Column

Sometimes it’s tough to tell the would-be PM from a guy up on a hubcap-stealing rap

Allan Fotheringham April 23 1979
Column

Sometimes it’s tough to tell the would-be PM from a guy up on a hubcap-stealing rap

Allan Fotheringham April 23 1979

Sometimes it’s tough to tell the would-be PM from a guy up on a hubcap-stealing rap

Column

Allan Fotheringham

There really hasn’t been anything like it since Harry Houdini locked himself in a coffin and had it lowered into the Hudson River. If one of the more audacious election strategies in history is to succeed, it will mean that Joe Clark’s intellect, such as it is, will remain suspended below water until May 22. If that feat is possible, he will be our next prime minister, his waterlogged brain then ready to be exposed to the scrutiny of a Canadian public on the verge of accepting someone it would rather not know too much about.

There have been stranger ways of picking a leader, and there have been other geniuses similarly coddled, probably. It is just that in the Age of Enlightenment, when the dreaded monsters of communications supposedly rule the world, never has so little of an Opposition leader’s cranium been exposed to the cruel light of day.

The Clark technique (actually the technique of the Clark handlers, since he is being supervised as closely as a Labrador sent out to find duck decoys in a Saturday morning field trial) is, of course, to give the impression of accessibility while actually manipulating him through the day with the spontaneity of a windup toy. Here is Clark on a campaign day in Winnipeg. A taped interview with the CBC, the press watching via closed circuit in a separate building. A return to his hotel for rest and consultation. A meeting with a local candidate’s campaign workers. A return to the hotel. A half-hour drive to an evening Hawaiian luau, an appearance before cheering party faithful that lasts barely 30 minutes and the halfhour drive back. Perfect strategy. Not a single member of the general public encountered (for that would be unstructured), not a single open session with the trailing press (for that would be unpredictable).

The nervousness approaching panic among the handlers who have sent this pup out into the field, it should be explained, is well justified. Clark, like that windup toy he so frequently imitates,

is all jerks and unco-ordinated movements, an affliction that often extends to his tongue. In his desire to envelop even the simplest thought in a vocabulary that seems to have been borrowed from a Victorian dictating machine, he sometimes disappears into the murky depths of his own circumlocution.

Liberal strategy all along has been to force Joe Clark to open his mouth, the party being content in the knowledge that sooner or later the financial confusion that rattles around inside him will escape into pure air. The Tory strategy,

equally, is to prevent him from expressing his innermost uncertainties by surrounding him with the closest guard since Lee Harvey Oswald was transferred from prison. When Clark enters a room with his guardian angels around him, it is hard to tell whether he’s running for prime minister or is up on a hubcap-stealing charge.

At his off-the-record breakfasts (one way to nobble the press is to talk to them while not allowing them to print anything), Chief-of-Staff Bill Neville sits on one side of him, Press Secretary Donald Doyle sits on the other, both gazing intently into their scrambled eggs with the intensity of two men who realize their job tenure is as long as his next fractured syntax. Jim Gillies, the amiable and able Tory financial expert who, unfortunately for Clark, is retiring from politics, has been assigned to be outrider on the Clark jet, lurking nearby at every stop ready to clap a large hand over the leader’s mouth whenever the discussion surges past the

multiplication tables. The Tories, finally mortified at their Major Bowes Amateur Hour performance on Clark’s round-the-world-in-80-daze tour, have recruited yet another bodyguard, Toronto insurance executive Bill McAleer, who grimly marches about the fringes of this precious cargo, attempting to make sure that no underwear has gone missing and the key to the windup toy is safe in Neville’s hip pocket.

None of this artful manipulation should be disparaged. Since all is fair in love and politics, §nd Joe Clark, expressionless, colorless, sentenceless, happens to be winning this election. Pierre Trudeau, who is as unmanageable in public as Clark is programmed, is flailing about in search of some luckless portion of the population he has not yet insulted. The handlers of the Clark entry know that if they can safely shepherd their speechless automaton through the next five weeks without a single unrehearsed event, they have the throne room. There is rigid adherence to the Doomsday itinerary, much scurrying about to give the impression of energy—all so Joe can spend long periods back at the hotel room where, presumably, he is rebriefed, re-programmed, re-cassetted. There are long hours when absolutely nothing is going on, except fear. Here is Clark on a Windsor, Ontario, hotline show. At the last moment it is announced he will be interviewed but no calls from listeners will be accepted. It is why the Tories have got themselves into their first big fix of the campaign — the terrified attempt to keep Clark away from a head-on TV debate with his opponents. It cannot be controlled, contrived, rehearsed. Their man would have to stand up there alone, without that key in his back.

The Tories have a tingling little bundle of dynamite here which they are carrying so nervously you can see their hands tremble as they transport it from stop to stop. Will it explode? No. But it might disintegrate. They hope not. You can hear them praying.