Bill Bennett has four sons. They have inherited from him, as he inherited from his father, a fiercely independent spirit, and some of them decided they could make it away from home, heading for those then-heady days in the Alberta Oil Patch. Things were not always that rosy, and one day one son called home to Dad in Kelowna saying, “We’re down to beans.” Premier William Richards Bennett replied, “When you’re out of beans, let me know.”
The guy who has shocked his province by quitting his job is a tough guy, as his decision—at the height of publicity, at the height of Expo’s great success—indicates. When Bill Bennett was on his way to making his first million to prove he could do it without Daddy, he and his brother Russell used to open furniture stores in the Okanagan Valley branching out from W.A.C. Bennett’s base in Kelowna, sell the inventory all day and then, exhausted at night, sleep on the couches in the store.
He used to fight fiercely with his father over the dinner table about politics and, when he finally did enter the legislature on his father’s retirement, he explained that he had to wait until that moment—that the two of them could never be in the same arena together. They shared single-minded goals: when Wacky Bennett was a neophyte politician in Victoria, representing Kelowna, and when any of the children contracted measles or mumps he would move out of the family home and check into a Kelowna hotel. He had more important priorities than to get sick. It’s always been a hard family. Bill Bennett, through all his 11 years as premier, toughed it in the atmosphere of being one Canadian premier—as opposed to all those lawyers and lawyers and lawyers—who had never gone to university. He was too impatient, wanting to make that million that his father had already made, so as to prove something.
Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.
He was a tough little athlete, but never allowed to prove it. He couldn’t play on his school’s sport teams because it was insisted that he report for work at the family hardware store immediately after school. He once confessed that he had only come to the middle-class sports—tennis and skiing—in his thirties because there was never enough time before.
After being hand-picked for his father’s vacant seat in South Okanagan and being hand-arranged as his father’s successor as leader of the amorphous Social Credit Party, he ab-
solutely hated his three years as opposition leader in the B.C. legislature—as Pierre Trudeau hated his term as opposition leader and as Ontario Tory Leader Larry Grossman, raised to power, so obviously hates his role in opposition and is absolutely at sea in it. “Bankers,” Bennett said one day in disgust, “would go great in opposition. They can always tell you why something can’t be done.”
In public, he is wooden, a characteristic he shares with other politicians named Stanfield and Clark and Liberal Don Johnston. In private he has a deadly, cynical wit. He once got himself involved in a celebrated B.C. lawsuit when he tossed off a remark about those who have Scotch with their cornflakes—an inference that everyone in the press gallery readily understood. One day, on the ferry to Vancouver Island, he felt a plop on his thinning hair and reached up to discover the worst: a sea gull’s revenge. He gazed aloft and said to a companion, “I didn’t know
Marjorie Nichols was flying to Victoria today,” a reference to the supremely tough-minded Vancouver Sun columnist who is probably the most uncompromising journalist in Canada and—a right-winger herself—is unrelenting whenever she feels Bennett’s government is less than honest.
He has no friends in politics, at least not in Victoria politics. His father used to sit up and play cards with a phantasmagoria of characters who liked to sneak drinks behind the back of the abstemious Wacky. One of those characters used to be famous for falling up the down escalators and once slugged a lady opponent on a hotline show. Bill Bennett, in his entire term as premier, lived alone in a penthouse atop a hotel a few blocks from his office, while his wife remained in the blissful family home on Okanagan Lake with the tennis court and the fruit orchards, his weekend retreat.
He comes from an insular part of Canada. British Columbia, the third-biggest province in the country, the only one outside of Prince Edward o Island and Newfoundland £ that has never provided a g Prime Minister. Nor does ^ it seem much interested in doing so. John Turner, a onetime and possibly future Prime Minister (if he can stave off Jean Chrétien’s lurking dagger) is the MP for VancouverQuadra but gets almost no attention in the Vancouver media despite it. Dave Barrett became premier at age 41 and had never seen Montreal. Bill Bennett was 10 years in power before he ever bothered to go to Washington, which can wipe out British Columbia’s economy in 30 seconds with a presidential signature on a lumber tariff bill.
As Brian Mulroney offered, one of the most important things about politics is knowing when to leave, something that Mila thinks about a lot. Another wife, Audrey Bennett, when Bill bought his first motel early in their marriage, ran the switchboard. She was promised long ago by her husband that he would stay only two terms in office. He stayed part of a third. He keeps his word, if only a little late, and that is also very tough.
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