The forgotten man

Paul Martin was one of the great Canadians of his time. He might even have been Prime Minister — if he hadn’t wanted it so much

Marci McDonald August 1 1976

The forgotten man

Paul Martin was one of the great Canadians of his time. He might even have been Prime Minister — if he hadn’t wanted it so much

Marci McDonald August 1 1976

The forgotten man

Paul Martin was one of the great Canadians of his time. He might even have been Prime Minister — if he hadn’t wanted it so much

Marci McDonald

In the fading afternoon light over Trafalgar Square, the unmistakable aroma of decay and pigeon droppings hangs in the air. But Paul Martin does not smell it. He stands at the elegant velvet-framed windows of his ceremonial office high in the lofty stone reaches of Canada House and breathes deeply, as if the scent of lilacs had just struck him. Behind his half-rim spectacles, the bright hawklike pupils dart over this kingdom he surveys. All around him the portents of doom and gloom are gathering on the near horizon, armies of haughty pigeons hovering like thunderclouds to swoop and dive-bomb Lord Nelson atop his column as he urges each man to do his duty for England, while down on the sidewalks ancient newsboys are bellowing each day’s fresh disaster which signals it may already be too late for either duty or England. The obituary to the British empire is rolling hot off the presses with each new IRA bombing, each latest statistical horror in the galloping unemployment rate and billion-dollar budget deficit, each further plummet of the pound. Shakespeare’s sceptred isle lies suddenly exposed as a small bankrupt monarchy sinking into the North Atlantic, but Paul Martin does not see it. “Why, this is the heart of the world,” he beams.

Paul Martin has always looked on the brighter side of things. In his 73 years, neither childhood polio, family poverty nor the handicaps of growing up French-Canadian Catholic in small-town Ontario have deterred him. He set his sights on the prime ministership of this country early and, despite little encouragement and only lukewarm press clippings, he never once wavered from that dream. Twice he watched it snatched from him, although the last time was the crudest because he never saw it coming. He gave more than 40 years of his life in fierce devotion to the Liberal Party, but in the end the party took him for granted, ate him up and spat him out like so much driftwood tossed on the waveofTrudeaumania, but still Paul Martin never swerved. Shunted up to the Senate, he briskly set about reforming it; then rushed into retirement and, robbed of the chance to break Mackenzie King’s record for cabinet longevity, he packed for his last stand as High Commissioner to Britain like a freshman off to college. Columnists might lament that the old war-horse of Canadian politics was being put out to pas-

ture, but the old war-horse waved off the condolences and set the alarm at 6 a.m., as usual, to get an early start on the new day.

Now, as the sun sets over the British Empire, in the twilight of his own years, Paul Martin presides over the fading days of the Canadian-British connection just as he always has, right forearm stiffly outstretched, fingers at the ready, a little small talk and the question as to whether there’s anybody here from Windsor on the tip of his tongue, making his way from reception to reception, city to city, main-streeting up and down England—after all these years still running for office though there are no more elections to win.

It has become a habit, a means to an end that never quite came to be, but somewhere along the way the means itself took over the man. Even at this very moment, he turns from the window and leads a visitor downstairs to the reception rooms of Canada House where he has instituted a weekly Thursday handshaking. But on this particular Thursday there are only three prospective palms in attendance and Paul Martin is disappointed, although he makes the best of it, strolling right up to a startled graduate student quietly reading Canadian newspapers and grasping her arm, inquiring after her health and hometown, dropping an anecdote here, a remembered connection there. “Anybody here from Windsor?” he asks.

Then it’s out onto the square where a CTV film crew is waiting to interview him about the cod war. Paul Martin mutters some diplomatic imponderables into the microphone, but it is uneventful footage so the cameraman asks if he wouldn’t mind just feeding the pigeons and the High Commissioner does not hesitate. Before the film crew can get into position he is down on his knees, scattering popcorn and cooing, the entire pigeon population of Trafalgar Square suddenly descending on him in one feathered deluge, beaks squawking, wings beating him about the ears, tiny claws digging into his flesh. Pigeons light on his arms, legs and shoulders, there are pigeons everywhere, and two more flutter in for a landing on his venerable grey head. But Paul Martin does not cease smiling for the cameras, even when two aides have to haul him to his feet because the old damaged knees have buckled under him. Before they can stop him, he is off again, striding across the square, hand

out, meeting, greeting, caught up in the old rituals, until a small crowd has gathered around him and there are whispers. A mystified Israeli tourist takes his picture, then turns to a stranger to ask the question to which there are no simple answers: “Who is this guy, anyway?” he says.

“Nobody knows you,” I tell Paul Martin. A look of horror flickers across the old corneas. “What do you mean nobody knows me?” he sputters. But you can see it, somewhere at the back of his brain, his worst fears confirmed. Aha, just as he kept telling them, they had to get him a new press officer, had to get those stories rolling out on the front pages, maybe invite some journalists to lunch... As external affairs minister, he used to call up the Canadian Press Ottawa news desk regularly to offer his comments on the day’s issues, unsolicited, much to the considerable amazement of cub reporters who would pick up the phone just after dawn to hear an uncannily familiar voice announcing, “Well, hello, it’s Paul.” Before his arrival at the court of St. James, he had cabled his advance strategy: the High Commission was to set up splash stories in the British papers and a luncheon with Fleet Street’s top five—a feat that no British politician has ever pulled off. Instead, he had to settle for the longest press release English journalists have reported seeing, his life and 17 honorary degrees minutely detailed, but staffers since caught up in his romance with newsprint now talk of “keeping him on the move” and his “swing through the Midlands” like orchestrations for some grand future campaign. In fact, no Canadian high commissioner has ever had his speeches as generously covered, but still he is not satisfied and now this young whippersnapper, hardly as old as his own daughter, is telling him that nobody knows him. Paul Martin looks exasperated. “Well, don’t they read their newspapers ’” But how do you tell a man who was once a bright young visionary, a maverick, a radical left-leaning Liberal who fought for the cornerstones of this country’s social insurance schemes, that it has all been forgotten? That to a whole generation he has come to symbolize the archetypal establishment old pol, speeches awash in the party line, sentences in search of a verb,

flannel in the mouth? How do you say to Paul Martin that when his name comes up in Ottawa these days it is usually to tell a variation on the classic Paul Martin story, the one about him making his rounds at a reception, dredging up a long-forgotten name from his card-file memory and asking about the wife only to be told she was dead, then continuing around the room handshaking until he comes to the same man again inquiring how the wife is. “Still dead,” the story goes. After all the years and cheers, after all the battles won and lost, the triumphs and heartbreak, is this what it all comes down to: an anecdote?

I try to put it to Paul Martin gently, to probe beneath the stiff-upper-lip disclaimers, to get a glimpse of the inner man, but the next morning he is still chewing the question. “You know, I was a minister in Canada for 22 years, longer than anybody else except for Mackenzie King. I was in parliament five years before John Diefenbaker. I was a delegate to the League of Nations and I spent more time at the United Nations than Pearson did. Now how could a man be in politics 33 years and not be a human being?” The morning after, he is still worrying. “Now, I’ve been thinking about nobody knowing me. Well, why not? Don’t they know their history?”

To Paul Martin it is inconceivable that a generation would not know their history. He grew up in the Ottawa Valley steeped in it, some of his earliest memories the stories that his aunt, a file clerk in the Prime Minister’s Office, used to bring home about Sir Wilfrid Laurier, one of the first books he ever read a Life Of Gladstone that a spinster librarian pressed on him. “Great men, great men,” his speech still rings with the phrase. He spent his boyhood hours in the Pembroke library poring over books about them, left to his own devices after polio struck him at four and branded him forever different from the other kids, his left eye sightless and his upper arm muscles completely wasted, his small knees deformed. He still swims each morning and evening in the battle against its ravages, has devised his own unique and infamously imitable style of glad-handing to hide the fact that he cannot lift his arms above the elbow and fusses at each photo session so the camera doesn’t glint off his dead eye. “I’m always conscious of this damn eye,” he says. But by university he had perfected his camouflage and was working summers in the Pembroke sawmill, although it was the largesse of the local Catholic bishop that made his education possible. There was no money in his own family with 10 other mouths to feed and his father so long out of work when the big grocery chains moved into town and forced his corner store to close down.

Indeed, it was his ill-educated, Frenchspeaking father who inadvertently shaped the young politician he was to become. Paul Martin will never forget him coming home at night—“the expression on his face when he couldn’t get a job, a big physical

man, a strong man, and he couldn’t provide for his own family. That taught me that all was not well, that government needed to do a better job than it had been doing for people.” Years later in parliament he was to champion unemployment insurance, family allowances and the baby bonus—all radical stances then—and in his 11 years as Louis St. Laurent’s health and welfare minister he piloted through the House medicare’s precursor, the National Health program, plus the old age pension and the ground work for the federal-provincial hospital insurance scheme.

By that time, he had discovered that all great public men were lawyers, and won himself scholarships to Osgoode Hall, Harvard, Cambridge and the Geneva School of International Studies. Then— advised that no French-Canadian Catholic would ever have “a hope in hell” of getting elected in Orange Toronto—he came back to set up his law practice in the border town of Windsor, his sights set always for the goal on the far horizon, but bent, too, on avoiding the pitfalls of his father—which he did so successfully that some say he is close to being a millionaire. “Oh, I do alright,” he brushes the discussion away. He still spends his summer holidays in Windsor, savoring nothing more than a stroll down the main street to call out the familiar names and press the flesh like some local feudal lord. “People say to me, ‘Why do you still live in Windsor?’ But those people understood me, trusted me, gave me the chance to be in public life,” he says. They also gave him his wife, a pretty pharmacist named Nell Adams, and now, nearly 40 years later, they sit over drinks in the High Commissioner’s officiai residence in tony Mayfair, attended by a white-haired butler named Price who is all “very good, sirs” and twirling handlebar moustaches, and bicker about how it was they first took notice of each other when he walked into her father’s drugstore for a cigar.

Much later Nell Martin will take me aside and confess that it wasn’t love at first sight. She never took much notice of him at all among her more dashing suitors, she says, until one night over dinner the ponderous awkward young MP told her the story of his painful childhood struggles and she went home and thought to herself, “Now this is a real man.” Six months later he won her to the altar, but it has never been a serene capitulation. “Now, Dad,” she is constantly calming him, as he‘fidgets about the house. “Now, now, Mother,” he scolds back one lunch hour when he has a whole guest table of journalists and embassy staff up scanning the library bookshelves for some obscure history he can’t put his hands on and she sits back in the centre of it all, sublimely ignoring the squall. “I just walk 10 paces behind him and if he gets too pompous try to stick a pin in,” she says. One night Paul Martin came home after a hard day campaigning and extended his hand to her. “Don’t try and shake hands with me,” Nell Martin said.

She smiles in fond exasperation. “Oh, he’s a darling, but if you’re trying to tell people who the real Paul Martin is—good luck.”

Suddenly, it is time for him to rush out to yet another meeting, and he pecks her on the cheek while Price stands at the ready, moustaches aquiver, holding his coat. He bustles by a picture of Lester Pearson on an end table, his old friend and sometime foe, the boy he met as a university lecturer who became his leader and closest confidant in political life—“closest,” he says, “next to Brooke Claxton.” Brooke Claxton? To me, Brooke Claxton is only the name on an Ottawa office tower, and Paul Martin, who named the tower, is shocked to see it. “Brooke Claxton, a very great man.” He pauses for a moment in thought. “And almost nobody knows him today,” he says.

The sun is playing off the ancient stone cornices of Canada House like a watercolor by Constable as I climb its long winding scarlet staircase the next morning to the landing where Bob the valet is waiting—a fitting servant to the ultimate server of the people. Bob turned 73 last year, just six months before Paul Martin did, and now, in the timeless sheen of an antique black suit that seems to date from the grand old days of’23 when he was footman to the Queen Mother, he still thanks God at every opportunity that he has never had to retire. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” he shakes his head. It is 9.30 a.m. and Paul Martin has been up for hours, churning across the next door swimming pool Ted Heath found for him and dictating, the early bird ever out in pursuit of the worm, but on this particular morning the worm has taken a bad turn. “The High Commissioner has had a little fall,” whispers Bob, as he sweeps me into the vast office where Paul Martin stands dwarfed among the monstrous crystal chandeliers and overstuffed rose brocade, a white handkerchief dabbing at his chin. “You know, I’ve just had two stitches,” he calls out with enfeebled heartiness. In the course of dictating, his wheeled arm chair has upended on its plastic carpet shield and sent him toppling, his chin glancing off the desk as he went down, and he has been rushed to the hospital—an experience that would fell lesser men for an entire day. But Paul Martin bustles about the office, demonstrating that a little setback like this can’t slow him down or keep him from a portrait sitting, although every so often the photographer will have to stop as the blood starts to trickle past the cat gut in the folds at the top of his neck and wend its way toward his new blue flannel. “And to think I wore my new suit for you,” he says. “Isn’t this the damnedest thing?”

Things never seem to have gone quite right for Paul Martin, no matter how meticulously he planned them. He sacrificed a private life, time with his two growing children, everything, to keep his political fences tended, but in the end it was his very success as a politician that defeated him.

He strove after the laurels of the international arena ever since he first glimpsed the League of Nations in the flesh as a college student, but after all the years in External Affairs becoming a past master at diplomatic doublespeak a new generation mistook his convoluted utterances for evidence that Paul Martin had nothing to say.

The fellow players he brushed shoulders with on the international stage were his heroes—such men as Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Ben-Gurion, Dag Hammarskjöld and Nehru whose signed pictures spill over the table and piano tops of his second-floor reception rooms, but somehow a starring role always escaped the short square figure smiling bravely in the photos beside them. Paul Martin longed for a Nobel Peace Prize, but it was Lester Pearson who won it for his handling of the Suez crisis. He tried for his own place in the sun of Vietnam, privately risking the wrath of Dean Rusk and the accusation of being a “meddler” as the Pentagon Papers have since shown, but the press of the day lambasted him for not standing up to the United States and he could never manage half the headlines that Jane Fonda did. He published a book of his policy speeches, but one influential critic dismissed it as “the kind of book which once you put down, it is hard to pick up.” And finally, after all the years of careful packing, all the networks built and old ious in his baggage, he offered himself for the leadership of his country and learned too late the lesson that the Liberal Party always looks outside its own ranks for the man who would be king.

Paul Martin insists that he knew he never had a chance against the Nobel-winner Pearson in 1958, but he was down at the old Ottawa rail depot every day anyway, sweating in the blazing sun as he met each train and pumped each hand for endorsements, while Pearson sat up in his cool Chateau Laurier hotel suite and waited for the delegates to come to him.

Ten years later, when he believed his time had finally come, he stood up on the stage of an Ottawa cow palace, hair dyed black to hide the long journey, old eyes glittering with the end almost in sight, and watched in stunned disbelief as his old friend Pearson and the entire country were swept up in an orange placard-waving groundswell for a teenybopper’s darling who had never shaken a fraction of the hands that Paul Martin had and barely paid his dues—watched reeling as his dream was dashed forever, just as all the pundits and campaign polls but his own had predicted. “I didn’t realize there was a generation gap until it was all over,” he says. He sat up in his hotel room dazed by the blow as John Turner and Paul Hellyer and the others gathered to pay their respects, his daughter Maryann and son Paul Jr., the head of Canada Steamship Lines, openly weeping. But as bitter antiTrudeau talk built and swirled around him he would brook none of it; he hauled his

shattered hopes up off the bed, put on his coat, raised his chin and stoically marched off to thank his faithful. The next morning when he walked back into the Commons, the whole House rose as one in tribute, and perhaps too in recognition of the tragic figure that might lay at the heart of each of them—“the biggest ovation I ever got in parliament, when I was defeated,” he laughs without conviction to himself.

He dabs at his chin with a linen handkerchief as the blood starts oozing again, but this talk of defeat and disappointment comes too close to the bone. “Oh, sure I was disappointed,” he says, “but people have taken swipes at me for years. I’ve been through a lot, you know. I have no bitterness, no rearglass mirror in my makeup. No, I don’t regret anything.” He is silent awhile, staring out over the square. “Oh, maybe I regret having run. I felt I ¿ould make a contribution to my country, but the important thing isn’t always being first in line; it’s when you’re in line to do your best.I’m fortunate at my age to have this opportunity to be of service to my country. But politics—I have no political opinions at all now. Not even a whimper. No, that’s all over for me.”

The limousine with the diplomatic license plates CAN-1 slips through the silent night streets of London carrying Paul Martin home from dinner at the venerable old Reform Club, and he still basks in the memory of strolling through its sacred corridors where Gladstone and the great men of history walked before him, oozing mellowness like the glow of a fine old port. It has been a set piece straight from the movies, coal fire burning in the cavernous dark marble hallway, stock quotations pegged to the oaken standards and vast gilt and Moroccan-studded libraries where ancient warriors with patches over one eye nod off behind their newspapers in overstuffed

leather chairs. Paul Martin has led a tour of the place like some star-struck teenager, but there is a special pause before a white marble bust which gives the lie to his disclaimers that he didn’t mind one bit when Trudeau destroyed his chance to break Mackenzie King’s cabinet record by so abruptly despatching him to England. It is the bust of Palmerston, who reigned in cabinet 44 years—“the longest any man in the Commonwealth was ever in cabinet,” he says. “And do you know who the fifth was?” He pauses dramatically. “Paul Martin,” he says. All Paul Martin ever wanted was his place in the pages of history, and if he wasn’t a winner, he has been a survivor—with all the rewards due the species. The Queen’s name is in his guest book and Princess Anne’s on his dance card. There aren’t many high commissioners whom James Callaghan would call up in the night to talk over the Rhodesian crisis, not as a Canadian emissary but an old comrade; and who else could sit and reminisce with Harold Wilson and the boys about the founding days of the League of Nations? In all his years in opposition there was no more merciless critic of John Diefenbaker than Paul Martin, but in a few days the other old survivor will arrive to stay in the guest room just down the hall from his own bedroom, and in the evenings the old games will be put aside in memory of the time that Paul Martin crossed party lines and was the one to arrange planes and support as Diefenbaker’s first wife lay dying, though a listener will never be able to tell it from their barbs.

In these uncertain times, Paul Martin lives on as one of the last relics of an endangered breed—a man who was brought up to believe that the political animal was the noblest of creatures, that politics was the most honorable of aspirations, and all his buffetings have done nothing to shake that belief. “To legislate for men, to lead men is a great calling. Politicians are unjustly vilified, but then everything is today. This is an unusual age,” he shakes his head. As the car snakes through the London streets, he picks out Hyde Park speakers’ corner, the British Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, monuments to everything he has placed his life and trust in, and I ask him how, after all he has seen, he can still be so enthusiastic. “But of course I’m enthusiastic,” he says. “I believe in the United Nations and parliament, I believe in men, I believe in the world. I don’t have a pessimistic view of the world. You young people—you’re so cynical.”

I bid good-night to Paul Martin there, but the last time I saw him was a night later as he was being carried along on a tide of Canadian veterans from the United Kingdom in aged blue blazers and poppies, being swept into the dining room as guest of honor on a wave of handshakes, his palm extended, eyes bright and searching the crowds, and I am sure the last words I overheard him say were, “Anybody here from Windsor?”