Cover Story


Peter C. Newman August 27 1979
Cover Story


Peter C. Newman August 27 1979


Cover Story

Peter C. Newman

It was easy enough to satirize his rages and caricature his crusades. But it was the stride and stance of the man—his sheer guts—the brew of his laughter and the dint of his compassion, those were the qualities that made John Diefenbaker a politician apart. Like P.G. Wodehouse’s fictional butler, Jeeves, he entered any room “as a procession of one.”

Although he seldom stopped talking about himself, the essence of John Diefenbaker remained a mysterious mixture of vanity and charm, vulnerability and brass, outrage and mischief.

He single-handedly transformed Canadian politics into the country’s leading spectator sport.

The dilemma of most Canadian politicians is how to stress the marginal differences between themselves and their rivals, so that they can conceal their basic similarities. Diefenbaker’s problem was exactly the opposite: howto place enoughrestraints on his combative nature so that he would sound more like his electable and less individualistic contemporaries.

Even in his declining years, he remained a political giant ambling on his knees in a land of midgets.

Most leaders find themselves in conflict with their times either because they remain reactionaries who try to resurrect the past or because they attempt to become visionaries and find their aim exceeds their grasp. Diefenbaker suffered the rare distinction of being both. His intellect was firmly frozen in another time; his heart was an open city.

Dead last week at 83, he was born only four years after Sir John A. Macdonald’s death, so that his life spanned Canada’s modern history. He could draw on memories of times when Red River carts still creaked along the Battleford trail and buffalo bones littered the Prairies. During a 1962 campaign stop at Melville, Saskatchewan, I happened to be standing behind him as he asked a group of oldtimers in what year they had come West. When the eldest replied, “April of 1903,” a delighted Diefenbaker shot back: “We came in August!”

No Canadian politician ever rose so steadily through a succession of defeats. He was soundly beaten in five election campaigns (including an abortive attempt in 1933 to become mayor of Prince Albert) before finally squeaking into the

House of Commons as a member of the Conservative Opposition in 1940. Always the outsider, even in his legal career, he seemed to thrive on rejection. After being trounced in a token run for the PC party leadership against George Drew in 1948, he wrote in his diary: “On the night of Drew’s victory, I went up to his suite in the Château Laurier. They were celebrating. I was an intruder. I walked into that gathering

to congratulate him and it was as if an animal not customarily admitted to homes had suddenly entered the place.”

Driven by the compulsions of his self-imposed destiny, he became a streetsinger in the corridors of power. He won many converts on his endless circuit of speechmaking across the country, but inside the Conservative party hierarchy he was dismissed as “the Bolshevist from the West.” At the same time, the Liberals harassed him by redistributing his seat out of existence and even descended to the petty ploy of converting the house next to his Prince Albert home into a foster residence for unwed Indian mothers.

But Diefenbaker knew how to wait and he had a nose for power. In 1956 he fooled the pundits by capturing the Tory leadership and the following year managed to win a minority mandate.

Elections are a tumble of events that savage a man’s pride and poise, but Diefenbaker loved to campaign. In 1958, he decided to transform himself into an incarnation of the Canada he knew. The asylums are full of people who imagine themselves to be Napoleon—or Jesus Christ—but Diefenbaker persisted in his identification, becoming a personification of the national will for whom all things were possible. Trumpeting his “Vision” of Northern development, he went on a charismatic rampage that made his audiences quiver. They cheered every time he paused for breath. When he stood bareheaded in the rain addressing a small, outdoor crowd at Penticton, B.C., I saw some of his listeners deliberately closing their umbrellas. In Fredericton, a crush of swooning women held their children up to touch him. When Ed Morris, then a Conservative candidate in Halifax, was introducing the PC leader, he began by saying: “My friends, what shall we say of this great man?” A voice from the back rows chimed out: “Dear John... Dear John.” Morris bowed his head. “Yes,” he intoned. “We may as well say, Dear John . . .” Two thousand men and

women stood up to roar their approval. (Not everybody got his signals right. At a ceremony in West Vancouver’s Park Royal, an Indian chief called Mathias Joe presented a walking stick to the PM with the tribute: “John Diefenbacon, you’re the thunderbird of our country.”)

On election night Diefenbaker won 208 seats, wiping out the Liberals in six provinces. It was the largest mandate ever given a Canadian prime minister. Even if his French couldn’t get him past a Berlitz receptionist, Quebec accorded him 62 per cent of its votes—just one point behind true-blue Ontario

In the golden months that followed, Diefenbaker acted less like a politician than a force of nature. During a Commons question period on July 2, 1958, when he was asked by Hazen Argue (then of the CCF) what his government intended to do about drought on the Prairies, Diefenbaker matter-of-factly replied: “Yesterday and also the day before when I was in Brandon, several localities received rain for the first time.” A couple of Liberal back-benchers giggled nervously. But to most members of Parliament it seemed only mildly ludicrous that this all-powerful leader could order water down from the sky.

He took office at the age of 61, too late to erase the habits of all those lonely years as a struggling defence attorney in the tomorrow country of northern Saskatchewan. His magnificent victory at the polls condemned him to a permanent sense of anti-climax; he interpreted the people’s acclaim as adequate proof of his greatness and became intoxicated with the trappings rather than the substance of his office. In a sense it was not power but the absence of power that had

At the University of Saskatchewan, he was a campus power as associate editor of the student newspaper, a member of the students’ council and, not surprisingly, a star on the debating team. A member of the Officers’ Training Corps, he was posted to Britain as a lieutenant after graduation and was invalided home in 1917. His military experiences remain obscure because he rarely discussed them, and steadfastly refused to wear his service ribbons


corrupted him. He had spent 37 years in the political wilderness. Denied what he felt to be his rightful place for so long, all that apartness, all that contempt, simmered up to dominate his every act.

His government initiated many enlightened measures, but as PM he remained preoccupied with settling old scores. No imagined insult was small enough to claim his forgiveness. (One former member of his cabinet swore that Diefenbaker realized the member’s loyalty was waning even before he himself had become aware of it.) He never absolved anyone from the slightest rebuff. On April 4,1967, when the Liberals announced that they had named former Conservative House speaker Roland Michener to be Canada’s 20th governor-general, Diefenbaker alone failed to applaud the appointment—presumably because Michener had ruled him out of order during a procedural wrangle eight years earlier.

Before he became prime minister, Diefenbaker had heard his party vilified so often for being too cautious that, once in power, he indulged freely in populist radicalism, which was his natural instinct. His conviction—born in Saskatchewan during the droughts of the ’30s—that the economically underprivileged can help themselves only through collective political action found its expression in his concept of social justice, based on the commendable notion that every Canadian has the right to expect equality of opportunity. During six years in office his administration spent almost as much money as all Canadian governments between Confederation and 1946 combined (including the cost of two world wars) in a wild jumble of programs designed to help develop the


The Chief’s mother, Mary, shown here with Dief just after he was made King’s Counsel, was a lively woman of Scottish descent who insisted her son get a complete education. Once, when he wanted to drop out of high school and take a job in a bank, she all but carried him back into his classroom

Despite five political losses, Diefenbaker ran in the 1940 general election and, in Grit territory, won by 280 votes. The party won just 39 seats


North and to assist farmers, fishermen and other lowincome groups.

Afloat on a sea of generous impulses, Diefenbaker seldom understood the details of his own policies. In the 1965 campaign, for example, his party strategists worked out an elaborate scheme for allowing some urban house owners to deduct municipal assessments from federal income tax. Diefenbaker tried vainly to explain what it was all about, until he gave up in Winnipeg by lamely conceding he thought his plan “might be limited to home-occupied houses.”

Instead of advancing any set of identifiable principles, his brand of politics turned out to be little more than a drawn-out sequence of morality plays staged to combat imagined forces threatening his downfall. Whether his audience filled a tiny Legion hall in northern Saskatchewan or an auditorium at one of the 35 universities that granted him honorary degrees, he used every public occasion to hurl defiance at the nameless adjudicators of Canadian society’s great power blocs. He thus caught himself in his own trap of demanding to be loved for the enemies he had made.

He was at his best among his own people on the Prairies and campaigned on every conceivable occasion, whether there happened to be an election in the offing or not.

It was Diefenbaker’s eyes that were his saving grace, acting as jovial monitors of his innermost emotions, mocking the pomposity of his own performances. But at his nightly rallies he would turn on his audiences like some medieval necromancer dispensing rhetorical fire. With an energy born of gloating, he would dance out his joy at the wickedness of his political opponents. When he accused the Liberals of


Frustrated and exhausted from six years of battling the Liberals, Tory leader George Drew resigned. The party old guard opposed Diefenbaker as Drew’s replacement, but the smoke-filled rooms did their work and by the convention the Chief was able to win on £ the first ballot over Donald Fleming and Davie Fulton (above) § ^_ o

“shedding tears of falsehood,” his audiences knew exactly what he meant, and when he confessed that his errors as prime minister were “mistakes of the heart,” they rushed to forgive him.

His language was a splendid artifice, the words fanfaring his message in the biblical cadence of Southern camp meetings, where the language of exhortation, graceless by choice, takes the place of logical discourse. “Join with me,” he would plead, “join with me to catch the vision of men and women who rise above these things that ordinarily hold you to the soil. Join with me to bring about the achievement of that Canada, one Canada, the achievement of Canada’s destiny!”

Like most self-made men, he worshipped his creator. During the Brantford, Ontario, rally that wound up his 1963 campaign, he clarified once and for all just exactly how he obtained his best advice: “I ask myself, ‘Is a thing right?’ And if it is, I do it.”

To identify not only his audience but himself with the aspirations of the “average Canadian,” Diefenbaker tried to ally his own past with every part of the country. That never sounded more preposterous than in a Halifax speech when he established his family contact with the Atlantic port by earnestly proclaiming : “Had it not been for the trade winds between here and Newfoundland, my great-great-grandmother would have been born in Halifax.”

But all that thunder had little to do with the art of governing the country, and gradually it became clear that Diefenbaker viewed legislation more as a posture than a process; his government never demonstrated any clear purpose except to retain power. His administration’s final collapse in

Soon after his party formed a minority government, the Chief was in London where he had a 30-minute private audience with the Queen and dined with the Churchills. Sir Winston was aghast when the new Canadian PM declined a glass of Napoleon brandy



By the autumn of 1962, many powerful Tories had decided that Diet’s indecisiveness had turned him into a liability. They abetted Opposition non-confidence motions which toppled his government the next year

1963 (with 17 ministers leaving through various exits during its last 10 months) was like the ruin of some great papiermâché temple built for a Hollywood spectacular when the rains come down and wash the whole Technicolor mess into the sea. By the time Diefenbaker had lost his last election as leader in 1965, his once-great Conservative party had been hived into a coalition of the discontented and the dispossessed, with only one Tory MP surviving in the 50 constituencies of Canada’s three largest cities.

Politics is a process of elimination. But John Diefenbaker refused to be eliminated. For him, simply still being there provided some kind of crazy proof of his self-importance.

In the last decade of his life he moved off into a private world, becoming a figment of his own imagination, the starved topography of his face illuminating the nation’s TV screens as he gloomed about whatever was happening at the time. But occasionally the humor still bubbled up, such as the joke he would tell his Prince Albert cronies, about Pierre Trudeau’s swimming pool: “He’s a great swimmer; a great athlete. But just after construction finished he got stuck on some of the underwater furniture. Standing alongside, looking down at him, was a chap with a sign of LIFEGUARD on his hat. Trudeau finally got out and said, ‘Aren’t you the lifeguard here? Why didn’t you help me?’ He replied, T can’t swim.’ Trudeau then asked him: ‘How the griggins did you get the appointment?’ He said, T want you to understand I’m bilingual!’ ”

Diefenbaker’s partisan fevers never subsided. In the fall of 1971, he was suddenly taken ill during a visit to Wales and

Trudeau extended the courtesy of sending a government jet to bring him home. The ex-prime minister was loaded aboard on a stretcher, but during the journey the attending doctor filled him with six pints of blood and enough iron pills so that by the time the plane landed in Ottawa he was able to stride down the ramp. He immediately called a press conference to attack the Liberals’ overspending habits—especially their pernicious use of government planes for private trips.

Through John Diefenbaker’s long career and longer lifetime it was always possible to admire the man’s instincts without respecting his performance. His was the most primitive of partisanships, but he shattered textbooks-ful of Canadian political traditions: the idea that the Conservative party was an instrument of Toronto’s Bay Street; the longaccepted convention that political leaders in this country should talk grey and act neutral; the very notion that prime ministers must lick the velvet hand of the Canadian establishment.

When a great man dies, some promise of a country’s life is buried with him. That sentiment was most dramatically caught in the terse obituary haughtily declaimed over French national television in 1970 by Prime Minister Georges Pompidou: “General de Gaulle is dead. France is a widow.”

Canada may not be a widow, but we are no less bereaved. John George Diefenbaker’s passing begs to be taken more as a symbol than an event. We mourn his death as we might grieve for the loss of our own youth, for a way we were and can never be again.


Party unhappiness with Diefenbaker seethed on to a bitter convention in Ottawa that elected to hold a leadership vote. One of the main architects of his downfall was Dalton Camp, shown above right undergoing the Chief’s assaults. Last week Camp said: g

‘He was an adversary of estimable mettle and I shall miss him’ ^


Robert Stanfield took over and Diefenbaker leaned to his wife, Olive (who died three years ago)

Last Thursday the Chief rose at 5 a.m. and went for a walk. He returned to his study, where he died as he had largely lived—working on the business of Parliament. It was a meet and right end for one who so devoutly wished to be known as a man of the House of Commons. Hls body lay in state in the Hall of Honor and was visited by Joe Clark and Maureen McTeer, among thousands of others, before being borne westward for burial