When our bedroom phone rang a little after six on the morning of Aug. 16, 1979, and a male voice asked me to comment on John Diefenbaker, I replied that “The Chief” was “looking forward to his trip.” There was a pause. “Mr. Spencer,” the voice said gently, “I’m sorry. You obviously haven’t heard that Mr. Diefenbaker died in Ottawa this morning!” My God! No, I hadn’t heard! Now, obviously, Dief’s long-planned trip to China needed no comment from anyone.
I gave the eastern pressman some wooden lines to quote
from one who had served as president of the home-town Diefenbaker association for 15 years and five federal elections. My private grief was, thankfully, contained by the drowse of the early hour in Prince Albert. With that interview and the others that followed, I mused about the prophetic nature of the night of his last election.
It hadn’t been an ordinary Diefenbaker election. First there had been real concern as to whether he should run at all. Was he too old? What about the memoirs? Shouldn’t they be finished? Incredibly, we sounded out the possibility of defeat. After all, we had more than a candidate to advance. We had a legend on our hands. The trauma of the Easter week illness followed. That was a week that will never be fully described to any public. That week, a handful of friends put a very sick John Diefenbaker to bed and kept him there protected and isolated, while the corridors in Prince Albert’s Marlboro Hotel filled with press people from across the land, howling their
suspicion that some dark Florentine cabal was hiding dreadful secrets in Room 210. Was Dief going to withdraw? Was Dief competent? Was he dying? Was he dead?
But the patient, by willing it so, recovered. On the hustings once again, we heard some Herculean phrases hurled at favorite villainies and flummeries. There were flashes of mischief, and briefly some Elizabethan declamation soared. Rail abandonment to prevent! Law and order to establish! The West! The West! By car and helicopter, main street and rural grid, the old man and the campaign struggled on.
Finally it was May 22, election day. From the moment we returned to the hotel after voting at Queen Elizabeth School in the morning, the Chief was fussing and apprehensive. We heard inquiries and imperatives, new even to those of us who were veterans. He wasn’t sure of this one.
That night, with the 13th victory in Prince Albert secured, he delivered a vague and toneless television “thank you.’’Later, in the Marlboro Hotel, while others downed harder stuff, he carried a vanilla milk shake about with him, pulling on it occasionally through a straw. He stayed on as never before. His pale blue eyes drew in the people and the scene and held them. He found himself between rude little crushes of children pestering for pictures or autographs and a younger set, awkward with him and celebrating the national victory of another leader, Joe Clark. I winced as I heard snatches of comment about the next Prince Albert election and the next candidate. He didn’t hear these.
When it was time for the immédiates to leave the public centre and go to a small traditional late hot supper, he had gone upstairs to his second-floor room. I was dispatched to bring him down. He was alone except for Archie McQueen, a friend from Ottawa. I took his long hand and shook it gently. It felt spent and vulnerable. “Congratulations John, another great win.” This was ritual, as I had said this
countless times during the evening. He had been lying on the bed and had removed his coat and shoes and navy blue polka-dotted tie. His crinkled grey hair had that familiar muss. He lay back on the bed again. Letters, telegrams and newspapers were strewn about. A room-service tray sat untouched on the coffee table. Gifts of fruit and candy stood unopened. Only one lamp was lighted. No, he didn’t want to come to supper. I knew he was tired and I sensed he was saddened. Saddened, after a 13th victory? Somehow, I felt McQueen and I were intruding. “Good night, Chief,” I shook hands with the old fighter. “I’ll see you in a day or two.” “Good night, Dick.” When the door closed behind me, I knew this wasn’t just “good night.” I don’t know how people know these things. They are just flutterings along the heart. But I knew.
And then, so soon, it was Aug. 16. Now, a year later, when I get off the Marlboro elevator opposite Room 210,
I sometimes stop, if the hall is empty,
and listen for Dief’s loud chortle and for our own roar of approval of some devilment he had done or was about to do. When I see a main street, a helicopter or a railway station, I see him, head up, shoulders back, marching into another campaign. And I find myself wanting to call out, “Hey Chief, wait up! Wait for me!”
Over many years, I witnessed the controversy that swirled around him and I know that he was both loved and hated. All do not share my affection for the man. But on this first anniversary of his death, it seems probable that even his detractors will reflect and miss him. I have a simple and insistent question. Is there another John Diefenbaker on Parliament Hill today? In our struggle to survive, Canada needs another “Chief” with Dief’s enormous love for this country. We need the flag raised and carried forward in great campaigns. We need some tumult and some joy again. I like to believe that a new Diefenbaker will come to help to save us. But I doubt it, and I think it sad and dangerous for Canada that there is no one now.
Dick Spencer is the mayor of Prince Albert, Sask.
'Is there another Diefenbaker on Parliament Hill today?
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