One of the eternal mysteries of politics is the great word “if.” “If’ this had happened, who would know what might have followed? History is littered with the might-havebeens of “if.”
The most interesting, if not intriguing, “if’ of modern Canadian politics is the puzzlement surrounding John Crosbie. If the most intelligent man never to become prime minister had succeeded in his fumbling goal, what might have happened to this stumbling, staggering country? Who knows? If, if, if.
Part of the mystery unfolds in his autobiography, No Holds Barred: My Life in Politics, to be published by McClelland & Stewart this October. The delightful Crosbie lets his intellectual pants down, as it were, and tells all.
About himself, and about his enemies.
Oh boy, especially about his enemies.
The wonder is that he got as far as he did, considering a family problem. It’s called booze. He was barely born when grandfather Sir John Crosbie—Newfoundland’s minister of finance in 1924—died in 1932 after “a history of alcoholism, like a number of other Crosbie men through the generations.” Young John’s father used to take off on a “bat”—a bender that might last for a week or 10 days. His younger brother, Andrew, who lost the family fortune, was an alcoholic. His older sister had the same problem; fell down the basement steps and broke her neck.
And bookworm John, who had his first glasses at age 8? He likes the gargle, as the Irish call it, but—as he modestly puts it—at Dalhousie law school “I did well scholastically. Of the seven scholarships available to graduating students, I won five and tied for a sixth. I was the University Medallist in law and awarded the Viscount Bennett Fellowship for postgraduate study by the Canadian Bar Association.” No one ever said John was a dull boy, and he proves it in this overlong tome, telling us a little bit more about internecine Newfie politics than we need. It’s good stuff, though, for political junkies and the grand Crosbie gift for invective and gusto shines through.
His hates are wonderful, headed by Joey Smallwood “and his legions of Liberal brothel-creepers.” Joey “was more than a despot. He was corrupt. The only living Father of Confederation not only
betrayed the trust and stole the dreams of the people of our poor province, but also stole their money, living like a colonial King Tut on bribes and kickbacks from people who did business with his government.”
Crosbie, who fled Joey’s cabinet in disgust and joined the Tories, states that he and “my old schoolboy friend Frank Moores,” who became premier in 1972, could have put Joey on trial. “But Frank didn’t have the stomach for putting a living legend behind bars.”
And Moores, who went to a Toronto private school with Crosbie? “Frank is not unintelligent, but he wants to be liked.” He “always enjoyed the good life, the high life, and this didn’t change by one iota when he became premier. He loved travel, fine restaurants, salmon fishing, partridge hunting, women, booze, late nights, and as little work as possible. In the summer, people would say Frank had gone upriver to spawn.”
Senator Pat Carney, I predict, will sue when the book comes out. Sheila Copps? When she was late for a free trade debate, Crosbie helpfully explained to the audience that she had been “delayed because of a mechanical breakdown in her broom.” Clyde Wells? As premier “draping himself in the garb of a Newfoundland patriot and provincial-rights champion, thereby proving one of three things: lawyers have no principles; politicians have no scruples; or the public has no memory. Or all three.”
Businessmen? “Businesspeople will always fail you when a controversy develops. They won’t back you up. When it comes down to a gut fight, they disappear, leaving you stranded.” Maureen McTeer? When Crosbie at the Tory leadership convention was a crucial third behind Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney, Brian Peckford desperately went to the Clark box to plead with him to withdraw. Millions on TV saw Joe shake his head, while Maureen “was more graphic, telling the Newfoundland premier, ‘Fuck off, you nerd.’ ”
A pro all his adult life who overcame his shy, dullard early style with the help of a Dale Carnegie instructor, he is withering with Kim Campbell and “the worst-run, most dispirited campaign” ever. When a top party official arrived to see her on her Montreal-Ottawa campaign bus, she was in a private compartment with her Russian boyfriend. “When the official finally got to see her, her lipstick was smeared and her hair was mussed. It was obvious they’d been necking,” Crosbie observes. “I have nothing at all against sex...” But. If.
He is very gracious, and shrewd, about his famous flameout for the leadership when he equated his lack of French with German and Chinese. He says, accurately, that the Tories can get a majority only if they have a Quebec leader, not a French-speaking leader, but a leader from Quebec.
In the end, he says, stubborn, earnest—and doomed—Joe Clark did the right thing in not surrendering his delegates to Crosbie, knowing that his despised enemy Mulroney would win. The party had to have a bilingual leader. Joe is one who will enjoy this book.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.