CULTURE VULTURES

December 1 2003

CULTURE VULTURES

December 1 2003

CULTURE VULTURES

Entertainment, not content, ruled at the Liberal convention, says RICK SALUTIN

THE LIBERAL leadership nonvention, as a friend called it, came down to a confrontation between two men, representing different generations and world views, one looking proudly to the past, the other gazing hopefully toward the future. They split the two evenings. Thursday night belonged to Paul Anka; Friday night, to Bono.

No, seriously. It shouldn’t be a surprise. We live in an age of culture. Some may say it’s an age of business or economics, but consider the ice time. When Jean Chrétien entered the House 40 years ago, newspapers might have a page on entertainment, mainly movie ads. Now culture fills more space than business does. Newsmag covers show actors, even authors, as much as politicians. Two words: Ronald Reagan. One more: Arnold. People treat their mastery of movie trivia as a serious form of knowledge. Images fill their days: TV, DVDs, MP3s, ads, stuff on the elevator: imagery crowds out reality. Most kids would rather grow up to be anchors than surgeons—and their parents concur. Back then, the word culture barely existed outside anthropology courses. At a political convention, there might be a moment of entertainment as filler, then back to the real thing: speeches, debates, backstabbing. This one was wall-to-wall culture. On Paul Martin’s final, triumphal night, he was the only act who didn’t sing (along with Bono, the exception that proves the rule).

Still, it took me aback because I went to the convention preoccupied with one question: what was the source of Martin’s appeal? What is it about this 65-year-old, stammery, very white guy that causes big lunks to get weak in the knees at the sound of his name, and vibrant youth to high-five deliriously during delegate selection?

I asked Sheila Copps, Martin’s only rival for the leadership. She said it may have to do with him being a successful businessman—an answer that would not have occurred to me and is a tad ironic since Copps is culture minister in this age of culture. But

businessmen have been culture heroes for the past 20 years of free trade and globalization, and Martin is in their lean, mean, plant-closing, money-making mould. We may swim in culture but respect still accrues to capital. Didn’t Martin, according to the bios, forgo a youthful impulse in the 1960s to do good in the Third World, after businessman and powerbroker Maurice Strong advised him to climb the corporate ladder instead as a better route to future political do-gooding? (Making Strong sound a bit

like the seasoned whore taking Fanny Hill under her wing, and leaving us to wonder if his advice was really for the good of Paul/Fanny or the Strongs of the world.)

I also asked Pat Gossage, who served as media coach for Pierre Trudeau (and who endearingly giggles at the thought Trudeau needed to be taught anything about TV). Maybe, I theorized, guys like you who have moved on to lucrative, empty lives in PR feel a residual Athenian pulse, a democratic desire to contribute politically. “That’s kind

of you to say,” he replied, “but really, as with Trudeau, it’s more like hero worship. Not that you think you’ll be like them but you’ll learn from them. Acquire a thicker skin, a bit of serenity, in the shadow of a great leader.” That’s another explanation I would never have considered, though I went through my own long quest for approving, instructive father figures.

It’s also a reminder that brainless adoration of the leader did not start with Paul Martin. I knew a university student years ago named Titch, an energetic kid who would crawl over thorns for a chance to be first to shake John Turner’s hand when he was Liberal leader. There was messianic fervour around Jean Chrétien too, and a cabal ready to drench their hands in Turner’s blood, before Chrétien became boss himself.

And yet Chrétien’s night really belonged to Anka. He burst into the upper rows of the Air Canada Centre, belting his hit of the ’50s, Diana, written when he was 15. The whole Vegas thing: a facelift that’s fine from a distant table but scary up close. No neck, just collar then face. Brimming and oozing at the same time, somehow, with showbiz shtick: kissing folks, pointing from the stage toward people who aren’t out there. Utterly pure bullshit, and great to watch. Pure is pure. I wanted to hop in my car and drive straight to Casino Rama. Maybe Wayne Newton would be there.

The National Film Board made Lonely Boy about Anka in 1962, perhaps the greatest documentary ever. A crew went to Atlantic City to chronicle the homely Ottawa teen’s self-transformation into a U.S. showbiz titan. He told them frankly how he mutilated and rebuilt his old face—and self. His drive to excise his Canadian for an American self was patent, and the Canadians nailed it. On a drive across bleak Newjersey, one of his staff questions why he’s there and Anka spits back, “You know why!” and the film ends. During the explosive, rending free trade election of 1988,1 often thought of Brian Mulroney as Lonely Boy. He even did the stupid pointing thing. Chrétien, up in the stands at the convention, “sitting tall,” as they say, so that he stood out, looked Lonely Boyish too.

Anka sang a Chrétienized version of My Way, with verses about gay marriage and jail-free pot. You could picture Anka, who has no evident principles beyond career ambition, doing a version for George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan too, but you could never

imagine those jokes in the U.S. Matter of fact, for Trudeau’s retirement in 1984, Anka also did a customized My Way. He’s the one who goes on forever. Maybe he should have turned to the Martin side of the ACC and sung, Tall Paul/ He’s my all, as I heard him do—or was it Annette Funicello with him— at a concert in Maple Leaf Gardens about 45 years ago. Culture rules.

Chrétien had seemed to lose his way for most of his mandate, perpetuating Mulroneyite policies like free trade and the GST, or smashing social programs. He also mis-

placed his common touch, epitomized by a TV town hall where he reamed out a waitress. (In the convention video, young Jean Chrétien looked strikingly like the young Brando in On the Waterfront, or perhaps Brando looked like a little guy from Shawinigan.) But Chrétien got it back in his final year—after Paul Martin officially mutinied and left cabinet-not just with gay marriage, dope and Iraq, but campaign finance reform. Had that law existed earlier, perhaps Chrétien would never have needed to genuflect before the big business agenda as he did. He came onstage to Takin’ Care of Busi-

ness— culture again speaking truth to power. He got only one spontaneous standing O, the biggest of the weekend, when he said, “We did not go to war in Iraq.” He wrapped up, “If you remember one thing only, don’t forget your social conscience.” You don’t say that kind of thing unless you already did, or almost did, at least for awhile. In other words: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

CHRÉTIEN only got one spontaneous standing ovation-when he said, ‘We did not go to war in Iraq’

They slotted Sheila Copps’s speech on Friday morning in a cramped space, shabby treatment considering that the convention was culture-heavy, and she has done an impressive job in the culture portfolio. She knew she’d get less than 10 per cent of the vote. She was the candidate of a Liberal party that might have been, had it not morphed into Mulroney Tories, who were then free to vaporize and ascend to their reward in heaven. Her ebullient husband, Austin Thorne, told her before the speech: “Remember, Sheila, we’ve got them right where we want them!”

That night, back under the big top at the ACC for the coronation, Paul and Sheila Martin were unfortunately seated over an exit ramp, lit up and looking like Rick Vaive and Brian Duff doing post-game “analysis” on Leafs TV. Alt-folkie Ron Sexsmith congratulated Paul on becoming leader, then sang Promises are made to be broken. Culture does it again. There were fewer people than at Chrétien night, 24 hours before. Coronations and nonventions, unlike real conventions, have nothing going for them except

show. There are no surprises, so the show better be well-staged. U.S. conventions, which have become coronations, always reserve a little conflict and surprise in areas like policy or vice-president. This one was so scripted it was scary. There was, solely in terms of the trappings, a totalitarian whiff: nothing anywhere in the arena except the new leader’s name and face, which were ubiquitous; no content, not even a hollow slogan; total stress on the man everyone knows so little about. In the Martin area, front row, only one-time Trudeau-era cabinet minister Charles Caccia stood listlessly, stroking his chin, like Victor Borge; others, like McDonald’s Canada founder George Cohon and Maurice Strong, waved Martin signs and swayed.

Then came Bono. The young Liberals in the mosh area before him went wild, as if this was finally proof that they are not nerds. He gave an extremely smart speech. He riffed on why a rock star would be there at all. It wasn’t self-deprecation, as some journalists wrote; he was restating the old contradiction, in a society like ours, between the words rock, connoting rebellion, and star, a sheer commercial term. He said he was not a member of the Liberal party or any party. (In the early days of rock he might have added: I am a socialist, probably a revolutionary one.) He called himself a fan of Canada, including its music. He even knows The Band were mostly Canadian. He said idealism still seems alive here. He has the romantic view of Canada held by others from the British Isles, like Scots John Grierson and Tyrone Guthrie, the guiding geniuses of the NFB and the Stratford Festival respectively, that Canada could still fulfill the promise lost in former colonies like Scotland and Ireland. He said the world needs more Canada—sounding like American Michael Moore, also a Canadaphile. He talked about the failure of the West to come through with foreign aid, forgive poor nations’ debt, the wretched terms of global trade. Paul Martin applauded each point. Maybe Martin is basically an emotional guy, despite all the policy wonking; maybe he brought Bono in to stiffen his spine for when the bankers lean on him. It was better than any speech a politician might give. It sprang from the same impulses as rock: a sense of human vitality and solidarity, embracing life (through sex and other means) despite and in the face of tragedy, personal or social frustration, mortality and death. He ended saying he

was ready to lie down on the tracks to block the new trains of disaster and he thinks Paul Martin is too. I found that image a stretch.

I had run into Cameron Millikin earlier that night. He is 70, a towering Calgarian and long-time—his term—Liberal hack. He recalled Paul Martin Sr. gathering young Liberals in the 1950s, in the pool of the Chateau Laurier at the end of an Ottawa day. Martin Sr. would sit at pool’s edge, dangling his legs and the braces he’d worn since a child-

hood bout of polio, the youth before him, explaining the day’s events. It sounded Socratic. “It was fascinating,” said Millikin. Martin Sr. was a kind man, he added, but pompous. His wife used to take the piss out of him. He dearly loved his son (who also had polio). He was one of only two men Millikin had known, he said, who kissed his adult son on the lips.

So the son, who dearly loved his father back, may have developed the style of a man with an overbearing, loving dad: a listener, an asker and counterpuncher, with that seductive, really-want-to-know-what-youthink manner so often described in an impressed tone by others. It would also account for his less than compelling style as a speaker himself.

His speech that night was leaden. “Pride and values.” A “politics of achievement” for the 21st century. That sounded more like a return to the 19th century: Horatio Alger heroes pulling themselves out of poverty to wealth and success. In French he even called it “reussite” i.e., success. I mean, whatever happened to 20th century models of collective action, socialism, co-ops, the power of the people? Martin had a nice moment, when an (intended) stirring phrase died, and he ad libbed: “I’ve never known how to deliver an applause line.” There it was: his vulnerability (think furrowed brow), which is the source, in my view, of his broader appeal, beyond those who get to be quizzed by him in private. Then back to sludge. “We know what we can do, we know how to do it, we just want to get on with the job.” He sounded like a guy bidding to tile your patio.

Martin popped into the young Liberals’ Paulapalooza party that night to say what a “tremendous” convention it had been, such “overwhelming enthusiasm and optimism.” Believe me, it wasn’t—it was lacklustre, though Paul Martin is certainly entitled to his personal reaction. Next morning he released the text of the speech he wished he’d given instead of the one he gave, the director’s cut as it were, a gesture to touch the heart of any writer who had to meet a deadline too suddenly. He may yet join the line of endearingly eccentric, sometimes nearly nuts, Canadian leaders: Mackenzie King, John Diefenbaker, Trudeau, Chrétien and others too many to list.

That last morning I ran into Titch, who two decades ago strove to touch the hem of Turner’s garment. He’s now a successful, per-

haps I should say achieving, lobbyist after a stint as chief of staff to a minister, and mildly less avid. But what exactly is there to enthuse over about Paul Martin, at least so far? Leaving aside his business success, which is questionable, his big feat was taming the deficit. But was courage involved? All the heavy lifting had been done by the time he got there, the “fiscalization of politics” was complete. Everyone who counted in politics, business and media was on board. Supporting an unbalanced budget would have taken courage by then; you’d have felt like you were farting in public.

He has been brave enough taking money from the poor and university students, and proposed selective abandonment of the multilateralism that his dad espoused. He seemed to honestly regret doing those things, and we may live in a time when people prefer leaders who genuinely feel bad about such deeds— to which they have been told there is no alternative-over leaders like Mike Harris who appear to enjoy them. But we have no idea whether Martin would take on anyone who “counts,” like corporate Canada or the U.S.

(aside from one unavoidable symbolic rebuff to a clumsy and arrogant bank merger).

One of Martin’s manias is the democratic deficit. The nonvention was odd in that light too: a controlled, unspontaneous exercise in power and domination, lacking any debate or content. Zero. For a guy said to adore the free flow of ideas, it was a model of authoritarian clampdown. By default, all

stress fell on the leader like a hammer. Delegates had gaping hours to fill with little to do but wander the halls, rather than discuss, oh, say, Martin’s inclination to join Star Wars—though there were glitzy parties when the days were done. Maybe that aimlessness is what power is about, a sort of nihilism lite—very lite—in Nietzschean terms.

Aside from some scattered good intentions, there’s nothing left. The Liberal party has transformed into a lean, or at any rate mean, neo-neo-con body—but what for? What remains of its purpose? Is it just about stylish Ottawa haircuts and a handful of cabinet posts? What price limos?

DELEGATES had little to do but wander the hallways, rather than discuss, oh, say, Martin’s inclination to join Star Wars

Martin exudes power, says Pat Gossage; he’s an odd combination of indecisive and forceful. Another Nietzschean phrase, the will to power, keeps coming to mind, mostly because it’s hard to say what else the big Martin push over the last decade was for. Maybe sometime in the future, everyone will get to be central and respected and admired. But for now the way it all devolves on the strong leader who takes power without needing to declare any content, feels embarrassing and a bit infantilizing. Surely, as Freud wrote, infantilism was meant to be overcome. I don’t mean to say there is anything deeply sinister about Martin and his cult, nothing along the lines of, say, a Mussolini. It’s far more lightweight and breathless, like, say, an Evita. That would be the musical, not the actual leader.