JOE CLARK HAS OVERCOME SCORN AND VILIFICATION TO BECOME ONE OF CANADA’S MOST POPULAR LEADERS
THE PHOENIX OF THE TORY PARTY
JOE CLARK HAS OVERCOME SCORN AND VILIFICATION TO BECOME ONE OF CANADA’S MOST POPULAR LEADERS
Joe Clark stepped up to the podium in the auditorium of Toronto’s Upper Canada College— and told his audience a story.
Last May, he began, two weeks after he was handed the constitutional affairs portfolio, he travelled to Iqualuit,
N.W.T. The former prime minister of Canada—who until just before then had been serving in the high-profile post of External Affairs—learned from his Inuit hosts that his name has no counterpart in their language, Inuktituk. “My job involves some indignities,” he explained to the students, parents and teachers assembled for the private school’s prize day on Oct. 18. “They told me they did have their own name for me,” Clark continued modestly. “And although I cannot pronounce it, it means ‘Little Chin.’ ” A murmur of embarrassed laughter drifted through the hall. “Now, I have to make it clear when I am travelling the country, talking about these constitutional proposals, I am talking on behalf of ‘Big Chin,’ too.” The audience burst into shocked laughter and applause.
Big Chin refers, of course, to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the square-jawed Quebec businessman who wrested the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party from Clark in 1983. Mulroney has entrusted his government’s most important task to his former rival. Clark’s to sell the government’s 28 constitutional proposals to a public suspicious of politicians and fed up with the national unity debate. As the federal cabinet minister with the highest standing in public opinion polls—Clark enjoys a 50-per-cent approval rating, compared with Mulroney’s own dismal 15 per cent—he seems ideally suited to the job. But there is more to Joe Clark than his devotion to duty, the skilled diplomacy that he demonstrated as external affairs minister and the humility and self-deprecating humor that he now uses in his public speeches to win support—if not necessarily adherents— for the government’s constitutional point of view.
At 52, Clark is a complex and intelligent man who says that he has come to terms with the bitterness in his past. He was just 36 when he won the Tory leadership in 1976, so little known nationally that he gained the nickname “Joe Who.” Three years later, he became Prime Minister, but after only nine months he was “Joe Where”—back in opposition as Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals swept back into power in March, 1980. In a further humiliation, he lost his leadership after a party convention three years later expressed limited confidence in him. Throughout that period, he was vilified mercilessly by political foes and in the media as a clumsy, weak leader. Since then, his professionalism on the job, particularly in External Affairs from 1984 until last
April, has helped him to undergo a remarkable transformation. Now, he is widely perceived as one of the country’s eminent statesmen. Still, many Canadians know little about the man who is playing a vital role in the fight for the survival of their nation.
He is full of contradictions. For all his humble charm and folksy mannerisms, Clark is a fiercely partisan politician who can cut his opponents to the quick in the House of Commons. Those who know him describe Clark as personally generous, extremely talented—and a difficult, demanding boss for his staff. He enjoys detective novels, magazines, short stories and, during his travels, long walks through busy cities.
Clark is also renowned for his taste—or lack of it—in food. As he told Maclean’s, “I am the opposite of a gourmet. I keep waiting for somebody to invent a pill which will let me have my lunch in a great hurry and get on with something.” Conservative Senate Leader Lowell Murray, who has known Clark since 1962, confirms the worst. Said Murray: “I would worry about him if I were his wife or mother. I am sure that his diet is completely out of whack with what most of us would recognize as basic nutrition.” Among Clark’s culinary idiosyncrasies: eggs fried until the yolks are hard, steak burned to a crisp and cereal eaten dry out of the box. “He would eat steak every day of the week if he could,” said Murray with a sigh. “I do not think Joe has ever eaten a whole fish.”
Organizers of the Brooks, Alta., annual Chamber of Commerce dinner held early last month should have consulted Murray. Former president Glen Lyster, operating on information supplied by a Reform party supporter that Clark in fact ate no meat, arranged for the buffet to include a seafood dish. Lyster recalls his shock when his guest of honor returned to the head table “with the biggest piece of beef of anyone.” Unable to restrain himself, Lyster said that he cried out: “What are you doing with that? I thought you were a vegetarian.” Clark, a native of High River, Alta., and currently MP for Yellowhead riding northwest of Edmonton, has related the tale to Ontario audiences to show that while some Albertans think that he has lost touch with his roots—a sentiment fostered by the Reform party—in his heart, he remains a westerner. Said Clark: “The good thing I learned is the degree to which Reform has been successful in portraying me as someone from somewhere else.”
The portrayal of Clark as a man who has lost touch with the West is unfair, says Murray, a Nova Scotia native who shared an Ottawa apartment with Clark in the 1960s. One of the first things that drew him to Clark, he says, was the latter’s ability to explain western Canadian culture to him. And Murray says that Clark has not lost his ability to understand the West—even after almost two decades in Ottawa. Declared the senator: “To this day, I think that his reading of the political opinion in Western Canada is far more profound than you would get from a lot of other sources.”
Still, Clark has drawn criticism in the West for his openness towards Quebec. Through tutors, classes, cassettes and writing exercises, Clark painstakingly developed a working—though heavily accented—knowledge of French. And in Quebec, where he routinely appears on French-language television and radio news shows, his efforts are clearly appreciated. Declared MNA François Gendron, the deputy leader of the Parti Québécois: “He still has trouble with his French. But it is as though Quebecers say, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s Joe. We know he likes us. He’s made the effort.’ ” Clark also scores well with Quebec critics for his consistent—and tolerant—vision of Quebec’s place in Canada, in contrast to what many of them regard as Mulroney’s shifting positions on the subject. Gendron, for one, calls Clark one of the “most credible” politicians from English Canada when it comes to “descriptions of the political reality of Quebec.”
Clark’s relationship with Quebec may not be as deeply rooted as that of Mulroney, a Quebec native bom and raised in Baie-Comeau on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River. But in other respects, the two men have a remarkable amount in common. They were bom less than three months apart—Mulroney on March 20, 1939, and Clark on June 5. Both were outstanding orators in their youth. Both attended law school and saw their grades suffer because of campus politics. Clark did not finish his degree at Dalhousie University in Halifax, while Mulroney left the school and took his law degree at Laval. They entered politics young and idolized Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Later, they both worked on Davie Fulton’s 1967 leadership campaign. They married within 35 days of each other in 1973, Mulroney to Mila Pivnicki and Clark to Maureen McTeer. They vied for the Tory leadership in the 1970s; each has been leader and prime minister. Yet, says author John Sawatsky, who explores the relationship between the two rivals in his recent book, Mulroney: The Politics of Ambition, the two are “fundamentally different people.”
Sawatsky said in an interview that Mulroney entered politics because he was ambitious and wanted power. Clark, on the other hand, “has a real sense of idealism that Mulroney doesn’t have.” At Conservative party conventions, Clark was usually to be found debating resolutions on the floor. Mulroney “didn’t have time for that,” said Sawatsky. “To him, it was a matter of hooking up with people.”
Still, Clark is not a head-in-the-clouds idealist. Harry Near, a former campaign operations director for Mulroney and now a consultant, has known Clark since 1976. Near says that he
has always admired Clark’s intellect and has found him to be a generous, kind man. But, he also cautions, “He was no pussycat. None of these guys have these jobs if they are pussycats.” And for his part, Murray acknowledges that Clark can get caught up in the sometimes acrimonious atmosphere of the House of Commons. Declares Murray: “He can be very partisan and very cutting, but I don’t think he has ever been abusive in the House.”
Others would disagree with that description. On March 21, 1990, after New Democrat House Leader Nelson Riis accused deputy
Speaker Andrée Champagne of partisanship, Clark yelled at him, then charged across the floor. Riis told reporters later that he was shocked when Clark, whom he had previously thought of as “wimpy,” had to be restrained. Declared Riis: “When you’re sitting in your seat and you see a person with eyes bulging out of his head, with the veins extending out of his forehead, completely flushed, flailing his hands, yelling at you in very uncomplimentary terms, I tell you, he looms large.” That incident earned Clark the nickname “Ramjoe.”
Still, for the most part, Clark leads a peaceful existence. He, his bilingual wife, McTeer, and
daughter Catherine, 15, live across the Ottawa River from the capital in Aylmer, Que. Catherine attends an English-language private school, where her courses include French and Spanish. She takes Japanese lessons after school. When Clark speaks of her, he glows with pride and love. He relates that when she learned of his move from External Affairs to the national unity post, she quipped: “So long, Paris. Hello, Moose Jaw.”
For her part, McTeer, who angered many conservatives in the 1970s when she opted to retain her own name after their marriage, is working on her master’s degree in law at Dalhousie, travelling between there and Aylmer every weekend. But while Clark wears his wedding band and refers to his wife admiringly in his speeches and in interviews, some Ottawa observers say that their relationship appears to have changed since Clark lost the Tory leadership in 1983. Said Sawatsky: “It fell apart right after that. Formally, they’re married, but it’s not so much a marriage as it is an alliance, really.”
For his part, Clark appears to have clearly resolved any lingering feelings of resentment he might have had for Mulroney over the leadership of the party. He told Maclean’s: “What is the point of bitterness? I spoke to a native person the other day who told me of her experience with residential schools and how angry she had been for so long at a school system which, in effect, reviled her own culture and taught her to be uncomfortable in her own skin. Finally, she said to herself, ‘My anger lets that past control me,’ and she made a conscious decision to be free of her anger at the school system.” Concluded Clark: “I suppose at some point I made a conscious decision not to live in the past. These things happen. You accept them and you go on with them.” And he pointed out that he and Mulroney agree on most political matters: “Certainly we do—by and large—on constitutional questions.” Thenpast rivalry, Clark says, was limited to “which of us should lead the Conservative party.”
But the troublesome question of leadership arose again on Oct. 21, when it became known that Mulroney’s name had been added to the list of candidates for the post of secretary general of the United Nations. As the Prime Minister made no move to end speculation over his intentions, many members of the Tory caucus made it clear that Clark would be their top choice to succeed Mulroney if he were to accept the post in New York City. Finally, last week, Mulroney ended the suspense with a firm declaration that he would not serve if chosen. And Clark insisted that his days of leading the Tory party are in the past. Declared Clark: “I’ve done that and I do not intend to do it again. There are other things I want to consider doing.”
But the irony of Clark’s current popularity— and Mulroney’s lack of it—is inescapable. Clearly, many Canadians now hope that Qark’s lessons have been well learned—and that they have provided him with the wisdom to succeed in the trying months to come.
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