Television

This is how Dief saw it—and history is in the eye of the beholder

MARTIN KNELMAN October 18 1976
Television

This is how Dief saw it—and history is in the eye of the beholder

MARTIN KNELMAN October 18 1976

This is how Dief saw it—and history is in the eye of the beholder

Television

The military music swells, we see a familiar silhouette, and the voice builds to an oratorical crescendo: “I have but one love—Canada; one purpose—its greatness; one strength and abiding belief—in its freedom; one aim—its unity from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” Anyone else might be embarrassed to sail into such purply patriotic rhetoric. Not John Diefenbaker. The bombast is an excerpt from the speech he made to the 1956 Conservative convention which chose him as party leader. Twenty years later, in spite of everything that has happened to him, the style of the man hasn’t changed—as millions of Canadians will discover on Wednesday evenings between now and January while watching the 13 episodes of the CBC series One Canadian.

The series, subtitled The Political Memoirs Of The Rt. Hon. John G. Diefenbaker, provides its subject with a chance to do something for which he has already shown a brilliant aptitude—mythmaking selfdramatization. Diefenbaker may not have been able to govern the country, but he had a genius for political theatricality, and he sure knows how to carry a television show. Here once more is the flamboyant showman masterfully playing the role of simple prairie boy who learned how to sway any jury with his ringing eloquence on behalf of the common man or his Old Testament furies directed at the bastions of special privilege.

Since this program offers not objective history but a personal memoir, what we get is very much the Diefenbaker version. As a camera subject, there is still something marvelously compelling about the man, even if his view of things seems, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic. He sits there, arms folded calmly and with an air of prepared dignity, answering questions in the manner of a benevolent despot. A born raconteur, Diefenbaker gleefully seizes every chance to tell ajuicy anecdote. Usually the yarns illustrate that, from backwoods boy to grand old man of Canadian politics, John G. Diefenbaker was a fighter and a loner constantly surrounded by dragons. He speaks often about mistakes, but they’re not the mistakes we’re curious about, like the administrative bungling or the fiscal disasters or the indecisiveness or the meddling with the CBC and the Bank of Canada or the alienation of a press corps that started out adoring him. The mistakes Diefenbaker talks about now are such things as not realizing earlier how treacherous Wallace McCutcheon was, or being too gentlemanly to use as a political

weapon a letter that would have damned the Liberals. That is, they’re mistakes that it doesn’t hurt your reputation to confess.

If Diefenbaker lacked whatever qualities it takes to make an effective prime minister, it’s clear that he had what it takes to be a rousing leader of the opposition, and age has not dulled his combative instincts. Almost everything that ever happened gets explained away in terms of the powerful, ruthless enemies Diefenbaker had. One Canadian works up into a festival of paranoia as Diefenbaker grandiloquently recalls the plots and betrayals of the ever-dangerous Them: the Bay Street elite who controlled the party before he came on the scene; the arrogant Liberals (colloquially known as “the same old bunch”) who acted as if they weren’t accountable to the people; the Quebec wing of the caucus under Leon Balcer (“their objective was to annihilate me”); the conspiratorial foreigners led by John Kennedy (“he was out to destroy me”) and Wall Street (“they thought money could buy anything”); the traitors in his own cabinet who turned on him during the crisis of 1962-63 (“it’s beyond me why they joined together to destroy the person who made them what they were”).

The series was produced by Cam Graham, a veteran of CBC Ottawa who, working with the same material since 1966, has already produced two other series—the Pearson memoirs, First Person Singular, and a journalistic record of the period called The Tenth Decade. Graham uses the

film archives with such skill and ease that we’re seductively drawn back into the past all over again, and there’s a sense of living with history. After a year of research, the interviews were filmed in Barbados in December, 1975, while Diefenbaker was vacationing there. Sessions started early in the morning and were interrupted so that Diefenbaker could hear CBC radio’s The World At Eight, which happens to be broadcast in the Caribbean.

Unlike Lyndon Johnson, who was paid about one million dollars for spilling his memories on a TV special, Diefenbaker and Pearson obliged the CBC for nothing. Maybe that’s why the program appears to compensate Diefenbaker with a kind of reverence that goes far beyond politeness. The pomp that opens and closes each installment comes close to camp, and the way the questions are framed for Diefenbaker by the disembodied voice of Douglas Rain is obsequious enough to make one squirm.

How was it possible for a man who won the most thundering political victory in Canadian history to lose almost all his support in just five years and be rejected not only by the voters but even the powers of his own party? Listening to John Diefenbaker tell it, you get the impression it was because he stuck to his principles and was victimized by scoundrels. And Diefenbaker is so gifted at arguing cases, especially when he can play the underdog, that while you’re under his spell you almost believe it. MARTIN KNELMAN