COLUMN

The Liberals' night of nostalgia

Allan Fotheringham January 20 1997
COLUMN

The Liberals' night of nostalgia

Allan Fotheringham January 20 1997

The Liberals' night of nostalgia

COLUMN

Allan Fotheringham

There is nothing like the last liberal lions, growling while rubbing one another’s fur, as they gather over cocktails. No longer in power— while knowing they could do better than the present lot— they luxuriate in their memories, content that they knew better.

This would be the collection of the Liberal Party Establishment, on a terribly snowy night, collected to honor The Rainmaker himself, just-retired senator Keith Davey who epitomizes everything that the natural governing party has known for almost all this century—it was born to rule.

They are gathered, some 1,000 strong, at the University of Toronto— where Davey started out four decades earlier. As a tribute, they have collected $125,000 to launch an annual lecture series in his name, and we can assume that neither Newt Gingrich nor Maggie Thatcher will be future speakers.

The star attraction this night is John Kenneth Galbraith, who stretches six-foot-eight into the ozone, requiring that the introductory speakers must stand on a pink suitcase so as to reach the microphone that is ratcheted to his oxygen level. The ambitious U of T president Rob Prichard, who not-so-secretly wants to be a Liberal prime minister, introduces him as “the only economist alive who can make people laugh”—which is true.

Someone once described Galbraith and Marshall McLuhan as “the most famous Canadians the United States has ever produced,” which is also true. Galbraith, with his 44 honorary degrees and solid credentials as a Harvard/Kennedy family guru, glories in his birth at Iona Station, Ont., and the fact he somehow graduated from Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph.

He is now 88 and delivers his usual droll asides—“the American war against the poor, having been won.” On the Republican trickledown theory, slashing taxes to goose investment while also cutting welfare rates, “it all boils down to the slightly improbable case that the rich are not working because they have too little income, while the poor are not working because they have too much.”

This, he explains, is “the horse-and-sparrow theory of economics in which if you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrow.” This is all good stuff, but what the last lions of liberalism are really looking for is the post-speech trek across the street for drinks. The Galbraith speech was scheduled for the unusual hour of 4 p.m., so the gang got into the cocktails at Davey’s old stamping grounds at the usual, suitable time of day.

To see and be seen. This is what such gatherings are for. Whose jowls have slipped another notch? Who is in last year’s fashions? The last liberals must check the faces to see who is still faithful, who is still kicking.

There is half a Trudeau cabinet still answering the call. Alastair Gillespie, once the most handsome man in Canadian politics, now merely the most charming. Barney Danson. The towering Donald Macdonald, his head above the crowd. Senator Jerry Grafstein of course is about. All the old fund-raisers, what they would call in Chicago ward-heelers.

Someone remarks that in this room, over the scotch, you could probably construct a cabinet that would be better than those party junior clowns now so besmirching the Liberal name in Ottawa. As the snow keeps falling, all safe and warm inside, there is this contentment, this serene belief that these guys would never have fallen into this magnificent Airbus bollix with apologies that aren’t apologies flying about and everyone dodging blame and the promising career of Allan Rock headed south.

As the cameras follow the giraffelike figure of Galbraith about, pressing bodies as usual surround the other last liberal still growling, Pierre Trudeau, looking taut and old. Lurking at the back is John Nunziata, the skunk at the garden party, turfed out of the stern Chrétien party by daring to state over the GST that the emperor wears no clothes.

The usual Liberal-watchers lurk, looking for insights. The Toronto Stars Richard Gwyn. Massey College’s John Fraser. Toronto Life gossipmeister Patricia Best. The Globe's John Gray and Andrew Cohen. All the academic greats look down, in their scarlet gowns, from their expansive portraits, on Hermès-draped disciples of Galbraith and Davey and Trudeau. Tom Axworthy, Trudeau’s amanuensis in a thick academic sweater, is here, down from Montreal.

There is an air in the room that—look around us—this was indeed the best and the brightest, the gang that kept Quebec in Canada, the last of the Liberal party before that province deserted for the only time one of their own who, after all, is prime minister of the realm. Unspoken, of course—save for the raised eyebrows and the mutters in the men’s loo—were the embarrassing, clinging thoughts of all. How those dummkopfs on the Rideau had to \ knuckle under to the again-triumphant Mulroney.

How Rock didn’t know how to apologize and Gray knew but didn’t tell and the RCMP guy couldn’t read his lunch and Chrétien j supposedly didn’t know and if he didn’t, he should have.

There was an atmosphere of smug content. This wouldn’t have ¡ happened under our watch. And the snow continued to come down.