In the Trudeau era, the Pearson years seem oddly irrelevant
In the Trudeau era, the Pearson years seem oddly irrelevant
ANY JOURNALIST who sets OUt to record recent history in book form has a handy cop-out available if he wants to use it: he can tell you that of course it is too soon to make any real and permanent assessment. And so it is. He has you there. After which he goes ahead and makes his assessment. If, however, you’re reading Peter C. Newman, who is about as good at this kind of writing as anyone Canada has produced so far, you may be inclined to go along with his belief that a-contemporary journalist’s “resolutely non-partisan observations” can make a valid contribution to the history of his country.
Newman’s real problem in his latest book, The Distemper of Our Times, (and he recognizes it in his foreword) is that he is dealing with a confused and shapeless period of the Canadian story, with a superficially logical but basically arbitrary beginning and end: the years between the time when Lester B. Pearson became Canada’s 14th prime minister in 1963,/ and the day this year when he handed the job over to Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Partly here, Newman is the victim of his own past (and excellent) performance in chronicling the Diefenbaker years. Having brought the story up to a certain point, he tends to start afresh at his new and arbitrary beginning. He correctly diagnoses, for instance, the great malaise of the Pearson years as “a kind of dismay and frustration with our politics that was hardening into cynicjsm and despair.” But he places the origin of the sickness at the^defeat of the Diefenbaker government in the Commons in February, 1963, when even the most cursory look back at the dismal spectacle of the 1962-63 parliament shows the symptoms already rampant.
There was, though, new hope — at least among his admirers, and they were many — when Pearson took over. In one sense Newman’s theme
is the gradual frustration and final disillusion of the people who had hoped for so much. As Ottawa correspondent first for Maclean’s and then for the Toronto Star, he witnessed most of what he is writing about; he has obviously done enormous and painstaking research to buttress his reporting on the run, some of which emerges in footnotes. Such footnotes, while they do credit to his thoroughness, tend to tell you more than you — or anyone — really wants to know. It is all there, though: the 60 days of decision; the first Throne Speech, which Newman calls the “new administration’s last golden moment”; the curious and tangled story of Walter Gordon’s first budget and the outside experts whb nearly brought the government down before it could really get started; the furniture scandals; the Rivard case; the Munsinger affair; the flag debate . . . what Zorba the Greek called “the full catastrophe.”
Newman’s judgment of Pearson is severe. While he gives the ex-prime minister full marks for individual pieces of legislation, his general summation is that he was unsuited by training, by temperament, and by age to govern a Canada going through profound changes which Pearson, in Newman’s view, could neither understand, nor control, nor even preside over. He speaks of the press gallery’s attempts to find out what, and in the end who Lester Pearson really is. “But this hunt for his real identity remained forever ungratified because Lester Pearson seemed deeply engaged in the same quest himself.” And then, a little farther along, Pearson becomes “an idealist without any fixed goals.” As counterpoint, and fine counterpoint it is, there is a Wagnerian section on the twilight and eclipse of John Diefenbaker (what eclipse, you may ask, and a good question it is).
Newman is one of the few reporters on the Ottawa scene with a broad
grasp of economics and finance, and this adds value. I’m afraid, though, that even his lucid and lively writing couldn’t make this reader get very excited about the old infights over federal-provincial tax sharing, or the complicated manoeuvres that produced the Canada Pension Plan. If you like that sort of thing, that’s there too.
Some of the best enticements of this kind of book are the “now it can be told” sections, and Newman has come up with a broad and catholic selection — details of angry conversations among Ottawa’s Establishment Mandarins, some disturbing facts about how close we were to international bankruptcy during the run on the Canadian dollar, the real reason Lester Pearson retired when he did (his doctor told him he had high blood pressure), and a first inside story of the campaign that made Pierre Trudeau prime minister while presenting him as a reluctant draftee.
With all this, there is a sadness about the book. There are chapters,
for instance, on some of the men who briefly were powers in the land: Walter Gordon, Guy Favreau, Tom Kent. And as you read them, you suddenly realize that whether the men are alive or dead, you are reading obituaries — and they sound like pretty old obituaries at that. One of Newman’s main points is that Canada had changed, while its leaders had not. And he almost doesn’t need to make the point explicitly. Like Peter Newman, I covered many of the events he writes about. There are still a few echoes of old passions, old excitements. But mostly, they are already powdered over with the fine dust of antiquity, and you find yourself wondering what all the shouting, what all the headlines, what all the TV live specials were really about. In the Trudeau era, they simply seem irrelevant. And this was only yesterday.
The Distemper of Our Times: Canadian Politics in Transition, 1963-1968, by Peter C. Newman (McClelland & Stewart, $10).
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