COLUMN

John Turner: a man out of time

Allan Fotheringham May 15 1989
COLUMN

John Turner: a man out of time

Allan Fotheringham May 15 1989

John Turner: a man out of time

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

One of the most interesting things John Turner ever said was a supposed joke that in fact was a description of himself. “The definition of a Rhodes Scholar,” he told a friend one day, “is someone whose future is behind him.” It wasn’t an original line; some forgotten wit first coined the phrase (which has a lot of validity), but it was somewhat strange that Rhodes Scholar Turner would be quoting it rather than some enemy of his. Perhaps he knew almost from the start that it would be impossible to measure up to the perfect scenario that first his mother and then the romantics of the press and then the Liberal party had mapped out for him.

Turner, who still reads a passage from the Bible every day, seriously contemplated going into the priesthood as a young man. That doesn’t sound like someone who was insanely ambitious from childhood to rise to the heights, but rather someone who feels carried along by events and the expectations of others—if not the church then the comparative demands of a political party. Sacrifice: all that psychobabble.

New York, a few miles back, had a mayor called John Lindsay. He was a Kennedy-style breakthrough, the first “modern man” after weary decades of ward-heelers and cigarstained backroom grafters. He was impossibly handsome and, everyone predicted, the mayor’s spot was just a way-stop on the obvious road to the White House. John Lindsay, as it turned out, never went anywhere. He was simply too good-looking for his own good. No one took such a matinee idol seriously, and he disappeared.

John Turner’s early aura was right out of People magazine, before that journal had been invented. But there was always an illusory quality to it. He never knew his father, a British journalist of mysterious past who died when he was an infant. His mother was a miner’s daughter from the British Columbia mountains who rose to the heights in the Ottawa mandarinate and gave her son such a good education that he entered university at 16.

There were disappointments even then that presaged what came later. He was the Canadi-

an record holder in the 100-yard dash, but a knee injury in a car crash kept him out of the Olympic Games while his track buddies from Oxford, Roger Bannister, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, went on to world fame. They phoned him to alert him before their fourminute-mile triumph. He was at Oxford at the same time as Vinerian Law Scholar Allan Gotlieb and some of his friends were not only Bob Hawke, now prime minister of Australia, but also a previous prime minister of that strange, big island), Malcolm Fraser, and Jeremy Thorpe, the-fated former British Liberal party leader. '

For all the Fleet Street frenzy about the handsome lawyer “who danced with a princess,” there was never any chance that Princess Margaret, especially in those days, would have been allowed to get involved with a Catholic. They are still friends, and Turner and his wife, Geills, call on her when in London.

His mother married a Vancouver industrialist who became lieutenant-governor, but at his death there was little money to pass on. Turner has always maintained that he has lived on his own income. In 1984, at the moment of his greatest triumph, his aging mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was taken from her bed in a nursing home on Saltspring Island, B.C., and placed before a television set to see John crowned Liberal leader in the Ottawa arena. She did not recognize him.

He is a very old-fashioned person, the youngest man I had ever met who still wore garters to hold up his stockings. His old-fashioned (i.e., outdated) mannerisms became embarrassingly obvious in his bum-patting, patronizing attitude to women on his return to politics. He never has been as self-confident as pictured and his nervousness and awkwardness before the TV cameras on his disastrous return to the public

stage eventually led to the humiliating sessions with a “media doctor” who had him lying on the floor of his office learning how to breathe properly to cure that loud on-air throatclearing that delighted the press satirists.

He is a man of contradictions, so revering of formal manners and the sacred traditions of Parliament, so foulmouthed in front of the women in his office. He rails against the threat of the United States, but sends his children to universities in the United States.

Although he and Mulroney (who once applied for a job at Turner’s Montreal law firm) cannot stand one another—one thinking the other a child of privilege, the other thinking the other a jumped-up opportunist— they have similarities. Both want very much to be liked, Mulroney’s fear of voter

disapproval leading (as most recently) to deknackered budget, Turner’s early desire be all things to all people leaving him a politician who never articulated a believable philosophy to the public.

His pride moved him out of Ottawa at too young an age when Trudeau humiliated him offering him the Senate or a judgeship. His caution kept him on Bay Street too long, and skills had congealed by the time he came back to a younger press gallery not caring of earlier reputation.

The mean refusal of Trudeau to come to podium and join hands with him at his leadership triumph in 1984 doomed him to a party thereafter split, and Jean Chrétien with a more populist audience always lurking. He was in way a Greek tragedy, the expectations always too high, obscuring the fact he might have been happier pursuing a goal more suited to talents.