Lester Pearson was not a popular prime minister. With his bow tie, lisp and aging baby face he was a bit of a buffoon, playing parliamentary tool to Diefenbaker’s Lear. It is startling that six months after his death Lester Pearson should become a televis on celebrity, an entertainer with an tlephant’s memory, a talent for amusing stories and a simple candor that makes him, if not a politician to admire, a man to love.
First Person Singular, Pearson’s television memoir, is a unique and powerful personal portrait which establishes Pearson, a man very recently threatened with oblivion, as a prime minister of a stature and influence exceeded only by the legendary Macdonald, Laurier and Mackenzie King, none of whom had the benefit of color TV. A gamble which could easily have been tedious or humiliating, First Person Singular is successful television and entertaining history, a brilliant stroke of one-upmanship which justifies Pearson’s reputation as a diplomat of skill and audacity. He has salvaged his reputation and preserved himself forever not only as a man of avuncular charm but as a legend, a star.
Modeled on Mountbatten’s classic TV autobiography, The Life And Times Of Lord Mountbatten, the Pearson memoir is more relaxed and informal, perfectly suited to Pearson’s more modest role in the world and habit of casting himself as a sitting duck. Mountbatten is an epic exercise in noblesse oblige, an astonishing view of the world as a sort of family estate in which Lord Louis, in the course of various romps with the Prince of Wales, twice polishes off the evil Hun and singlehandedly saves Injah as a personal favor to his cousin, the King. Lester Pearson, whose military career ended when he was run over by a bus, cannot casually refer to the Czar as “Uncle Nicky” or to the Bolshevik Revolution as an unfortunate family setback. There is no bombast or swagger to Pearson. He is a Canadian, a colonial, a minor figure, a Rosencrantz on the world stage, a prep school new boy who scurries around from nation to nation with unimportant messages and invitations to somebody else’s
banquet. One of the most touching things about First Person Singular is the extent to which Pearson reveals how his pride smarted from the snubs of the great and powerful whose intellectual bags he carried and how, if only out of rage alone, he must have wanted to become famous.
Smart and stylish, redolent with historical allusion and significance, Pearson’s memoir shows him doing superbly what he obviously does best
— talk. It’s not overly witty or even informative conversation but the kind of graceful smoking-room chatter which goes round and round the conventional wisdom without offending or boring. The anecdotes are often trivial but, fleshed out with film clips, they provide little peepholes into the past, illuminating glimpses of wars and personalities most Canadians are too young to remember. However, the fascination of Pearson’s reminiscences lies not in what he says but in what he unconsciously reveals about the prejudices and assumptions that governed his own life and that of the nation. The smugness and insularity of Pearson’s world are shocking. He tells with delight how he passed algebra at university because the prof was an old friend of his father’s and how, during the First World War, his father, at Pearson’s request, used his connections to transfer young Lester out of the trenches into a comfortable officer training school. Most people are ashamed to tell these stories; Pearson relishes them. He has lived all his life among the Old Boy network of Ontario and simply assumes that this is the way the world runs. His provincial arrogance is as sublime as Mountbatten’s. Even for an autobiography First Person Singular is egocentric. Unlike Mountbatten, Pearson offers little analysis of the events in which he took part, no pithy opinions on the people he met. His story is about his friends and how they helped each other get ahead in the civil service so they could, as Pearson admits with disarming frankness, “divide the swag.” It says little about the hero but a great deal about the WASP elite which brought him to power.
The limitations of Pearson’s view make his memoir, in spite of its charm, troubling and unsatisfactory. As he progresses during the Forties into the senior levels of the foreign service there is a growing vacuity, a dearth of hard information, lack of perception and a distressing emphasis on events that are irrelevant or trite
— Pearson offers the story of a baseball game as his main recollection of his dealings with the State Department in Washington, a contribution
which is almost insulting in view of Pearson’s obviously intimate acquaintance with American political intrigue. The coincidental revelations of the Watergate hearings cast a harsh glare on Pearson’s genial TV memoir, showing its holes, making us suspicious of what he is not saying. I have the feeling that Pearson tells embarrassing stories on himself not from candor but to disarm his critics, and he deliberately uses jokes and anecdotes not to reveal the truth but to evade it. The result is diplomatic sleight of hand, a superbly convincing portrait of a jolly and confident prime minister who appears to bare his soul while saying nothing of significance.
It is legitimate within the framework of a memoir to allow Pearson to tell his own story without challenge or contradiction, and to loosen his tongue producer Cameron Graham provided a sympathetic interviewer in Bernard Ostry, a civil servant, friend and Old Boy. Yet obviously this kind of TV autobiography gives a politician an opportunity to rewrite history; the CBC, which paid for First Person Singular, is now obligated not only to do a series on all Canadian prime ministers, but to provide equal time for an anti-memoir, a critique of the Pearson years from an altogether different point of view and set of assumptions. Pearson was a more subtle and intelligent man than the guileless old vaudevillian who appears on the program. So now, as his psychiatrist said to Alexander Portnoy, we may perhaps begin.
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