Newsworld Online - Inside Zolf

July, 1997

The Last Best Dief

Larry Zolf

When I was posted in 1970 to Ottawa to cover the War Measures crisis for the CBC, I made a strange discovery. War Measures made me fall madly in love with John George Diefenbaker and I was determined to spend my rapidly declining years with the Chief, alive or dead.

This was a bit of a shocking discovery for me for I had not always felt a fondness for the Chief. I came to Toronto from Winnipeg fleeing family outrage on my intermarriage in early 1957 just a few months before Dief's upset victory. As a Westerner in Toronto I was overjoyed to see Dief win.

But as time passed and I went from Westerner to Torontonian, my attitude to Diefenbaker changed too. I had to admit that Dief's wagging jowls, his jabbing forefinger, his hot style of politics did not go over very well in cool Toronto, my new home.

To Torontonians, Dief was a wild, incoherent plainsman with little or no talent, who had made the Conservatives a laughing stock in Canada. The Arrow fiasco only convinced Toronto that Dief and his cowboys and ploughboys had no administrative or financial skills of any kind whatsoever; they were only hicks and rubes who would reduce all of Canada to little sod huts on the prairies.

Alas, I fell in with these arguments. Dief made me nervous, made me ashamed of my Western heritage. I had a new place in the sun in Toronto and I wanted Dief to go away and take my old heritage with him.

Besides, I found some dangerous undercurrents in the Diefenbaker mantra. By the way Dief talked and what he talked about got him into murky waters. Dief was not a bigot but his opposition to official languages and a distinct society for Quebecers was visceral enough to make the French Canadians see Dief as a racist and visceral enough to make Torontonians see Dief as a stubborn obstacle to peace, order and good government in the land. What was worse, Torontonians thought Dief could even hurt the economy in Toronto.

Many Canadians, especially in the east, still had that view of Dief as late as War Measures. That was an odd animus for Dief to have to bear at the time. The Arrow episode was long gone and so was Dief's leadership of the party.

Dief was now a lone bandit in the House and in the scrums and did not attend Tory caucus. All that was left of the old Chief was Dief's hate lists which festooned his office and his Rockcliffe home.

Say 'Dalton Camp' to Dief and Dief would quickly say back: "I never speak ill of the dead." Say 'Gorgeous George Hees' and Dief would quickly say: "Good looks are no good if you can't think with them." Dief in the '70s was in splendid isolation in Ottawa. He was not really the Last Best West nor was he behaving that way. Dief was simply being himself, being the Last Best Dief. There was a hell of a lot to the Last Best Dief.

Dief's vigorous defence of Trudeau's handling of the War Measures crisis was Dief at his best. Dief had a feel for the October Crisis and he did not throw any fuel on the burning fires of October.

The Crisis put Dief and I together. Knowlton Nash, my boss, asked me to do a half hour long interview with Diefenbaker "to reassue the nation." I was to pick up Dief in a cab and bring him to the CBC TV studio.

I arrived at Dief's home to find an armed camp. Dief was on the FLQ's assassination list and Trudeau and company were certainly taking no chances. There were about a hundred soldiers scattered on the roof, the front lawns, the back lawns, the living room, the kitchen. Dief greeted me heartily: "I've got enough troops here to conquer Cuba - or arrest Dalton and Flora."

Dief showed me the mail he was getting on War Measures. The little people all over the country were now agreeing with him, were now wishing him well. To me, Diefenbaker no longer looked like an isolated, lonely politician with no friends or no influence. Reading his letters out loud, acting them out, giving them a new life of their own, made Diefenbaker look like a powerful driving force for the good of Canada.

Dief and I got into the back of the cab. A young soldier with a submachine gun joined the cab driver in the front. The CBC studio unfortunately had a cul de sac leading into it which took many cars away from the CBC studio rather than to it.

The cab driver mistakenly took the cul de sac. He was driving way from the studio. The young soldier, suspecting FLQ foul play, stuck the barrel of the gun into the cab driver's head. "Bless you, my boy, for your vigilance," said Dief. "But I know this driver well. He votes for me. You can be sure he won't kill me!" Still, we drove to the studio with the submachine gun still pointed at the driver's head all the way.

Dief was brilliant in the interview as he marched through the ghosts of Canada Past and Canada Present and looked at Canada-to-be, all in aid of his beleaguered country. All this was a little known Dief. This was Dief the unifier, the pacifier, the holistic magician.

Dief trusted me and I began to spread the gospel of the Last Best Dief everywhere I could. In Dief's lexicon of hates, Flora MacDonald, the Tory minister from Kingston, had a prominent place. Dief felt Flora had betrayed him to the hated Dalton Camp.

Years had passed since the feud. One day Dief turned to me in his office and said; "You know, Larry, Flora MacDonald must be the finest woman to walk the streets of Kingston since Confederation."

It was a brilliant line and he had hoisted the formidable Flora on it. Dief had polished the line for days. He knew his calling Flora a hooker would work simply because it was all so wonderfully improbable.

One day a civil servant friend of mine took me down to his rec room to show me his latest acquisition. It was a full wall length of Dief's beloved Red Ensign flag. "Why have you got it, Merv?" I asked. "Well," said Merv, the civil servant, "they're burning the Red Ensign, as we speak, in the furnaces of Public Works." "Do you mind if I tell that to Dief?" "Don't mention my name if you do."

The next day in the parliamentary restaurant, I watched Dief gumming to death his small steak and as he finished chewing the last piece, I walked up to him and said: "Mr. Diefenbaker, would it interest you to know that the Red Ensign that the boys fought under at Ypres, Cambrai, Vimy Ridge, Hong Kong and Normandy is now being put to the torch in the ovens at Public Works?" Dief jumped up from the table and was ready for war right there and then.

Dief's question on the order paper was: How many Red Ensigns were there in use in a) 1931, b) 1941, c) 1951 and how many Red Ensigns still existed today? Then Dief screamed: "Infidels, incendiaries!" at the government Grit benches and sat down. Dief got to ask that question again 10 times more before the government promised to burn no more Red Ensigns. Dief was in Red Ensign heaven and all because of little old me.

Once Diefenaker was laughed at and even booed in the House. Dief was asking why the royal coat of arms had been removed from government cheques. The Liberal minister said: "I made the decision after checking with the RCMP." Dief's beloved Mounties had done this dastardly deed. Dief was crestfallen and the whole House laughed at the Mountie betrayal of Dief.

The minister who had given the answer was a witless Winnipeger. I tape recorded an interview with him in the lobby and 6 times on my tape, he confessed the Mounties had nothing to do with the coat of arms decision.

I knew Dief was flying to Winnipeg to give a speech that evening. He could use my tape. He did so devastatingly and even thanked me in the Last Best Dief way: "I couldn't have done this without the help of a Winnipeger. You all know him. He has a big nose and he's at the CBC. I can't give you his name. It's against CBC policy."

In a way, Dief and I were a Jake and the Kid team with Dief as the kid, as the brat as the wit, as the hypersensitive leader and Old Me as good old reliable Jake. Dief was one of my best friends on the Hill in Ottawa.

Dief was certainly unforgettable in life. In death he cost the taxpayers a fortune for the most expensive state funeral in the history of Canada. Dief was not my hero; my views were not his; my vision of Canada was not his.

But he and I as pranksters were a great and lively team. I was lucky to catch the Last Best Dief in its full glory. It made me a small part in the living legend that was Dief as Chief. Today, I still miss Dief the Chief but I miss Dief's mischief even more.

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