CANADA/PROFILE

THE FINAL RAE DAYS

MARCI McDONALD May 22 1995
CANADA/PROFILE

THE FINAL RAE DAYS

MARCI McDONALD May 22 1995

In Lakefield, a picture-postcard village of 2,400 near Peterborough, Ont., spring had made a belated appearance on the same day that Bob Rae’s campaign bus rolled into town. Beneath a sky of unsullied blue, provincial Agriculture Minister Elmer Buchanan and a clutch of New Democratic Party faithful waited in the afternoon sun to greet the premier for a little Main Streeting in friendly territory—at least territory presumed friendly enough to have been handpicked for footage on the nightly newscasts. But Rae had scarcely set foot on the sidewalk when the first political storm clouds blew in.

Outside Lakefield Flowers, Phil Hobbs, a local craftsman kicked off the heckling. “I want to hear what more lies are going to be told,” he yelled over the crowd. As the premier moved up the block, doggedly shaking hands and admiring crafts with characteristic diffidence, he shrugged off other critics with the same determination that he ignored the “Stop Rae” signs studding shop windows. For Rae, glad-handing was clearly a painful rite. But detouring into the drugstore, he found his attempts to drum up small talk falling unusually flat as pharmacist Bob Moro grumbled: “He’s had 4V2 years and nothing’s changed.” Only hours earlier, Rae had staked his claim as the defender of the provincial health-care system—the centrepiece of his campaign. But now aides steered him swiftly past the Lakefield Clinic where a physician’s hand-scrawled sign in red ink on the door warned patients: “If the New Democratic Party is reelected in Ontario, the clinic will be closed permanently.” As if that were not hostility enough, Rae had just reached the haven of the village square for an impromptu news conference when a grizzled man in a tractor cap leaned out his car window to share his sentiments.

“Bob Rae,” he hollered, “so full of s—, his eyes are brown.” For other politicians, that hapless encounter with small-town Ontario might have signalled a public relations disaster. But for Rae, it was a day like so many others in a luckless, and so far lacklustre, campaign, one that seemed at times designed to prove right those doomsayers who were already penning his political obituary. Across the province, his traditional labor constituency lay in tatters, and dozens of his former confidants were sitting out the election, still unable to forgive Ontario’s first socialist premier for betraying the fundamental principle of collective bargaining by ramming his Social Contract—which rolled back the wages of public-sector workers over three years—down the unions’ throats. Across the country, many NDP members were equally bitter, blaming Rae for the party’s decimation in the last federal vote. With his fortunes mired at third place in the polls, well behind Liberal Leader Lyn McLeod and the Conservatives’ Mike Harris—and even his own west Toronto seat in jeopardy—pundits were no longer suggesting Rae for the job that had once seemed his for the asking: taking over from Audrey McLaughlin in the NDP’s coming national leadership battle. Indeed, for the party’s onetime Wunderkind, door after door suddenly seemed to have slammed closed. As Graham Murray, a former NDP researcher who now publishes a Queen’s Park newsletter, summed up the prevailing wisdom: “I think Bob Rae’s political career is dead for the foreseeable future.”

Still, for a 46-year-old facing such bleak prospects, Rae seemed curiously serene. In fact, so uncharacteristically laid-back did he appear that some Queen’s Park reporters had taken to speculating that he was resigned to his fate—that maybe Bob Rae really wanted out, after all. But close friends denied that notion; never before had they seen him so taken with a job, they insisted. No, as Rae had confirmed months earlier, his equanimity came from the fact that he had already been through far darker days. “People were calling for my head in 1985 and 1987,” he told Maclean’s. “I never believed things were as good as people said or as bad as they said. Triumph or disaster are impostors.”

In fact, never had Rae been so decisively written off than in the months leading up to his election five years ago. Gingerly emerging from a depression after his younger brother’s death from cancer, he had been on the verge of quitting for a run at the federal leadership, only to find that prospect greeted with unanticipated hostility. “I just said to myself, Who needs it?’ ” he recalls. “ ‘I’m going to finish the job here—get a million votes, 30 seats—and leave with my head held high.’ ” So seriously did he contemplate bowing out before the 1990 vote that he was already exploring other employment options.  

“We’d sit around and fantasize about what we’d do afterward,” confirmed his wife, Arlene Perly Rae. “He said, ‘I want to leave with dignity.’ ” Then on September 6, 1990, the man who had plotted his own exit found himself onstage at an unexpected victory party—the “accidental premier.”

So unimaginable was Rae’s win that, when he arrived at Queen’s Park, he was horrified to find civil servants clutching his party’s utopian campaign platform, the People’s Agenda. Written largely by backroom strategist Gerry Caplan, the document had been part of Rae’s last-stand approach. “We didn’t think we had a hope in hell of winning,” admitted Carol Phillips, Caplan’s wife, who became Rae’s first director of public appointments. “So we just went for broke.” When she and others found bureaucrats poring over copies of the People’s Agenda as a blueprint for the term to come, they gathered them up quickly. Says Phillips: ‘We were afraid they’d take it too seriously.”

Now, as disenchanted NDPers ponder what went wrong with a government for which they held such high hopes, some point to those first bewildering days in power when decades of theoretic idealism collided with the grim realities of governance. Rae compared it with learning to play the violin in public. And friends watched in dismay as his blond thatch turned silver beneath the worry and the sheer weight of paperwork he struggled home with each night, wrestling with the worst recession to hit the province since the Great Depression. “I don’t read all my briefing notes any more,” he says. “You learn not to get swamped by paper, to say no. You’re going to get criticized, whatever you do.”

But for months after he came to power, the new premier was pilloried for his apparent paralysis. Cabinet offices remained unstaffed and policies hung in limbo. “What was hard was getting used to all the folkways of government,” conceded Attorney General Marion Boyd. “And then we didn’t know each other—it took a long time to be a team.” As a succession of ministerial mini-scandals shook the cabinet, some argued that team spirit never did take hold. Rae counters that opinion: “People judged us by a different set of standards.” But they were standards he himself had set. And supporters were often astonished by his ruthlessness in breaking with some transgressors. “The hardest issues to deal with are the people issues,” Rae admits, “people’s errors in judgment.”

But for some insiders, people issues would remain the Achilles’ heel of a leader who could electrify a crowd with a mike in his hand, but who seemed to have trouble making conversation with anyone but a tiny band of intellectually like-minded friends. “He’s a very remote person,” says one former staffer. “He’s compassionate, too, but it’s a compassion tied to illness. He can be very touching if you’re sick or you’ve had a death in the family. But otherwise, he doesn’t seem to know what to say. And he takes insults very hard.” At a time when compliments were few and far between, Rae—and even more so his wife—took to snubbing old journalist friends who had dared criticize them in print. And recently, when a Toronto politician spumed a personal invitation to run as a party candidate, he was stunned to find himself being subjected to a merciless tongue-lashing from the premier.

Besieged by a hostile business community on one side and increasingly discontented socialists on the other, Rae retreated into what some characterize as a bunker mentality. And within 18 months of his election, the exodus of disillusioned staffers from his office was reaching crisis proportions. Some left disturbed by his undemocratic management style. “I was part of his top 6,” admitted one defector. “And we were never really consulted on anything he was going to do. This was all top-down government.”

But for others, disenchantment set in when he chose his first anniversary in office to renege on the NDP’s promise of public auto insurance. Research had shown that the plan would have raised premiums and provoked job losses at a time when provincial unemployment was already hitting 10.3 per cent. But for many in the party, that default represented Rae’s first breach of faith. “I remember going to Canadian Auto Workers conventions afterward and meeting heartbroken workers,” Phillips said. “For them, auto insurance was a symbol of how a social democratic government would be different. And when it didn’t work out, he didn’t replace it with another symbol.”

In fact, his government introduced a host of measures to placate the party faithful—chief among them the anti-scab legislation that McLeod and Harris are now effectively promising to gut. And in 1991, when business threatened to shut down Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie and the Kimberly Clark pulp mill in Kapuskasing, Rae personally negotiated with bankers and union representatives to craft the employee buy-outs that saved thousands of jobs. At a time when Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives were capping transfer payments for social assistance and their Free Trade Agreement had provoked a hemorrhage of Ontario manufacturing jobs south, it was no mean economic feat.

with Arlene at 1982 NDP leadership convention in his 18th year, he confronted his father over the family secret

But to many of his supporters, that federal-provincial warfare made Rae’s next move all the more curious. At the very moment Ontario’s economy most needed his attention, he threw himself behind Mulroney in the latest fight to amend the Constitution. Former party leader Stephen Lewis had begged him not to get involved in a distraction that some blamed for helping to bring down Rae’s predecessor, David Peterson. And Duncan Cameron, the editor of the monthly Canadian Forum, argued that Rae should have exacted a price for his support—demanding that Mulroney and his business acolytes let up on their assault against NDP policies. But Rae hurled himself back onto the federal stage where, many suspected, he had always felt more comfortable. He seemed in his element during the tense days of the Charlottetown accord, hammering out legalistic formulas on his laptop, the bookish diplomat’s son whose intellect and negotiating skills thrived on the minutiae of constitutional abstraction.

But his gamble exacted a double toll. Without hesitation, Rae ranks his darkest political hour as “the night that Charlottetown went down. I was enormously disappointed— hugely. I took it very personally because I gave that process everything I had,” he says. “I remember feeling the next day, ‘Pm not even going to get to mourn this thing. It’s showbiz. You’ve got to get back onstage and put on a happy face.’ ”

But suddenly, supporters found that Rae’s face was turning towards business. No matter how deep corporate Canada’s disdain, Rae seemed determined to show that he could play on its terrain and even adopt its lingo. Increasingly, he talked of cuts to social services, welfare fraud and the need for tough choices. Then, word went out among NDP ranks: the premier was so enamored of a W5 television show on how New Zealand dealt with its fiscal crisis that he had ordered copies to screen for his cabinet. The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) contacted New Zealand union leaders who disputed W5’s version of events, charging that it had been skewed in favor of neoconservative economics. But Rae’s enthusiasm remained unshaken.

Although he denies any direct link, insiders agree that it was out of that enthusiasm Rae’s Social Contract was born. Still, it was not the contract itself, but—with the breakdown of public-sector talks—the legislated settlement he enforced that left so many longtime supporters unable to forgive him. “For me, as a trade unionist, that was the turning point,” says Phillips, who now works for the CLC in Ottawa. “The number of times I’ve been congratulated as an NDP supporter on how good he was at breaking the unions—it just makes my skin crawl.”

Like Richard Nixon, the fierce anti-Communist who opened American diplomatic relations with China—and whose newspapers Rae had once delivered as a boy in Washington—he, a social democrat, had splintered the labor movement. Indeed, to some stunned supporters, Rae seemed to take an almost macho pleasure in proving to the corporate community that he could break his own constituency. “I think it gives us credibility with the general public,” he insists, unrepentant still. “I think people were amazed at our willingness to take political risks.”

Although he argues that his move saved jobs, now those risks threaten to cost him the election. More than a year has passed since a trio of unions—including the steelworkers and paperworkers whose jobs he had saved—walked out of a CLC vote to unhitch union backing from the NDP, splitting the labor movement. But even among those ostensible friends, Rae’s support remains soft. And although last year’s fury has turned to sadness and cynicism, his hardcore opponents in the Canadian Auto Workers and Canadian Union of Public Employees have refused to work for his re-election. “This may well be the first election I sit out,” laments CAW president Buzz Hargrove. “To find they don’t understand the basic underpinnings of our movement . . . ” He shakes his head in disbelief.

Rae and Broad bent campaigning in 1987: having seemed unsuited to being a politician, he proved a master of the 60-second sound bite

Nor has Bay Street stepped in to champion the leader who has so ardently courted its favor. The day before Rae called the election, financier Andy Sarlos, an NDP appointee to the board of Ontario Hydro, hosted a $l,000-a-head fund-raiser that lured 52 of the city’s heaviest financial hitters for salmon and small talk with a premier whom many had spent four years raging against. But for some, the dinner smacked of a consolation prize, or even an insurance policy for a man who might yet be called on to support a minority Liberal government, as he did in 1985. In fact, although Sarlos pronounced Rae “the best leader of the pack,” he made clear that none of his guests seemed inclined to vote for the premier. “Oh, no,” he chortled. “Some people felt he would make a contribution if he didn’t run.”

For some party critics, the event merely confirmed that Rae had never really been a socialist after all—indeed, that it had taken the Social Contract’s crunch to restore him to his true Liberal family roots. “I think in some ways, it’s who he always was,” says Thomas Walkom, The Toronto Star columnist who chronicled the premier’s term in Rae Days: The Rise and Follies of the NDP. “He grew up as a Pearsonian Liberal and I don’t think he ever lost that essential ideology.”

"I used to worry about always being an outsider,” Bob Rae was saying. As the late-afternoon light shadowed his baronial Queen’s Park office, he was in a reflective mood meeting with a reporter last year. Across the room, his desk lay buried under briefing books and clutter, a browning apple core perched among the photographs of his three daughters, aged 10 to 13, and a half-empty orange juice glass teetering beside a bright “No whining” button. Behind his chair, a wall of family photographs provides an eloquent subtext to his ruminations, the chronicle of an extraordinary childhood as the second son of Saul Rae, one of the best and brightest of Lester Pearson’s External Affairs mandarins. In fact, the photos help explain why, when the premier found himself in Ottawa two weeks earlier, attempting to spout the standard political clichés about being glad to be back in his home town, the words seemed to roll so awkwardly from his lips.

Traipsing with his family to a dizzying succession of diplomatic posts, Bob Rae never really had a home town. Within a year of his Ottawa birth, his father had been dispatched to London, where a photographer snapped him on a bench beside his older brother, two perfect beaming blond toddlers in short pants and strapped sandals. By the time the Raes moved back to the modest Rockcliffe bungalow where his parents still live, he was already different: a four-year-old English boy with an English accent and quirky un-Canadian clothes, as one of his oldest friends, Globe and Mail correspondent Graham Fraser recalls, “straight out of Boy’s Own annual.”

Pearson regularly dropped by the house to chat, as did the other luminaries of Ottawa’s high-minded foreign-service elite. Hobnobbing with great men was so humdrum that Rae recounts once being marched with his brother into Pearson’s office, where his father made them apologize for greeting the boss with a bushy-tailed, “Hi” instead of, “Hello, sir.” And he still takes delight in imitating Pearson’s dumbfounded reaction: “Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Later, as a teenager, he met Maurice Strong, the Liberal éminence grise who now serves as his $1a-year chairman of Ontario Hydro, and who remembers him as already older than his years. “He was deeply interested in adult conversation—more than most people,” Strong says. “I remember him just as a very bright, precocious young fellow.”

By the time he was 8, home was the ambassador’s residence in Washington. And for high school, his parents packed him off to boarding school in Geneva. Those peregrinations helped forge the Raes into a clan apart: a family, including older sister Jennifer (the premier’s perennial campaign manager) and younger brother David, which one longtime friend describes as “almost Sicilian” in the fierceness of its loyalties. Wherever their travels took them, they were bound together by summers at the family island on Big Rideau Lake, outside Ottawa— where Rae still has a nearby cottage—and their rollicking song and soft-shoe routines.

As a child, Saul Rae had been a vaudeville star, one of the Three Little Raes of Sunshine with his sister, Grace, and brother Jackie, who later became a producer for CBC comics Wayne and Shuster. And at foreign-service parties, he was known for his gifts as a piano player and raconteur. When Bob Rae finally thought to question the origin of those gifts, he was already a freshman at the University of Toronto, where he showed up with tweeds, a cowlick—and the onstage timing of a Catskills straight man. In the summer of his 18th year, he finally confronted his father over the family secret that Saul Rae had guarded all through his term in the WASPish Ottawa civil service: the fact that the diplomat’s father had been a Lithuanian Jewish tailor born Willy Cohen.

For Rae, that discovery provoked the first of a series of identity crises. And he spent the next years piecing together the fragments of his lost heritage—Cohen’s emigration to Scotland where he married Nell Rae, the premier’s feisty grandmother who died last year at the age of 107; their elopement to Canada under her name; and their failed stint homesteading in Saskatchewan. “Someday, I’ll write the story,” he says. “For me, it’s an important part of my life and identity that I’m proud of.” But friends also remember his quiet determination to make amends: henceforth, they noticed, he only seemed interested in dating Jewish girls. Now, he and his wife, a vivacious brunette who put herself through an MA in drama while working as an Air Canada purser, raise their girls, Judith, Lisa and Eleanor, in that faith, although she insists he “is not a religious person.”

Arlene, Lisa, Judith, Eleanor and Bob: ‘We’d sit around and fantasize about what we’d do afterward’

It was at university, too, that Rae acquired his socialist politics, which critics now question. In 1968, as revolts shook campuses around the world, he teamed up with student council president Steven Langdon, later a fellow NDP MP, to lead their own discreet tweedy rebellion. Langdon dealt with the rabble-rousers, while Rae was designated to mollify the Establishment. “Bob was very good in dealing with the powers that be,” Langdon says—a talent for which he would later publicly upbraid his friend in an open letter after the Social Contract two years ago. But so impressed was university president Claude Bissell that he later made a donation to Rae’s first political campaign. And another authority figure from those days would resurface to counsel him as premier: former Tory premier William Davis, who first met Rae as education minister. ‘We were always able to chat to one another,” Davis acknowledges. “There was a relationship there that would surprise people who think that politicians are always in adversarial positions.”

After graduation, Rae followed Langdon into the NDP, a move that some observers now deem as much a rebellion against his family as a political statement. His older brother, whom he battled over tennis and politics, had already taken a job as executive assistant to Jean Chrétien, whose 1993 election victory he would also manage. “Bob always wanted to go up the tough side of the mountain,” says Walkom. “The easiest way would have been to go into Liberal politics like everybody else. The hard way was to go up the backside of the Matterhorn —to join the NDP. That way, his success was that much sweeter.”

Even when he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, Rae proved a conflicted socialist: in his thesis, he roundly criticized Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the founders of the Fabian movement—and the modern British Labour Party. And after another identity crisis—a virtual nervous breakdown in which he grappled with whether to become an academic or an activist—he retreated back home to study law and sign on briefly as counsel to the steelworkers. Then within six months of graduation, he had a seat in Parliament where, on the strength of three economics courses, he dazzled Ottawa as the NDP’s finance critic. Uncharismatic, ill at ease and often goofy-looking, the man who in many ways seemed entirely unsuited to be a politician proved a master of the 60-second sound bite and an accomplished schmoozer with the media.

For Rae, those four years on the federal scene were his most golden; he was already being touted as a successor to NDP leader Ed Broadbent when Stephen Lewis persuaded him to take over the Ontario party. It was a move that even Arlene Perly Rae viewed warily. “I thought his arena was a larger arena,” she says. Now, pundits find it no accident that, even in this provincial re-election campaign, Rae has staked out a place on the national stage, essentially running as a leader of the opposition against Chrétien and his cutbacks of Canadian health and social services. In fact, his party’s fate on June 8 is being watched as a bellwether of the NDP’s federal fortunes. “If Rae does win, it will prove he was right to break with much of what the NDP is about,” Walkom says, “to become more centrist and mainstream—a sort of new liberal party. If he’s completely wiped out, it provides tremendous confiision for the federal party.” 

Whatever happens, even his most bitter critics are not discounting Bob Rae, who, on the eve of a key televised debate three weeks before the vote—a lifetime in politics—remained inexplicably fatalistic. Some, including his wife, put it down to having licked his demons and taken his lumps. “I thought I would live my whole life with a man who had never gotten the chance to be in power,” she says. “Now, whatever happens, he has been premier.” Others, like his close friend Michael Ignatieff, a London based writer, point out that Rae plays tennis in the same disarming style: plodding, cautious and ungainly, he seems no threat on the court until his opponents invariably discover he has won.

But if, as historian Desmond Morton once predicted, Rae turns out to be a one-term socialist premier, a clue to his consolation emerges at the end of an interview when a reporter asks him what literary work has influenced him most. For a man who can quote George Orwell or Reinhold Niebuhr with ease, and is reading Alice Munro’s Open Secrets on the campaign plane, his answer is a surprising one: it is the archetypal English schoolboy’s poem, Rudyard Kipling’s If, which has counselled generations of right-thinking young men to make the best of whatever life delivers them. □