MY 90 DAYS ON THE SEAT OF POWER, AND HOW I FELL OFF
MY 90 DAYS ON THE SEAT OF POWER, AND HOW I FELL OFF
THE VIEW FROM OTTAWA
I was used to the plastic smile of Air Canada, the economyclass elbow in my ribs. This was different. Nothing had prepared me for the respectful welcome of the Department of Transport, the Viscount captain’s four-engine handshake, the cushioned luxury of what looked like a flying drawing room. Here I was, on my very first morning in Ottawa, about to take off in a government plane for a day at the Lakehead.
I put my feet up and thought about it.
I was a consultant, my contract assured me, not a servant of Her Majesty. The distinction was important to me. Consultants are defined as guys from out of town. I might be in Ottawa, but of it I was not. I was to tread the carpets of power with the loafers of an outsider, to pry into its mysteries with the impudent eyes of a transient. A writer hired by the Secretary of State to work on a paper about citizenship, I too would become a mystery, not only to colleagues who couldn’t figure out my status but to my bewildered self. Simply because I had signed this contract! I could never quite under-
stand by what alchemy the words rattling loose inside my head became CONFIDENTIAL the moment I wrote them down. But that was what happened. A few strokes of the borrowed ballpoint and presto! I was spinning state secrets out of my own innards.
By the time the Minister arrived on board with his circus of advisers, I had come around to the view that all this richness was only what I deserved.
Deplaning in Thunder Bay at the heels of the Minister, I
found that some of his glory was clinging to me. Lakehead bigwigs stroked me to see if it would rub off. Bearded young radicals, convinced they were at last confronting the Establishment, met me with sneers. A girl, deeply impressed, looked through her eyelashes and murmured, “Forgive me for not knowing — but who are you?”
I told her I was with the CIA.
I forget, now, why we made that flying trip to Thunder Bay. What stays with me is the foretaste it gave of federal grandeur.
Back in Ottawa, the position with regard to the, ah, nature of my anticipated duties and, ah, activities was indicated to me in broad outline. In plain words, I found out what my job was. No piddling assignment, either. What it amounted to was saving the country.
Saving the country five days a week for a fee! With time out, naturally, for coffee, luncheon — and coffee again. At first I was overawed. Had the fate of Canada really fallen into inept and trembling hands like mine? I knew we were in bad shape, what with inflation, unemployment, separatism, Yankee take-overs. But this looked like desperation; this was really scraping the barrel.
Well, I am not without glimpses of irony; the sour taste
of humility is not unknown to me. And yet — and yet — in a surprisingly short time I got used to the idea. My country needed me. Why not? Rome, after all, had been saved by the cackling of the sacred geese.
I soon found that there wasn't much else to do in Ottawa but save the country. Almost everyone I met was saving it every day. True, I felt more at ease with those who claimed to be holding down nice jobs with pensions. But even they, from time to time, would murmur shyly about the satisfaction they felt in, well, influencing things, making things happen.
It came to me that simply to be given the trappings of power, a government post, say, would be unarguable proof that the power was real. Make me an archbishop, I thought, and that fact alone will convince me of the existence of God and the bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling for you and not for me. No wonder so many bureaucrats were wagging their tails.
Grandeur comes naturally in the capital. Here are the pinnacled heroics of Parliament and Peace Tower, the stuffed camels of the National Gallery and the stuffed shirts of Rideau Hall, the museums that look like toy forts, the Arts Centre that looks like a real one. Here too, like the dirty underthings of a fashionably dressed slut, are slums, shacks, puddles, potholes, tangles of overhead wire. But the grandeur! Canadians elsewhere, at moments of stress, let fly with fourletter words. Here nothing under four syllables will do. Watching a spectacular fire one night (the Little Theatre was burning down), I heard a snaggle-toothed old biddy standing on the sidewalk exclaim, “Look at that conflagrationi”
Soon after that, I met Buster, a young theologian who, with a friend called Bill, had been hired by the Privy Council to rethink the whole basis of western civilization. Moses, Socrates, Jesus and the rest of them, it seemed, had got us off on the wrong foot. They needed revising. I was impressed. What would come of it, I wondered, would there be a document of some kind, a report? Buster confessed, completely without irony, “I guess Bill and myself will be the most important prod-
Kildare Dobbs is now book critic for the Toronto Daily Star
ucts ...” Like Washington, Ottawa has an insatiable hunger for Great Thoughts.
Not just the advice of experts and social scientists, considered so vital to the running of an advanced and complex society. Economists, sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, political scientists arrive, frowning with importance, by every plane. Part of the techno-structure, they have for years been adepts at the power game, more political than the bureaucrats — themselves more political than the politicians.
But these steely-eyed profs, with their contempt for valuejudgments, are not purveyors of Great Thoughts. For those Ottawa must draw on the wisdom of humanist sages.
Marshall McLuhan is on call. Northrop Frye, one of this year’s Molson prizewinners, has been in demand. Philosophers and historians are consulted. Books filled with vast, rumbling prophecies of doom or salvation — like Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and Charles A. Reich’s The Greening Of America — are eagerly scalped for ideas, phrases, buzzwords. The Toronto Globe and Mail, trade paper of deputy ministers, is clipped and Xeroxed. Even the young are quizzed.
And everywhere under
continued on page 6
Dobbs from page 4
the scheming spires, paper altars are
built to the unknown gods of the future.
An odd superstition, this hang-up on Great Thoughts. The democratic process is by nature anti-heroic. Its banal magic turns wine into water, silk purses into sows’ ears, flunkeys into mice. What has greatness to do with a form of government that rests on brute majorities? More than 150 years ago, the great French theorist Alexis de Tocqueville had a great thought about this himself. “In democratic communities,” he wrote in his classic Democracy In America, “each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely himself . . . When he has been drawn out of his own sphere, therefore, he always expects that some amazing object will be offered to his attention ...”
I had an uncomfortable feeling that what was expected of me was Great Eloquence.
Certainly the arrangements were splendid enough — at First, anyway. A big corner office with teak furniture, thick carpet and the title of the previous occupant on the door. Directeur de Bureau, it beguilingly said. A French-Canadian administrator, his ascetic features cramped in permanent disgust, wanted to know my needs. Typewriter, I told him. The look of disgust deepened to dismay. Without a girl to operate it? That was going to be difficult. That was a tough one.
“I'm not ready for a secretary.”
We wrangled politely. At last he conceded the typewriter, provided I'd accept a research assistant. I had no idea what to do with one of those, but I could see that without one I’d be dead. Alors, what kind of researcher? Female, I allowed. And beautiful. A wintry smile was my reward; or maybe a spasm of indigestion. That, friend, was what we all wanted. I settled for a Japanese-Canadian youth, who fetched me books from the library and sat and rapped about his native prairies.
Many days later the typewriter arrived. And almost immediately I was cast out from my corner office, banished to a monkish cell behind a door that said Analyste.
Here I practised my solitary trade. No longer a directeur, I had thrown away my big chance to build an empire. But I could see from the documents “prepared” by colleagues (they were not exactly written) that there was useful work for a writer to do. Forget the Great Eloquence — what was needed around here was clarity.
Government, I now saw, was carried on largely with words. By the words spoken in Parliament, the talking-place, and written down in laws. By the words spoken in formal committees of bureaucrats, and informally over lunch in the Rideau Club or the Cercle Universitaire, over boiled fish at Murray’s or pea soup at the Château Laurier, over Rockcliffe dinner tables, over drinks on the back stoop, and at out-oftown talkfests and brainstorming sessions. And by the words, words and more words written by public servants in numbered paragraphs, minutes, memos, notes, letters, orders, background papers, reports, telegrams, communiqués, press releases, brochures, position papers, submissions to Cabinet and Treasury Board. The sheer volume of words generated by the smallest action of government staggered the imagination.
The senior officials I met, in and out of office hours, charming and cultivated men, were unmistakably word-workers, great dictionary-dippers, prose-tasters, phrase-swappers. They delighted in literary puzzles, puns, tongue twisters, dirty limericks, feats of syntax, courtroom jokes, semantic oddities, fine distinctions, witty verse, mottoes, epigrams, aphorisms, graffiti, smart retorts, etymologies, double meanings, figures of speech, obscure classical references and ripe bilingual smut. Hardly a man among them but would have been writing a book if only he had not had so many other more urgent things to prepare. Nothing, I found, was more pleasant to them than the sweet agonies of composition. A government document did not begin to take shape before it had gone
through 15 or 20 drafts. And everyone who saw it felt obliged to add some clever touch of his own, some sly shade of meaning, some devious stroke of thought or diction.
They would not let it go till they had purged from it the last germs and dregs of human sense.
Results were further mangled by the fact that the word men, the true Ottawa mandarins who thought gentlemanly and left the bottom vest-button undone, were a dwindling breed, now in retreat before the hordes of stammering barbarians, the anti-literates schooled in such new, ticky-tacky disciplines as management science, communications, systems analysis. For years, mandarins had been in the habit of getting rid of noxious underlings by sending them on sociology courses. Now these popinjays had come home, squawking, to roost. They were color-coordinated, sported sideburns, swinger’s suits and cowboy belts and heels. Every man of them owned a drawerful of white shirts he dared not be seen in. And they brought with them their own desolating approach to language.
For the barbarians, words were mechanical units, so many standard parts which could be given fixed meanings, and then geared together to convey messages. Their language clanked and whined, all noise and science and no sense. They were freaked out by the computer. They thought, quite wrongly as it happened, that it resembled the human brain. So they taught Ottawa a whole new word list of computer terms to save it the trouble of thinking. Input. Output. Feedback. Programming . . .
Mandarins and barbarians between them, I found, had managed to poison the wells of communication. It had come to the point where they no longer could understand one another, let alone expect the Canadian people they served to understand.
With superfluous caution, they put up a smoke screen of security, mindlessly stamping everything on their desks TOP SECRET, EYES ONLY, SECRET, CONFIDENTIAL. As if anybody cared. Not only were these documents unreadable: many of them, on close inspection, proved meaningless.
Fiat nox was the bureaucrats’ text; let there be night. Mud in your eye! For always and everywhere power loved the dark. The real power in Ottawa, I decided, warming my rage at the fires of my own infernal cleverness, was not the people, not the Establishment, not the politicians, not even Trudeau — but the prince of darkness himself. And this father of lies, serpentlike, spoke with a double tongue.
Not that bilingualism was necessarily the devil’s work. Bilingualism meant Canada; to reject it was to reject Canada. I could see that it meant other things too. It meant jobs for French Canadians. It meant that anyone you particularly wanted to talk to was away on a language course. It meant, for at least one English Canadian who had been certified bilingual, that he need never speak French again.
“THIS DOCUMENT,” I wrote one morning in pencil at the top of a piece of ruled foolscap, “is THE PROPERTY OF THE GOVERNMENT OF CANADA.” And then, after a cigar and a bout of pretty serious thinking, “CONFIDENTIAL.” I stared at it with a sense of estrangement. Already it had gotten away from me, already it was neither my own nor yours. So why was I doing this, what was in it for me? Money, yes. Bread and booze and comforts for my dependents, a welcome sprinkling for the parched bank balance. Fame? Ridiculous. The as yet unwritten document would have no first person, no subject, no author. Love of women? I had to be out of my mind! But there was something else, yes, a warm feeling of working with friends, so that together we could play our parts, however small, in the common life of the nation, a sense of . . .
Holy Cow! I thought. It’s a power trip. Before I know it I’ll be coordinating my inputs, outlining in broad detail, discussing a wide range of feedback problems.
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