Backstage:Ottawa

Long day’s journey into oblivion

Susan Riley March 24 1980
Backstage:Ottawa

Long day’s journey into oblivion

Susan Riley March 24 1980

Long day’s journey into oblivion

Backstage:Ottawa

Susan Riley

Federal politicians don’t look like risk-takers. They are so straight, so buttoned-down—cautious to the point of banality, conservative in every important way. Yet every few years they risk everything by asking for the approval of a fickle electorate. They live or die according to the crude judgment of majority rule, a judgment that often takes little account of their own personal merits. And, after one embarrassing night of national exposure, the losers are usually left to ponder their failures privately. But what happens after the phones stop ringing, after the headlines fade?

First, banishment, like anything else, is easier to endure if you have money and options.

For former Vancouver mayor Art Phillips, politics was a costly, if interesting, interruption of a lucrative business career. Since his defeat Feb. 18, he has been relaxing at his Ottawa townhouse and doing a little personal investing while he waits for his wife, Carole Taylor, to finish her contract with a local television station where she hosts a weekly interview show. After that, says Phillips, they’ll decide what to do, but this time it’s Carole’s career that takes precedence and determines their next address. Meanwhile Phillips—who has always put high value on his private time—is enjoying his forced sabbatical, handling nothing more stressful than weekends in New York and turning down job offers. ‘T don’t want a job; I want maximum freedom.”

But for Guyana-born John Rodriguez of Nickel Belt defeat is no luxury. After seven years as an NDP member

for his working-class constituency,Rodriguez is now trying to feed seven people on a pension of $500 a month. He has taken a weekend job as janitor at a store, “sweeping up, washing floors,” waiting for better offers, and trying to get rehired as a grade-school principal. “The phone has not been ringing off the hook,” he says glumly. A hard-working MP, Rodriguez was branded a Marxist-Leninist during the campaign, and that, along with his outspoken criticism of mining companies during last year’s bitter INCO strike in Sudbury, may be limiting his prospects. But he is having other problems: after years of a punishing work schedule, suddenly he sits home with nothing to do. “I can’t stand the quiet,” he says. “The silence is deafening.”

Former Tory secretary of state David MacDonald, defeated in P.E.I. after 15 years in Parliament, says the poli-

ticians who really suffer are those whose whole identity and self-worth is tied up with being a cabinet minister, or an MP. When they lose an election, they lose their identity, he says. It is primarily a male disease, often closely related to workaholism, which is a raging epidemic on Parliament Hill. And sometimes the higher they are, the harder they fall.

Former economic “super-minister” Bob de Cotret is fast becoming an experienced loser—first in Ottawa-Centre last May, then in February in a valiant but doomed attempt

to win a rural riding in Quebec for the Tories. De Cotret has learned how to lose gracefully, and he can hardly be described as a shattered wreck. But he is a contained man and it is difficult to gauge how much bitterness he feels against an electorate that has rejected him twice. One clue may be his comment that he is through with politics. “It’s too unpredictable, not sufficiently permanent. ... It can be very frustrating.” Rumors abound that he will once again be plucked from oblivion by Joe Clark and be made his special economic adviser, but de Cotret does nothing to encourage the speculation. It seems more likely he’ll turn now to the private sector, which is ideally suited to his high-energy, philosophically unambiguous style. Meanwhile, he is forcing himself to rest until Easter. “There is a void to be filled, but I am enjoying being with my family again,” he says.

None of the four men mentioned here—Phillips, Rodriguez, MacDonald or de Cotret—is an average MP. All have better-than-average ability and will likely land other jobs. For the rest—they’ll go back to the law, farming, busi-

ness, some of them taking a cut in salary, others gaining. Some will be twisted with bitterness, others slightly bent.

Carleton University psychologist Warren Thorngate, who has studied the psychological impact of political behavior, says, “I suspect one of the motivations for running for public office in the first place is a desire for approval. When a politician doesn’t get it, he thinks people don’t love him. To seek an explanation for something that is personally painful, there is a strong tendency to look outside themselves; to blame the bad image of a leader, the campaign itself, a stupid electorate.” Adds Thorngate, “Very few will ever say: ‘Well, I guess I just wasn’t good enough.’ ”

Susan Riley is a Maclean ’s correspondent in Ottawa.