Alberta’s new premier wants to make it perfectly clear that he is not after Robert Stanfield’s job. Not yet, anyway.

WALTER STEWART January 1 1972


Alberta’s new premier wants to make it perfectly clear that he is not after Robert Stanfield’s job. Not yet, anyway.

WALTER STEWART January 1 1972

It’s Saturday morning, but rain lashes down, pounding the house’s high white tower, slashing against the enclosing cement wall, stabbing the surface of the Elbow river across the way; there will be no pickup football game today. No matter; the boys who come pelting down the driveway are laughing and jostling as they push up to the basement’s private entrance, where Harold Millican, in the lead, pounds the door. It opens a crack; a small figure peers out with the hissed demand, “Password?”

“Craigellachie,” responds Harold.

“Enter, friends.”

The door swings wide and the boys push through into a recreation room dominated by a Ping-Pong table. There will be a tournament today; the schedules are already drawn, everything has been organized. Each boy will represent a football team, and together they will run through an entire league schedule, play-offs and all. Chances are the winner will be the boy who laid it all out — Edgar Peter Lougheed.

That was 30 years ago, and Lougheed (pronounced Law-heed), now premier of Alberta, hasn’t changed much. He is still the programmed man, the ultimate organizer. “People accuse him of being calculating,” says David Wood, a longtime friend and political adviser. “Well, you’re goddamn right he’s calculating. Who would you rather have in charge, somebody who flails around and hopes for the best, or somebody who knows what he wants and how to go about getting it?”

What Peter Lougheed wanted last August 30 was the premiership, and he went about getting it with the skill, thoroughness and shrewd calculation that are as much part of his makeup as the crinkly blue eyes, the little-boy smile, the just-right-for-firmness handshake. When he began, in 1965, by organizing his own election as leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives, the party had no members in the legislature, few funds and fewer friends; the ring of real activists could and did meet in Lougheed’s Calgary living room. Six years later Lougheed’s Tories toppled Social Credit from its 36-year-old throne and sent 49 MLAs back to the 75-seat legislature. Within 24 hours of that victory, Lougheed was being touted as a possible federal leader, the man who could — and Tories salivated as they said it — “give Trudeau a run for his money.”

Well, politics is a risky business, and it’s too early to say flatly that Lougheed will be running for prime minister in 1976 or 1980. He certainly won’t say so. “I had a tough enough time getting this job, I haven’t even thought about federal politics.” Which is predictable enough, but you can’t help thinking that, behind the crinkly eyes and flashing smile, all that superbly organized grey matter must be telling Lougheed that the federal Conservatives are in trouble, and that, if he does his Alberta job well, about four years hence, Peter Lougheed will appear to most Tories as the one possible oasis in the political desert they’ve been tramping since 1963. (Ontario Premier William Davis, whose overwhelming victory at the polls in October makes him another obvious possibility, has vehemently denied any federal ambition.)

Two more factors may be added. One is Lougheed’s ego. Self-esteem is part of every politician’s essential kit, and Lougheed, though he conceals it better than most, has it in generous measure. (One tiny tip-off is the way he often refers to himself as “we.” As in, “Well, we had played some football and the Edmonton Eskimos were just being formed so we turned out and, by golly, we made it.” Pause for small, self-deprecating smile. “The important thing is we survived.”) And why not? Scion of a wealthy Alberta family, Lougheed might have coasted through life on inherited privilege, as his father did; instead, he chose to plunge in and compete — at school, in sports, in business and in politics — and he always came away a winner.

That’s the other factor that must be borne in mind — Lougheed’s competitive drive. “I enjoy competition,” he says. “I guess it’s the thing I enjoy most.” At the University of Alberta, Lougheed ran for presidency of his fraternity, Delta Upsilon, and, naturally, made it. One of his chores was to announce fraternity members and their dates at the annual dance, to name perhaps 200 people correctly as they sat at long tables in the ballroom. It’s a kind of game to see how many mistakes the fraternity president makes; every proper introduction is saluted with a cheer, every small slip with laughter and groans. Nobody ever gets a perfect score, of course. Until Lougheed. He pored over the invitation lists and, on the big night, named every person in the hall correctly and without hesitation.

In a sense, Lougheed is the embodiment of the new, urban Alberta, which may be one reason voters turned to him. He has the drive, the energy, the aggressive confidence of that developing province, combined with the ingrained economic conservatism of a people who are, all in all, doing very well. lust before the election, he complained that “the Alberta economy has never been weaker than it is this year,” but when I read him statistics from the main economic indicators for the first half of 1971 — farm cash receipts up 8.3%, value of building permits up 39%, wholesale trade up 16%, crude oil sales up 22%, gas sales up 10%, unemployment, at 4%, lower than most provinces — he replied that what he really meant was that the sale of oil leases was declining (down to $28 million in 1970 from $76 million in 1969), which is a way of saying that what really worries Lougheed is that the province’s rate of expansion may be slackening. In neighboring Saskatchewan, or in the Maritimes, that kind of worry would be a bitter joke, but it sounds right in Alberta, where ambition is a way of life.

And so, if Lougheed does well as premier, he will not be content to cultivate his garden. The man has no neutral gear. His victory last August means more than the overthrow of yet another provincial regime; in all likelihood it marks the emergence of a major national figure. Given a little time, the right circumstances, Lougheed could be our prime minister one day. He is a politician worth getting to know.

He is a smallish man, just under five feet eight inches, but muscular and trim. Thanks to careful eating and constant exercise, he weighs 155 pounds, which is just what he weighed in college. His features are regular, strong and eminently photogenic, the eyes clear and blue, the mouth full, the chin firm, the medium-length hair shading from brown to becoming grey. He oozes energy, bounces when he walks, thrashes about with his feet when he sits and, when he talks, his hands constantly pat and stroke and cup the air in front of him; you get the feeling there’s an invisible basketball there, and any second he’s going to pass it to you. He talks well, in measured, deep tones, and he has the happy knack of making each person in a room of three or 3,000 feel that the next sincere message is intended for his ears alone. There is much about Lougheed that is calculated; this is not; he genuinely likes people and they like him and it shows. One of his most attractive traits is the loyalty he gives and gets from those around him. Most of his organizational core group have been with him for decades, and two of his aides — Jim Seymour and Harold Millican (both Calgary businessmen before they joined Lougheed’s staff) — go back to public school.

What Lougheed says is harder to describe than the charm with which he says it. His ideology is vague, even in his own mind; his mastery of television, the medium to which he owes his election, has taught him that a well - delivered cliché beats original thought every time, so he says such things as “Government should be responsible to the people, and not vice versa,” and “We need to get more Albertans off the welfare rolls and onto the payrolls,” and “I don’t believe in labels, I like to think of myself as a pragmatist.” (This last is often followed by a small curtsy in the direction of “the free enterprise system, in which we believe.”) Taxed with the complaint that the voter can’t tell him from any other middle-of-the-road politician, Lougheed replies that what counts is not policies but attitudes. “Take farm marketing. We have the attitude that the smaller farmer can survive. The Socreds don’t believe it [thump of fist on chest] in here. So our postures seem the same, but the result is very different.” Cattle prices and grain shipments have yet to react to the election of the new attitude, but Alberta farmers live in hope.

Lougheed believes that Canadians should own more of their own economy but slips out of focus when he talks about ways to achieve this — “it should be something positive, not more restrictions” — and he worries constantly because oil exploration, nearly all of it American, is falling off in Alberta. He hopes to establish incentives to speed it up again. Two members of Lougheed’s crucial Communications Committee during the election, Brock Hammond and Lome Frame, are public relations officers with large U.S.-owned oil firms (Gulf and Mobil, respectively). The new premier propounds the ritual formula, “We can turn the corner with a larger proportion of the Alberta economy owned by Albertans or Canadians.” Like much of what Lougheed says, that’s a pious hope, not a campaign promise. (Even the premier’s campaign promises may be regarded as negotiable, anyway. He said he would remove the education levy from property taxes to aid municipal financing, but one of his new government’s first acts was to set up a special committee to look into the problems of the municipalities, including finances, and to report back some time in 1972.)

What counts with the new premier is clearly not a promise or a policy, but a personality. There are two keys to that personality, his father and his grandfather; his grandfather because he was a success and his father because he was not. Sir James Alexander Lougheed was a lawyer, politician, senator, federal cabinet minister and very rich man. He had a town and a mountain named after him, both in Alberta. He married Belle Hardisty, the part-Indian daughter of a Hudson’s Bay factor. Her family had a town named after it, too. She was a person of strong will and robust personality, and so was her husband, who died, full of riches and honor, in 1925, three years before Peter Lougheed’s birth. The premier’s father, Edgar, didn’t have anything named after him, except his son, Edgar Peter, and you don’t know that unless you ask (“Edgar” has been dropped from the premier’s name in Who’s Who In Canada). Edgar, the father, experienced some of the difficulties common to the offspring of the great. A close family friend says, “I wouldn’t call him exactly a weak man, but he sure as hell wasn’t a strong one, and you soon learn that one of Peter’s main drives is to restore the family name.” Edgar Lougheed, lawyer, died in 1951. His chief talent was a flair for organization, his chief virtue a natural friendliness; he passed both on to his son Peter, who also inherited a sense of purpose from his mother, Edna Bauld Lougheed, a lively lady who recently received her Life Master’s certificate in bridge and who not only plays poker with men but often wins. “She was the one,” says the premier, “who gave me goals and objectives.”

One of these was to become an outstanding athlete, although he was not by nature exceptional. He was small, though strong and quick, and owed his success in sports mainly to hard work and sheer guts. Jim Seymour, one of his aides, remembers, “He couldn’t hit a baseball three feet, so he learned to bunt and run like hell.” He was active in track-and-field in high school and played baseball, hockey, basketball and football, all well. Though not an outstanding skater, he won the scoring championship for Calgary Bantam Hockey with the Elbow Park Pirates in 1944, and played offensive halfback for the West End Tornadoes football team when they won the Western Junior Canadian championship in 1946. “I was very elusive,” says Lougheed, “a useful thing for a politician.”

When Lougheed went to the University of Alberta to study law the intercollegiate league was moribund, so he tried out for and made the newly formed Edmonton Eskimos (the pay, $400 a year) and his two years as a punt-return man loom large both in stories about him and in the frequent allusions he makes himself in speeches sprinkled with football metaphors. But the truth is, he did not play much. CFL records show his contribution to have been two runbacks in 1950 for a total of eight yards. “Ridiculous,” snorted Lougheed when I told him this. “All I seem to remember is running back kicks with those great big guys bearing down on me.” Well, maybe. There are no records for 1949, his first year with the Eskimos, but Lougheed is not mentioned in any of the game summaries in the team file for that year except under “Subs.,” for “substitutes.” Though no star, Lougheed’s achievement in even making the team was no mean feat when you remember his size and the fact that he was attending university at the time. And courting.

The object of his courting was Jeanne Estelle Rogers, a dark-haired beauty from Camrose, Alta., and Lougheed romanced her like an army beseiging a city. “I saw her the first day she came onto the campus — I was a year ahead of her — found out who she was, got introduced to her and asked her for a series of dates . . . Naturally, Jeanne got quite a number of phone calls, but I was usually about 10 days ahead. I had her all booked up and I kept well enough ahead and finally they all kind of quit after about three months.” (The Lougheeds were married in 1952 and have two boys and two girls.)

One night in June, 1949, Lougheed and Harold Millican drove to High River, where Jeanne was singing with a mixed chorus. The two men were not interested in the singing, only the girl, so they adjourned to the St. George Hotel where, Millican remembers, “After a couple of beers Peter got talking about running for politics. He talked about his grandfather, and putting the family name back in public life, things like that. Later on I realized that night was a turning point for Peter. He had made up his mind.”

Lougheed trained for politics as if it were a competitive sport. He warmed up by running for, and winning, presidency of the university’s student council, and one of his first acts, characteristically, was to take production of the student yearbook out of amateur undergraduate hands and farm it out to a professional firm, so that, for once, it would come out before the term ended (it didn’t, though). Then came the respectable degree in law, two years at Harvard for a master’s in business administration, a brief stint of legal practice in Calgary (“I did a little criminal law, but didn’t like it much”), then six years with Mannix Co., the giant construction firm. Lougheed joined the firm as a junior counsel and rose as if he had his own corporate elevator: 1956, secretary, 1958, general counsel, 1959, vice-president, 1960, director. At 32, Lougheed was a brilliant business success. “He was,” says David Wood, who worked first with and later under Lougheed, “the best damn administrator I ever worked for.”

By 1962, he had the legal and business experience he needed, and was ready to move into politics. He left Mannix for private practice, became involved in community activities, and began to think seriously about running for the federal Conservatives. Why the Conservatives? “Because of family tradition — my grandfather was a Conservative — and because of the Conservatives’ respect for the individual.” That’s the premier’s explanation. Harold Millican has another view. “Once you accept that vaguely rightist position, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Conservative or a Socred, but the Socreds were dominated by all those old guys ... by going Conservative, Peter was able to call his own shots. Hell, he might just as easily have been a Liberal, like me . . . In fact, I never knew what he was until the night of June 10, 1957, the night of the first Diefenbaker win. We were at a friend’s place watching the returns and Peter turned to me and said, ‘Harold, I’m a Conservative.’ ” (Lougheed’s political heroes are all more noted for their personal strength than their party labels — John Diefenbaker, John F. Kennedy and Jean Drapeau.)

However, in the early 1960s Lougheed rejected the federal field, where it might have taken decades to make a mark, and plunged directly for leadership of the nearly defunct provincial party. He began by organizing a Lougheed Club among his friends (annual membership, $100) and setting up committees, each with tightly organized, specific goals. Jim Seymour, one of the original club members, recalls, “We met every Saturday morning in the Palliser Hotel and planned strategy, finances, every last detail. Seven months before anybody even knew Peter was headed for the leadership, he had his campaign under way.” Not surprisingly, Lougheed won easily at an Edmonton convention in March, 1965, and set about rebuilding the party. In 1966, there was a provincial by-election in Pincher Creek, which the NDP won. Lougheed says, “I was impressed by their door - to - door campaign technique. I figured it could be copied, even improved, so that’s what we did.”

In the 1967 election, the refurbished Tories went from no seats to six, including Lougheed’s own, Calgary West. (Later, four more seats were added in by-elections and by defection.) That was the campaign in which he discovered television, and vice versa. CBC producer Peter Herndorf turned out a documentary, From Prospect To Premier (two avenues near Lougheed’s Calgary home), which showed that his charm, good looks, and vague-but-serious line of talk were perfectly adapted for the tube. So Lougheed learned television, the way he had learned sports and law and business and politics. He learned not to stare into the camera, not to follow the floor director’s movements with his head, he learned how to time himself so that an apparently spontaneous statement would meet the second hand at the top of the clock, learned to polish and repolish his on-camera technique (for his last, five-minute election message to the people in August, Lougheed ran through five tapes to get one with the right ring of spontaneous sincerity).

TV was Lougheed’s medium, and long before the 1971 election he had taken the key decision to devote 85% of the party’s advertising kitty to the tube. By the end of May, before the election writs had even been issued, four fifths of the Conservative campaign had been rehearsed, shot, taped and canned. Most of the $62,570 the Tories spent for TV time went to air segments of a 15-minute film, Peter Lougheed Now, produced (for an economical $20,000) by Perry Rosemond, a former CBC man now working as a free lance in Los Angeles on documentaries for the Nixon administration. Rosemond’s film is full of close-ups of Lougheed, with his family, with farmers, workers and businessmen. It is not a political film at all, but a personal testament, in which Lougheed says things like, “You’ve got to have it here,” and pats himself over the heart. Much of the film consists of questions to which Lougheed gives what seem to be off-the-cuff answers, answers that were worked out in two long taping sessions with Rosemond and a group of advisers. Peter Lougheed Now projects a warm, intelligent and concerned man, and if it’s just a teensy bit contrived, well, hell, that’s show biz. Owen Anderson, executive assistant to former Socred Premier Harry Strom, called Lougheed’s use of television “brilliant, simply brilliant,” and there is no doubt the people of Alberta bought the product advertised.

Lougheed consciously campaigned as an up-to-date replacement for the province’s former strong man, Ernest Manning (he made an early speech in praise of Manning that had the old Socred chieftan snorting with rage), and he used television much as Manning and his mentor, William Aberhart, used radio in an earlier era. Significantly, the only area the Tories were unable to penetrate in their sweep to victory was the stretch south of Calgary, a rural area where electronics carry less clout.

Lougheed will make shrewd use of the victory so cannily earned. Albertans can expect four years of sound administration; there may be no great forward leaps, but there should be no stumbling either. The premier regards himself as a conservative only in economics “On social issues, I regard myself as left-leaning.” But he’s pretty vague about what that means in terms of legislation; he had no quarrel with the right-of-centre stand taken by the Socreds, only with its implementation, which he thought lacked efficiency. “For example, I don’t think highway maintenance should be done by the government; that’s something private enterprise can do far better.” He is disturbed by the unequal distribution of wealth in his province — “Did you know that 69% of Alberta farmers earn under $2,000 a year net income?” — but he rejects the notion of a guaranteed annual income. “My views are fairly close to President Nixon’s proposals in the U.S., where you help the working poor but provide incentives to get off welfare.”

Nor will there be any fireworks from Lougheed at federal-provincial meetings, although he will be a smooth and determined advocate for Alberta’s views. One of his first visitors after the election was Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney, who would like the Alberta government to join the NDP governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan in pressuring Ottawa for a new farm policy. Lougheed was polite but noncommital; his own farm policy is far from firm (the Conservative campaign pamphlet cited only “a recognition that agriculture is a basic industry of the province, and that the general prosperity is significantly dependent upon it”), and he wants to keep a free hand to deal for the diversified industrial development Alberta needs, in direct competition with the other Prairie provinces.

Lougheed has also kept himself clear of any commitment to the federal Conservatives — “We planned from the beginning to raise our own money and run our own show.” The federal party contributed little to the Alberta campaign, and Lougheed will return the favor in the next federal election. There is some doubt whether he could deliver a pro-Stanfield vote in Alberta even if he wanted to, and it’s far from certain that he wants to.

Over the next four years, then, look for a smoothly functioning Conservative government in Alberta, a stronger, but never pushy, provincial presence at federal-provincial talkathons (Lougheed is anxious to help national unity any way he can, but he doesn’t think much of the Official Languages Act — “If the idea is to make the French comfortable, you can’t do it by legislation” — and favors instead “more student exchanges, that kind of thing”) and, along about 1975, the upsurging of a Lougheed-for-leader movement in federal Conservative ranks, a spontaneous upwelling that may be — who knows? — already in the planning.