Every once in a while a university or high school asks me to speak to their graduating class, and I always start my remarks with the same advice: “If I could say a couple of words to you, before you go out into the cold, cruel world, those words would be, ‘DON'T GO!’ ” I offer the same advice to Joe Clark, who, if the speculation is true, is about to announce his candidacy for the Tory leadership race. It’s a brave idea, but it won’t fly. It’s as unlikely a concept as Allan MacEachen’s claim that he needs free office space in the Senate so that he can offer “non-partisan” counsel.
On paper, Clark’s candidacy is perfect. He has 16 years of parliamentary experience; having been its leader for seven years, he knows the Conservative party inside and out; and he can talk creatively about past and future constitutional reform without falling asleep. History tends to focus on his disastrous term as prime minister, when he seemed so stunned at having defeated Pierre Trudeau that he all but threw away his mandate nine months later, like an unwanted child. Yet even his severest critics agree that as a reluctant member of the Mulroney administration, he turned out to be a good secretary of state for external affairs and a great minister of constitutional affairs.
No doubt, he would at least give what’s left of the once-proud and once-powerful Progressive Conservative party a face and a voice that would command attention.
He is also a rare example of that breed of Conservatives known as Red Tories, who are harder to find these days than whooping cranes. He would not, therefore, be the least bit tempted to accept Preston Manning’s marriage proposals, which amount to a union, not among equals, but the old-fashioned kind in which one partner submerges the other.
Another Red Tory, Hugh Segal, seems bent on winning the Tories’ leadership contest virtually by acclamation if Clark backs out. Segal is a bright and sprightly fellow, a great guy to have on a television show or over for an afternoon tea. But running a government? I don’t think so.
It is easy enough to dismiss the whole leadership exercise as irrelevant, because the Progressive Conservative party is dead anyway, and what does it matter who gives it a decent burial. But that is not necessarily true. There may not be much of a party left in Parliament, but there are Tories out there looking for a new leader. In the last election, the Conservatives received 2,425,748 votes, just 64,330 less than Reform, which went on to become the official Opposition.
At some point in the future, the Liberals will become corrupt and highly vulnerable; it happens to all governments. At that moment, there ought to be a viable alternative that doesn’t carry with it the
negative agenda of the Reform party. Since the NDP remains tied to an ideology that will not fit the global imperatives of the 21st century, a renewed and reformed Conservative party may be the only hope. You don’t just jettison the party of Sir John A. Macdonald that founded this country, has formed 14 governments, and has ruled Canada for a total of 55 of its 131 years. It has always been difficult in Canada to form a national party that represents the country’s regions, and among the opposition parties, the Conservatives have the best chance of doing so again.
Stacked against Joe’s impressive advantages are some overwhelming liabilities: to be hated by the voters is not a politician’s worst nightmare (Trudeau demonstrated that loathing is irrelevant, so long as it is accompanied by respect), it is to be laughed at. Mention Joe Clark, and people smile. (“Hey, did you hear about the time he was presented a pair of cufflinks? Damned if he didn’t go out and get his wrists pierced.”) It is a deadly attribute to face down. It was not Joe Clark, but his untried aides who lost his baggage— but he got blamed because it was what most people thought he would do.
Clark is stuck forever with the thought that he will never set the world on fire, except by accident. There is a physical awkwardness about the Man from High River for which he tries to compensate by sticking out his chin and lowering his voice—presumably so that he looks stronger and sounds more sincere. (If having a large chin and a deep voice had anything to do with political success, Brian Mulroney would have been PM forever.)
Clark’s ultimate failing as a politician is that when he is asked a question, he usually blurts out the truth. Bad strategy. Canadians are so used to their politicians lying that they can’t handle one who doesn’t.
I was reminded of Joe’s problems while recently researching the history of the Calgary Stampede. Part of its mythology is that prime ministers take part in the opening day parade. Pierre Trudeau did, and even though Calgarians hated his guts, they stood up and cheered the fact that he could ride a horse. Joe, who had the chance, didn’t ride in the Stampede. That has nothing to do with running the country, but it is indicative of his image problem. (Jean Chrétien doesn’t ride a horse either, but he’s not from Alberta. At his first Stampede, Chrétien wore his cowboy hat backwards and tucked his pants into his boots. Albertans found that such bad form, they overwhelmingly voted for Presto.)
Joe Clark is a decent man who has contributed more than his share to his country. If he is not fated to be prime minister again, at least he has so far retained his integrity and his honor. To throw his hat in the ring now would make him seem desperate and out of touch with reality.
So Joe, don’t go.
People believe Joe Clark, now a likely candidate to lead the Tories, will never set the world on fire, except by accident
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