining the majority they craved, and for its sequel: his inevitable and probably enforced retirement as the chief of the Progressive Conservatives. Whatever the reason, his words sounded like a requiem — for himself.
But his valedictory was premature: on November 8 the people voted for another deadlock in the House of Commons. The clear loser was Lester B. Pearson, who had been denied his majority for the fourth time in as many elections, and the victor, in one sense at least, was John Diefenbaker, who gained two seats instead of going down to major defeat. Once again, he had out-campaigned the Liberals. And once again he had postponed, at least temporarily, the day when he would have to step down from party leadership.
As the votes were counted, Diefenbaker rewrote his role; within hours of the polls closing, instead of giving his farewell to the nation, he was challenging the government to resign and let him govern. Diefenbaker was exultant, late that night, walking in Prince Albert with his long rolling strides, and chuckling to himself over the discomfiture of his critics.
Across the country, newspapermen, politicians, pollsters and citizens are still asking, How did he pull it off? What did this truly remarkable politician represent, which brought nearly two and a half million voters to his side on election night? Why was he counted out by so many of the so-called experts?
I watched him whistle-stopping, saw him shaking hands in the main streets of country towns, heard dozens of his speeches in Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, and walked with him through the snowy streets of Prince Albert before breakfast on election day. I still don’t know the answers. For though he campaigned on the strongest possible emotional note, his audiences were largely apathetic. And while The Chief pictured himself always as a martyr who was abused when he told the truth, some of his own campaign charges were vigorously challenged, not only by the victims but by reporters who looked up the records.
However, a few clues do emerge from the confusion of the campaign. As an orator he can still make effective — often cunning — use of an issue. Further, he sensed what was bothering Canadians, and he concentrated on those problems: scandal, national unity, and Liberal arrogance. Above all, The Chief again revealed the effectiveness of his main campaigning philosophy: it’s not so much what you say that counts, but how you say it.
Diefenbaker is one of Canada’s best entertainers. He gets enough laughter from comic lines to make a professional comedian envious.
Shortly after the election was called, The Chief devised a one-sentence gag that reminded listeners of all the bumbling in the Rivard affair. On the sultry nights of late September, he would lean with mock seriousness into the microphones and say quietly, “It was on a night like this that Rivard asked for a hose to water the rink.” His quips about the criminal became so popular that on at least one occasion he was called back by audience request to tell a joke he had inadvertently left out of his speech. “What about the rinks?” a Campbellford supporter shouted as the meeting was / continued on page 30
He turned Liberal blunders into gags and audiences whooped appreciatively
continued from page 16
breaking up. The Chief moved to the front of the high-school stage, ignoring the microphones, and granted the man’s wish. ‘‘My friend asks about the rinks?’’ he said with a quizzical look in his startlingly blue eyes. “I'll tell you about them. This government is going across the country promising rinks. Here a rink, there a rink, everywhere a rink, rink. Their only worry now is who will water them since Rivard is locked up in jail.” Though he had used the same gag at least two dozen times before, the audience, the questioner and, most remarkably, Diefenbaker himself, burst into hearty laughter, and the entertainment was over.
The Chief was also quick to capitalize on Liberal blunders. One was an off-the-cuff remark made by Pearson, that voters could expect another election in a year or eighteen months if another minority government was formed. This remark was tape-recorded by a Toronto newsman. Shortly after that, when the prime minister was asked to elaborate on the statement. he denied ever making it. Then, when the recording was played back, he said he didn’t mean what he had appeared to say. Diefenbaker, who is at least a match for Bob Hope as a staccato-delivery stand-up comic, made the most of Pearson's denial: “The prime minister was caught by one of those machines. Then when they asked him about it, he said, ‘I didn’t say what I said when I said it . . . What I meant to say when I didn't say it was that I wouldn't have said what I said when I did say it.’ ” The audience whooped.
The Chief also managed to pick up remarks from the audience and put them to instant use. “Speak louder, we can't hear you!” said one voice in Port Hope. “Get close to the mike!” shouted another man.
“I'm as close to Mike as I intend to get,” replied Diefenbaker, and joined his gleeful hearers in a burst of laughter.
While The Chief had plenty of solid evidence of wrongdoing in the Rivard scandal, he seldom used it. Instead,
he persistently confused the issue of corruption in high places, extending the scandals to include Hal Banks (the notorious union boss), Harry Stonchill (the itinerant millionaire), and the allegations of Dr. Guy Marcoux that bribes were offered in 1963 to win six Quebec Social Creditors over to the Liberals. (He seemed to heighten the villainy of that charge by saying the deals were made on Holy Thursday.)
“There are two flags, two pension schemes, and two types of law,” he would rasp, his lips protruding and his jowls menacing the microphones. “One for us and the other for the Bananas, and the Mananas and the rest of that menagerie.” (In the cases of the “Bananas and Mananas,” evidence of corruption is tenuous at best: RCMP charges of perjury against Joe Bonanno were dropped when he agreed to return to the United States after wrongly swearing that he had entered Canada without any previous criminal record; Mananas was Diefenbaker’s misnomer for Onofrio Minando, a Mafia thug, whose residence in Canada was backed by both Liberal and Conservative MPs.)
Several of Diefenbaker's favorite debating points were somewhat blunted by reports in the daily press (which he read avidly) challenging his assertions. The Conservative Globe and Mail of Toronto more than once assumed the role of Diefenbaker’s conscience by quoting the official record in brackets immediately following what The Chief had said. This treatment had no apparent effect on his subsequent speeches.
“The prime minister announced a war on poverty; 1 was impressed,” The Chief would say with mock naïveté, looking for all the world like a Mark Antony praising the “honorable” Brutus who had just murdered Caesar. “He appointed Tom Kent fa Pearson adviser] to run his war on poverty . . . that was impressive, too.” And placing one arm on the lectern he would lean over to deliver the punch line: “And they raised Kent’s salary from twelve thousand a year to twenty-five thousand ... He won his war on poverty.” (The House of Commons votes money for Kent's salary every year, and the public accounts show that Kent’s sal-
ary was not raised; Kent has earned twenty-five thousand a year ever since he joined Prime Minister Pearson’s staff in 1963.)
Similarly, The Chief would make the truth sound plainer than it actually was by referring to some impeccable source. He invited a Campbellford audience to read page 11580 of Hansard, where, he assured them, they would find Harry Hays, the minister of agriculture, saying that a farmer with two sows, six cows and a wife with a strong back can make twentyfour hundred dollars a year. (Hays is recorded on that page, clarifying some remarks he had made at a press conference. “I was only arguing,” he said, “that any farmer with two hogs and six cows had a potential gross income of more than twenty-four hundred dollars a year.” There was no reference to “a wife with a strong back.”)
In many speeches Diefenbaker argued the Liberals had kept secret their intention to introduce a new Canadian flag. The people didn’t have a chance to vote on the flag, The Chief would say. Yet the flag was widely publicized as a part of the Liberal party platform, and was mentioned throughout the 1963 campaign by many Liberals, including the prime minister.
Diefenbaker habitually relegated profound questions of policy to short, hurriedly read sections of his speeches, almost like the child who has to clean up his vegetables before he can eat his cake. The Chief called for a raise in the old-age pension from seventyfive to one hundred dollars a month, and said it was to be taken from the Canada Pension Plan reserves. But at the very mention of old people, he began converting what is essentially an actuarial problem into an emotional issue. The question he left the voter was not whether it was wise or practical to siphon off part of the reserves of a funded pension plan (Edmund Morris, former Halifax Conservative MP, later estimated on a CBC broadcast that the promise involved some $800 million), but whether the audience was for or against giving old people enough to eat.
The policies he did talk about with relish were his own—the policies his government had implemented and those which the then Liberal opposi-
tion had criticized. “They criticized the pegging of the dollar,” he would say, his finger stabbing the air. “I told you it would bring untold wealth and prosperity. They called it an illegitimate child of mine. Yet now it is they who seek to claim the paternity of this economic foundling. I come not to say I told you so, but to say I told you the truth.” Repeatedly, he hammered at the theme that everyone was against him but the people: “In the last three years, the propagandists heaped their abuse on me, but I knew it would be set right when I got a chance to talk to the people.”
He frequently introduced seemingly irrelevant issues—but they were issues that had a strong emotional appeal. Such was his call in Hamilton for an investigation into Communism and the Communist coercion of new Canadians who had relatives in Communist countries. So, too, was his defense of the monarchy. “They took the crown off the social-security card,” he would say with horror. “The young Liberals have voted to abolish the monarchy. What are they going to do now? Where are they going?” Then he would remind his listeners that Defense Minister Paul Hellyer said the Liberals needed a majority to do some unpopular things. “Why is it necessary to surmise?” he would ask, his voice charged with sinister implication. “What are these unpopular things? Why won’t they say?”
He was fond of pointing out that he never complained about personal attacks (yet he would invariably give his audiences exhaustive detail as to what had been said about him). But he was not above a bit of character reference himself. “Oh, ladies and gentlemen,” he would say, “you don’t understand what it's been like in these last two years, sitting across from them”—and his arm would sweep across the imaginary government benches before him—"sitting across from all those men .... and that woman.” The Chief fought his campaign close to the people. Instead of relying on aircraft, he set out by train in early September. "Where is the prime minister?” he continually asked, implying that Pearson was afraid to meet the people. "Why, he's sitting in Ottawa behind his labyrinth of Multigraphs, issuing press releases.”
Diefenbaker seemed almost to grow larger when he was in a crowd of
people. His eyes shone as he passed through a gathering, grasping each hand and carrying on a repetitious monologue. “Hello, hello. Good to see you. How are you, how are you? Fine. Fine. Good day today. Oh. a wonderful reception. Hello, hello.”
In some ways, Olive Diefenbaker is an even more remarkable campaigner than her husband. Though she refuses to speak in public, she mainstreets better than The Chief himself. Perhaps, being a woman, she seems more sincere, more fragile, less “political,” and certainly she conveys an image of great warmth. Many times in the campaign, Diefenbaker would stop short, look around, and ask. “Where's Olive?” whereupon a search would reveal his wife talking to local organizers or bystanders. (People at whistlestops in Quebec were delighted when The Chief’s familiar question became: “Où est Olive?”) Throughout the election, she walked without a limp or an objection despite a painful swelling in her left foot. A laced shoe had cut into the flesh, leaving what she described as a “big hole." It was still bandaged on election day.
Diefenbaker pictured himself as upholding the principles of Sir John A. Macdonald, while Pearson, he said, was being unfaithful to the Liberal tradition of Canadian unity. The present government was balkanizing Canada, he said, and was making “underthe-table deals” (he used gestures to illustrate) with Quebec. The Liberals were chiseling away at the foundations of the country. “We didn't have this division in the nation when we were in office; we didn't have the country overrun with separatists,” he told the people in Brockville, Ont.
Yet he referred, time and again, to an early law case he had taken in which he defended French-language rights in Saskatchewan. He said he opposed the Fulton-Favreau formula for amending the constitution in Canada (the formula has met stiff opposition in Quebec) and he claimed to have recognized the new Quebec by issuing bilingual cheques and introducing simultaneous translation into the House of Commons. He favored a new constitution, and wanted a constitutional conference called to draft a “Canada Act" that would embody the principle of “one Canada,” with all races equal, and no province having precedence over the rest.
He listened to his advisers more in this campaign than he had since 1958
though not as often as some thought he should. A Quebec City audience, which gave his fifteen-minute French speech a warm reception, turned cold the moment he switched to English. And thirty-five minutes later, about three hundred of his audience of twelve hundred had left the hall, with many of those remaining engaging in private but rumbling conversations in French. The outcome had been obvious after about the first fifteen minutes in English.
“Why doesn't he revert to French?” an adviser was asked.
It s too late now,” the man said. He should have sat down ten minutes ago—he should sit down now.” Yet The Chief droned on, apparently oblivious to the uproar.
But at a major Montreal meeting, the outcome was different: he spoke
three minutes in English, fourteen minutes in French, and though many people had left, those who remained f'r the end of his speech cheered loudly.
The campaign was not without its embarrassing moments. On one occasion in rural Quebec’s Champlain constituency. The Chief's apparent obsession with Rivard got the better of him. It happened during a whistlestop at the town of St. Tite. where he introduced a Conservative hopeful
named Antonio Ricard as “our most excellent candidate. Mr. Rivard.”
At times he seemed to go out of his way to make things embarrassing for others, too. By the end of September, though he was supported by all the ministers who had resigned from his cabinet over the nuclear issue (with the exception of former Defense Minister Douglas Harkness—and even he turned out at the Calgary airport to shake The Chief's hand), Diefenbaker insisted on recalling the past. “1 re-
member the days, when I went across this country almost alone. I stood ... ” he repeated in speech after speech.
It's hard to say which man was more embarrassed by the first confrontation The Chief had in the campaign with George Hees. Their encounter took place at Port Hope, Ont. The former Trade And Commerce minister arrived late for the meeting and. as he entered, the crowd broke into applause. Diefenbaker glanced up for an instant, then put his
head down, shuffled through papers, yawned and kept looking away from Hees. When it came time for him to speak, Diefenbaker went directly to the microphone, lauded former l abor Minister Michael Starr (who was silting beside Hees) for a number of acts, including his fight against Communism and made just one passing reference to Hees—about his having gone around the world on a trade junket. The Chief told a story, though, that seemed to be directed at Hees. Ac-
cording to this tale. Winston Churchill, defeated in 1945. told his anxious would-be successor Anthony Eden. "Don't worry, Anthony, just look ahead with expectation."
The Chief concluded his speech and stepped back to his place at the other side of the stage—still without looking toward Hees. Hees stood hesitating for a few minutes, almost sat down, and finally muscled his way through a crowd at centre stage to grab Diefenbaker's hand. The Chief looked away
again, and refused to pose for pictures when photographers asked for another handshake. A few minutes later he consented, but appeared to do so reluctantly.
The following day. at a meeting in Hees' constituency, he accused newspapers of crape-hanging and misrepresenting what had happened the night before. (He singled out the Toronto Daily Star, which he described as an "extra - terrestrial" publication, and which had reported; "John Diefen-
baker snubbed George Hees . . . last night.") Then he proceeded to eulogize Hees.
He spoke frequently in the campaign of his past, of his roots, and it was in Prince Albert that these references came to life. He had spoken of his youth, "raised on these western plains, having seen the pioneer days, having seen the Red River cart as it passed by our place." Earlier in the campaign he had visited his family's original homestead in the w'est. It was a rough tiny shack on the w'ind-swept flatlands of Saskatchewan, which Diefenbaker had helped build in 1905. "1 may be wrong," he said, "but this is where my ideas originated."
To wait out the people’s verdict on election day. Diefenbaker returned to Prince Albert. As the polls closed in Newfoundland, he took a group of reporters for a walk through the town. Here was the church where the Diefenbakers’ dog Max Schmeling had howled at a Welsh choir concert (reporters were treated to Diefenbaker’s version of a wolflike howl ). There was John Alexander Macdonald Craig's ornate house, "with so many cupolas, it leaks." And finally there was the old land-titles office, now used as a parks' office. It was here, outside this building, on a crisp November day in 1905. that Diefenbaker’s father had sat on a milk stool, waiting to claim his quarter section of deserted prairie.
Now, on election night, billows of steam rose from the exhausts of the railway cars as a jubilant Diefenbaker emerged to walk through the crisp night to his committee rooms. He had been re-elected in Prince Albert; he had re-established his grip on the party leadership; he had held the prairies, swept Nova Scotia and even gained ground in Quebec: he had prevented the Liberals from gaining a majority. Later that night he was to challenge vigorously his opponents' right to govern. But for the moment now he was busy thanking his workers and the electors of Prince Albert.
"Don’t be such a shrinking flower," he called out in the committee room, summoning his 245-pound right-hand man, Fred Hadley, to his side. The phones were jangling with congratulatory calls as The Chief climbed onto a chair to thank his workers. Flushed with excitement, he declared. "You have filled my heart with inexpressible feelings for what you have done. Thank you from the bottom of that heart."
"We'll never let you down. Chief.” shouted a supporter.
Diefenbaker asked only one question that night: “What will the morrow bring?" November 8, which was to be a sombre day of defeat, had brought new hope to The Chief. Now, if he could defeat the Liberals in the House of Commons, he might be asked to form a government.
Before the week was out, the pundits were at him again. This time, they were saying, the Liberals wouldn’t be defeated in the House, that any party that provoked a crisis and brought down the government would incur the wrath of the electorate.
In short, whatever else happened, Diefenbaker didn't stand a chance of regaining power.
Somehow it all sounded weirdly familiar. ★