Friday, November 16, 2007

Canada's statesman

I have a lot of respect for Joe Clark. More, I think, as time goes by. I just read an article by him in the opinion pages of The Globe and Mail, and while I was reading it, I realized, this man is now the premier statesman of this country, if he hasn't been for a long time already.

I want to be careful what I say about him because some of it is going to sound like faint praise or backhanded compliments, and I really don't intend them that way at all. So my preamble must be to point out that this is man who faced a lot of adversity in his career, but nothing stopped him. Whatever rocks came his way, he just kept hiking on.

I first became acutely politically aware in the 1979 election when Clark was the Progressive Conservatives' freshly-minted new leader. He was facing Pierre Trudeau, who had been prime minister since 1968, and the NDP's Ed Broadbent (another man I think is cut from the same durable cloth as Clark, by the way). What I remember from the time, long before I was old enough to vote, was how wearied everyone was of Trudeau. That was partly his own fault; the man didn't suffer fools lightly, and he seemed to find them everywhere; but also, we were in a bad way economically and he was bearing the brunt. People turned to Clark and the Tories... but not in the numbers he needed. Joe Clark became, at 39 (my age now), the youngest prime minister in Canadian history. But he led a minority government, and he had an unfortunately frank, honest character that didn't serve him well in that role. In other times, in other places, he might have had a long run... and I personally think Canada would have done just fine if he had... but nine months into his government his loose coalition collapsed and his budget was voted down. He was bound by honour and tradition to resign the government to the Governor-General and call an election, which he lost. Trudeau was back in office for his own final term, telling the cameras, "Well, welcome to the 1980s."

That Clark stayed on after that isn't too surprising. He'd been PM; he'd stumbled, but he was still new, young, and remained a viable alternative. Unfortunately, some Tories didn't see it that way, and out of corporate Quebec came Brian Mulroney. Rich, successful, quasi-American, he was everything the business interests in Canada wanted in 24 Sussex Drive. Clark decided he needed a firm mandate, and he called a leadership review in, I believe, 1982. I don't recall now exactly how that was brought about, but I do remember two things about it: he did get a majority, but it wasn't as large as he'd wanted. And so, he voluntarily submitted to a leadership convention for 1983, in which he would face the other contenders... principally, Brian Mulroney.

It was a big mistake. There are a couple of ways you can take it. On one hand, it seems a little arrogant. The party endorses you, but you say, "not good enough", and put their backs to the wall to prove they love you? That might work in the short term, but I think it's a prescription for them to start looking around. Another way of looking at it is as hopelessly idealistic, even naïve; the whole "if you love something, set it free" ethos. I choose to be charitable and see it that way. But I think ultimately, the vibe was, well, if Joe isn't confident in the party even after most of us declared our confidence in him, maybe we do need to offer the crown to someone else. And that's just what they did in May, 1983. Brian Mulroney replaced Joe Clark as Tory leader.

I was cheering for Joe, and disappointed in the result. But, I was a Tory supporter at the time (for what it was worth; I was still too young to vote), and the party said that Brian was our guy. I warmed to Mulroney for a while. The fact that Clark stood by him helped a lot, I think. Not just for me, but for Canadians everywhere. Okay, maybe Clark wasn't our archetype of 'prime ministerial' after the flamboyant bon-vivant Trudeau, but we still knew he was a rock-solid decent guy, and his endorsement meant something.

A lot of people... most people, I think... would have quit at that point; headed off to green corporate or academic pastures, licked their wounds, bided their time (think John Turner). But Clark didn't. He had a job to do, and if it wasn't to be prime minister or leader of the Conservatives, it was to participate in government. And thankfully, he did.

In 1984, the Tories finally got their majority, and it was a huge one. Their first in decades, actually. It didn't take long for the bloom to come off the rose for me; by 1985, I had my first stirrings of real dislike for Mulroney. His cabinet was largely unlikable. Mulroney himself was a loud, arrogant show-off; a real stuffed shirt. He was, in and of himself, the embodiment of everything we feared becoming in drawing too close to the Americans. Mike Wilson was sycophantic and came across kind of weaselly. John Crosbie was a clownish blowhard and a perennial embarrassment to anyone who championed the Conservatives. But in the midst of it all, there was Joe Clark, a team player, doing his job and handling it well. To put it hockey terms, Clark's curse was that he was reasonably good in any position. You put him on that spot on the ice, and he could do it. In a weird way, he was too useful to be the prime minister. During an age of Cold War tensions, "Star Wars" SDI nonsense, and the fight against apartheid, he shone as Minister of External Affairs, giving Canada a good and decent face in foreign capitals and international forums. He was the one guy in the Mulroney government that pretty much anybody could, and pretty much everybody did, like. And he worked all those years under a man who would eventually become the least popular prime minister since such measures started being taken.

When the Mulroney lid finally blew off and the Tories self-destructed... exploded, over and over and over for ten years into more and more fragments... Clark was eventually called upon to perform the thankless task of being a caretaker leader while the broken, bloody, bleeding parts all crawled back together to finally recongeal; midwife at this gory rebirth. What reward was he ever going to get out of that except the knowledge that he answered the call? And I give him credit here, too. He didn't just do a job nobody else would, he did a job nobody else could. And he did it until, as expected, some new young Turk appeared to give him the golden handshake.

When I was younger, I used to feel sorry for Joe Clark. But I'm older now and I don't anymore. Now I just feel admiration and a measure of gratitude. This is a guy who sees what has to be done, and does it. He doesn't show up mugging for the camera and gathering glory; hammer, nails, workboots. Whatever it is, he'll be there, and he'll pitch in, and he'll give it all he's got. To me, he's come to epitomize something truly Canadian; humble, honest, tenacious guts. Like Jimmy Carter in the US, underrated and unappreciated in his lifetime while lesser men garnered far more (and less deserved) praise. It's not about him, it's about the people. The country. The world. Of Joe Clark, I can say this: whatever the job is, he's the guy you want in your corner.


L-girl said...

Thanks for this wonderful history lesson and perspective.

I saw Clark's piece in the G&M, and also remember your mentioning him on wmtc. I barely knew who he was, other than a short-lived PM. Great post, thank you.

M@ said...

This was a great post, and I agree with everything you've said. Clark is an actual statesman; I don't think one could say that about any of the current crop of leaders or their also-rans. (I also agree that Broadbent was cut from the same cloth, and I have an equal measure of respect for him, too.)

I didn't become politically aware until around the 1984 election, so I didn't really know who Clark was (though at age 11, I was already anti-Mulroney -- lord knows where I got that, as my parents are pretty apolitical). It wasn't till much later that I got to understand who and what he was, and I ended up voting PC in 2000 -- the first and, I suspect, last time I'll ever go near that party or its offspring.

Again, great post.