BOOKS

Not the same old Tory

ROGUE TORY: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF JOHN G. DIEFENBAKER By Denis Smith

JAMES STEWART February 12 1996
BOOKS

Not the same old Tory

ROGUE TORY: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF JOHN G. DIEFENBAKER By Denis Smith

JAMES STEWART February 12 1996

Not the same old Tory

ROGUE TORY: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF JOHN G. DIEFENBAKER By Denis Smith

BOOKS

(Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 702 pages, $39.95)

Lucien Bouchard seemed capable of walking on water in last fall’s referendum on Quebec sovereignty. Rapt crowds surrounded him, yearning

to touch him, to grasp the hem of his garment. Nearly 40 years ago, another mesmerizing politician, John George Diefenbaker, cast the same kind of spell. Less than a year after he had ended 22 years of smug Liberal rule with a minority victory in 1957, Dief the Chief led his Tories, in a blaze of popular adulation, to the greatest parliamentary majority in Canada’s history. Sadly, although Diefenbaker campaigned like a god, he governed like a clod. His prime ministerial flame burned out with astonishing speed, and by 1963 he was out of office for good. Nowhere is it written that Bouchard, Quebec’s new premier, will suffer a similarly sharp fall from grace. But Diefenbaker’s career is a cautionary tale for Canadians tempted to put their country’s salvation in the hands of inflexible visionaries with messianic appeal.

Denis Smith tells the tale with cool precision in Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker. Prairie-raised Smith, a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario in London, vividly re-creates Diefen-

baker’s life and times, from his birth in rural Ontario in 1895 to his lonely death in 1979, shortly after his 13th consecutive election to a Saskatchewan seat in Parliament. Smith gives fair value to Diefenbaker’s polemical prowess as a Prairie lawyer and politician, and to his government’s achievements: the Bill of Rights, wheat sales to China, farm revitalization in the West, a new focus on the North, the championing of minorities. But the government’s fatal weaknesses reflected Diefenbaker’s own failings. “For years,” writes Smith, “he filled the air with vague and reckless talk of conspiracies, dark networks

of enemies who were working to dismantle Canada or destroy its independence—first in league with Washington, then in league with Quebec, always in league with the Liberal party. He made the paranoid style dominant in Canadian politics.”

Dief saw himself as the underdog

Rogue Tory is a superbly documented life of the public rather than the private man. Smith does not speculate about his subject’s sexual habits, but merely notes that his first marriage, to Edna Mae Brower, did not produce any children. (Diefenbaker married his second wife, 51-year-old Olive Freeman Palmer, in 1953.) He is relatively discreet about Brower’s infidelities and mental illness, even when citing entries from the personal diary of Conservative MP Rodney Adamson, who lectured Edna about her lovers. Adamson, writes Smith cryptically, “used crude language in the diary to describe her exuberant sexual appetites.”

In 1951, Brower died of leukemia at age 50, after suffering periods of depression and undergoing electric shock therapy. In one of the few passages where Smith explores the private Dief, he strongly suggests that Brower was driven to the brink by her husband’s obsession with his political career, his tantrums and what the author describes as a “cloying” relationship with his mother.

Smith’s account of Diefenbaker’s six years in power is a scholarly thriller, detailing the prime minister’s destructive and unnecessary conflicts at home and abroad. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan privately called him “a mountebank” and “a very crooked man.” In a confidential dispatch, U.S. ambassador Walton Butterworth ridiculed Diefenbaker’s “psychopathic accusations” of American interference and his prolonged indecisiveness over accepting nuclear warheads for the Bomarc missiles in Canada: “He is [an] undependable, unscrupulous political animal at bay.”

Diefenbaker’s waffling on the nuclear issue—partly originating in his deep distrust of President John Kennedy—was typical of his erratic handling of other issues: rising unemployment, the run on the Canadian dollar, the Cuban crisis, the French fact in Canada. But it was the nuclear issue that finally led to his government’s defeat in the Commons and opened the way for a Liberal minority victory in 1963. After losing the election, Diefenbaker told a friend that he’d originally gone to Ottawa “to see what I could do for the common people and the big people finished me—the most powerful interests.”

That comment defined Diefenbaker’s selfimage. The Tory politician, writes Smith, “built the legend of a morally triumphant underdog, the representative Canadian common man.” But there is more than a legend at work. John Diefenbaker was, and is, a kind of anti-matter in the nation’s molecular structure: a populist from the West who was bred on egalitarianism and unhyphenated Canadianism and who was indifferent or hostile to the English-French duality. He often thundered from the podium: one Canada, without discrimination.

Diefenbaker stood for the demise of the old Canada, with its centralized power-brokering and its domination by Englishand French-Canadian elites. A quarter-century later, the convulsive force for change that he represented is pregnant again in the West, and slouching towards Ottawa to be born. Soon, the crusaders for One Canada of Equal Provinces will lock horns with the nationalists in Quebec and the ineffectual federalists at the centre. What awaits us? Diefenbaker himself, bitterly joking about racist slurs on his German name, once repeated a cruel but appropriate parody of his own reign: Double, Double, Diefentrouble, Diefenboil and Diefenbubble. Diefenbaker is gone but the witches of his time are back at the cauldron.

JAMES STEWART