Politicians who never learn

Allan Fotheringham July 19 1999

Politicians who never learn

Allan Fotheringham July 19 1999

Politicians who never learn

Allan Fotheringham

One of the great mysteries of life is why human beings never learn. Children, as we know, never learn: always touch the spot where it says “Wet Paint.” Teenagers, as we know, never learn: don’t drink and drive. Adults, as we know, never learn: cheating on their income tax and their wives.

The greatest mystery of all is why our best and brightest, the politicians at the top of the food chain, never learn.

Neither Napoleon nor Hitler could figure out that Russia had a winter. Harold Macmillan’s government was brought down because war minister John Profumo thought he could lie to the House of Commons about his affair with a tart, Christine Keeler.

And three different NDP governments in British Columbia could never figure out that a certain finance minister had a night job: stealing money from the bingo games attended by loyal socialist little old ladies in blue rinse and tennis shoes.

Bill Clinton once told a friend that at high school in Arkansas he was known as “Fat Boy” because he came to class in overalls and was clumsy at sports. And then found out to his great surprise, that as governor women threw themselves at him.

And so never learned from the warning signal discovered long ago by Henry Kissinger, short, pudgy and ugly, that “power is the great aphrodisiac.” And so allowed himself to be serviced in a pantry just feet away from the presidential desk by a tart who on leaving college and the Pacific Coast boasted that she was taking her “presidential kneepads” to Washington.

Richard Nixon thought Watergate was “a third-rate burglary.” The armed might of America, 30 years after learning that it couldn’t bomb Vietnam into submission, discovered to its surprise that many of the Serbian tanks “destroyed” in Kosovo by those “smart bombs” were in fact wooden dummies painted brown. Joe Clark took seven months to learn the arithmetical impossibility of trying to govern like a majority government when he had a minority government.

The bingo shenanigans of Dave Stupich went on so long, undetected, that they have marred the reputations of two NDP premiers and will undoubtedly finish off a third. He used to sit there, a prim, small man, wearing a bright red sports jacket in his front-bench seat in the B.C. legislature.

Those of us in the Victoria press gallery overhead had a

standing bet: 10 bucks to anybody who could ever catch Stupich smiling. I guess he was concentrating his mind all the time on how he was going to gyp those blue-rinse widows.

Premier Dave Barrett, an honest man, had no idea what Stupich was doing with all that loot from all those basement bingo parlours in Nanaimo. Stupich went on to become Nanaimo’s MP. When a suspicious volunteer ratted on him, the investigation took so long and the taint hung around so persistently that premier Mike Harcourt, an honest man, resigned in exasperation.

The RCMP may always get their man, but they take so long (hello there Bre-X, hello there Alan Eagleson) that the guy is almost dead by the time they get there. They couldn’t figure out why a simple politician with a pension was living in a $700,000 waterfront house on one of the Gulf Islands with his lady.

Now that he has pleaded guilty to fraud, he is a frail 77 and his lawyer is arguing that he not be jailed but have an electronic monitoring beeper attached to his ankle. What do the authorities think he’s gonna do—flee to Mexico? Rob a bank?

The problem is that the politicians never learn, just like the rest of us—but they are supposed to be the smart guys. Bob Woodward, in his latest best-seller, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, explains in wonderment that none of the five presidents who have followed Nixon learned the simple lesson: never try a coverup. It’s always worse than the crime, the goof, whatever.

Gerald Ford tried to convince the American people that he hadn’t made a deal with Nixon for a presidential pardon. The American people didn’t believe him and he lasted just 2lh years. Jimmy Carter came to office with one promise—“I will never tell a lie”—and then tried to badge it to save his friend, budget director Bert Lance, and then of course had to let him go. Jimmy lasted one term.

Ronald Reagan tried to deny everything in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages farce and was caught—too late—by the facts. George Bush claimed he didn’t know anything about it; he lasted one term. Clinton lied, bare-faced, to the voters for seven months about Monica and then, when caught, tried to argue what the meaning of “sex” was.

Woodward, who has covered all of them over 23 years, is astounded at their stupidity. When will they ever learn?