COLUMN

The stiletto was the man himself

After two divisive decades, the lurid ghosts and little goblins dance on

Roderick McQueen March 9 1981
COLUMN

The stiletto was the man himself

After two divisive decades, the lurid ghosts and little goblins dance on

Roderick McQueen March 9 1981

The stiletto was the man himself

COLUMN

After two divisive decades, the lurid ghosts and little goblins dance on

Roderick McQueen

In the end, and that was the end, the cause was a party that just won’t quit. Oh, there were the Joe Clark jokes all right, and the abusive physical barrage with attention focusing cruelly on his hollow laugh, his strange rolling gait, the straight arms swinging with wrists facing out as if for the slashing. All of that matters not a whit now, for last Friday night Joe Clark’s own party did him in.

It wasn’t like the time John Diefenbaker was drummed out after a long and painful process; nor was it like Robert Stanfield fending off his detractors and finally choosing to retire. No, this was a public hanging, live, following Dallas. And Joe Clark was left whistling “I'm getting buried in the morning. ”

True, the party would not have strung him up were he a surefire winner. For all of his back-room expertise, there are some simple tenets he never followed. At the most basic level, he didn’t like and rarely used the telephone, which most politicians must.

Only in the past three months had he finally begun to pick it up and ask for help.

As a back-bencher in the early 1970s, he would say that the first six months of a new leader’s life set his public image in stone. But when his six months came, he brawled with fellow Alberta MP Stan Schumacher over Bow River riding, a fight that set the tone and sowed the trouble for his leadership. Both wanted to run in Bow River, but word was sent to Clark that Schumacher would back down if he were made a judge. All Clark had to do was phone Premier Peter Lougheed and ask for the plum to be passed, but he bridled at the trough of patronage. Positions hardened, leaving Schumacher nowhere to take his fight but into the streets. Clark saw that act as an invitation to duel but, after a bit of bushwhacking, backed down, a bitter loser who would not allow an opponent a graceful retreat.

The 1979 election was Pierre Trudeau’s to lose and, in office, Clark’s bloody-minded eyes never blinked through the stubborn Petrocan stance and his feeble attempts at reconciliation on Jerusalem, all carried on in the Bow River tradition. By the time of the 1980 election, the voters had long since concluded that Clark might be high-minded, but played High Noon with an empty pistol. In the midst of that campaign, he was even in trouble with his own party. His competence, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, was seen as next to nil. After the election, he bleated publicly about his image, forgetful of the recent past when his predecessor had been ridiculed on similar graveyard grounds. When image becomes a worry, a politician may as well say: “How do I leave thee? Let me count the days.”

Now Clark is unlikely to recover from the double blow of that electoral defeat and the one-third vote against him Friday. Of Canada’s 16 prime ministers, 10 were defeated in office; only four made a comeback. There will be no fire in his belly next time; he was fired this time. Sad, because after two decades of divisiveness, the Conservative party could finally have rid itself of the lurid ghosts and little goblins that haunt it. Instead, one-third said he won’t sell on the doorstep.

Worse, for Clark it was a shortfall that came after a few days of the best momentum the loyalists could muster. It began Wednesday when the passing mention of Clark’s name in John Crosbie’s speech to youth delegates caused the room to explode. The next day, a whisper campaign containing the word “surprise” whizzed around. Endorsements came from every member of his short-lived cabinet. Clark staffers, who 10 days earlier had been warily predicting 70 per cent, cheerfully eased it nearer 80 per cent. The night before the final vote, Clark spoke to a soupedup youth crowd, a well-lubricated bunch with the same blind mindset as the 1972 Youth for Nixon bunch in Miami. His speech was interrupted by applause more than it was delivered.

It was a speech he should have rolled out again the next night, rather than the flat piece of tin he flung at the crowd that so wanted wooing. Perched before them, nervous as a bird at a window feeder, he made them wilt under the weight of his

words. He spoke of duties, values and responsibilities; a mélange of muffled stuff that was about as unexpected as a Polish invasion of the Soviet Union.

His rejection, then, wasn’t entirely the party’s fault, for he has no one foe to finger. Stanfield had the mischievous Dief around his neck; Dief had Dalton Camp to blame; even George Drew had his bad health. This time the stiletto was the man himself. Clark should have taken either of two courses. The first, suggested last fall, was that he call a leadership convention. That would have flushed out the contenders and meant clear victory with as little as 50.1 per cent. The other, given two months ago, was to guarantee the delegates in his Friday-night speech another vote within 18 months. He said no to both.

Now, 66 per cent is not good enough, and while he makes brave noises about soldiering on he leaves a trail of blood. The members of his own caucus, among others, will be baying at that spoor, demanding he call a leadership convention to settle the issue that cannot wait. Meanwhile, Umberto, Clark’s barber won’t need to fly in from Toronto anymore; the party had his head sent out. The public is unlikely to salute either the body that remains or the bunch that did the deed.