The man on the mountaintop

Allan Fotheringham February 1 1993

The man on the mountaintop

Allan Fotheringham February 1 1993

The man on the mountaintop



The pioneer of bebop, long before he died earlier this month, was explaining that he couldn’t have extended jazz to its esoteric limits unless Satchmo had innovated the medium. Armstrong, with his horn dragging jazz out of the South and smoky clubs, laid the groundwork for Dizzy, with his bulbous cheeks and bent trumpet, to soar further in the musical range.

No Kennedy, no Clinton. Canadians could only look with envy as Americans embraced the most appealing president since JFK with his mischievous charm (his randy nature semihidden at the time) captured the nation.

No him, no me.

—Dizzy Gillespie, on Louis Armstrong

Guys named Nixon and Ford and Carter and Reagan and Bush seemed mature old men. William Jefferson Clinton is the only one since Kennedy who is actually boyish, laughing in the sheer enjoyment of having the job.

Washington in the January sunshine cannot put on a better show. This scribbler, who put in five years a decade ago in the town on yet another hardship assignment, is seduced once more. This is the most beautiful capital on the globe. Paris is the most beautiful city, but Washington—since it was laid out and professionally designed as the capital of the most idealistic people on earth—performs its mission wonderfully.

The fact that it is now the Murder Capital of the World, succeeding Detroit—in the 70 per cent of the city that is black and that the visitor never sees—is the subject of another column, and a test of Clinton also, since no other modem president has been able to solve it. Presidents are elected to run the world; the people who run Washington, D.C. have been helpless so far in figuring out the city.

It is doubtful if William Jefferson, in his one or two terms in office, will sort it out, but he’s going to have fun and the country is going to get a lot of fun out of him.

As someone who invented Martin Brian Mulroney some time ago, your scribbler notes a number of similarities. At midnight, at the

Arkansas Ball inaugural night, there was the new most powerful man in the world up on the stage blowing on his saxophone with a rock band. It would not have threatened Dizzy or Satchmo but, as The Washington Post put it next day, “He Could Have Wailed All Night.”

In the dying days before the 1988 American election, I was with a friend in Winnipeg when in the televised debates CNN anchor Bernard Shaw asked the stupid question of Michael Dukakis what he would do if his wife was raped and murdered by a paroled convict. When the only passionless Greek in the universe fumbled and eventually converted it into a discourse on the environment and the weather, I yelled to the kitchen that the election was over—as it proved to be.

Score one for observation. Last spring, observing William Jefferson Clinton on The Arsenio Hall Show, in shades, blowing his sax, I thought the bloke had killed himself. Too tacky. Too

pandering. Low-class. Score one for being wrong. He struck a key—a meandering G. Bush pretending he was “out of the loop” on the Iran-contra caper, convincing no one, revealing that indeed he was only there because of The Gipper’s coattails.

So we see, in the January sunshine, what we once saw in the boy from Baie-Comeau. Both lads from extremely modest backgrounds, no frills, hard scrabble. Clinton’s father is killed in a car crash even before he is bom. Mulroney, on his father’s death, has to support his mother, his brother, his sisters.

Both, probably because of the numbers of females in their upbringing, have a highly developed liking for the ankle. Both, while susceptible to pomposity when unluckily given access to too many microphones, have a great, open sense of humor in private. Both, from meagre roots, reached far for education and sophistication—Mulroney first to New Brunswick and then Dalhousie and then Laval and then a mansion high on the hill in Montreal; Clinton to Georgetown in Washington and then Oxford and then Yale Law School.

Both value (clutch?) loyalty above all, Clinton larding his cabinet and key appointments with friends he first met on his Rhodes Scholarship in England, Mulroney still pressing close to his breast his old cronies from prep school and university and early Quebec bagman days.

There has been an obvious dissonance in these transition days, Mulroney embarrassingly eager to make a connection with the new boss of the world, Clinton apparently advised by his handlers that the chap in the Great White North is a lame duck, soon to leave, and what’s the point—the matter being emphasized by the rather stagey G. Bush farewell weekend at Camp David involving the Mulroneys.

They would, actually, get along quite well if and when they meet. Because of the sense of wit, the liking for a joke, the appreciation perhaps that they both came from the wrong side of the tracks.

But there is a discernible difference, coming from a scribe who invented the one and admires the other. Although they are less than a decade apart, they appear a generation in distance. The 46-year-old from Hope, Ark., is full of energy and dreams, bursting with ideas. The 53-year-old from Baie-Comeau, whether he comes or goes (he’s staying) is a tired man in a defensive stance on the three-yard line.

Is there a Bill Clinton hiding somewhere in the weeds on the Canadian scene? Can Kim Campbell stand the course? Patrick Boyer? Paul Martin reinvented? Another jazz great, Fats Waller, used to say, “One never know. Do one?” No. One never know.