Ottawa Sun

August, 1997

Grits said Dief was crazy too

By Douglas Fisher
Sun Ottawa Bureau

OTTAWA -- Lucien Bouchard as a very luminous leader is not a new phenomenon. We had another who lasted a long, long time despite aspersions -- John Diefenbaker.

My recall of Diefenbaker is prompted by the big fuss over a revealed evaluation of Quebec Premier Bouchard by a Toronto psychiatrist that was commissioned by Grit MP John Godfrey.

No, Dr. Vivian Rakoff's essay doesn't strike me as a low blow. Partisan politics always produces analyses by the dozen of what has made and motivates this or that political enemy. Yes, most of such is nasty and normally kept within the circle. But there has always been such work, as Justice Minister Anne McLellan reminded reporters looking for a confounded reaction from her on the Bouchard story.

Within political journalism, there is a genre of biographical close-ups, often with some psychobabble. This stuff had a zenith of sorts in Pierre Trudeau's heyday after the way for it had been opened by Peter Newman's best-seller, Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years (1963).

We had literally millions of words about Diefenbaker and Trudeau. Much of it was unflattering. Diefenbaker and Bouchard share a rare quality and power, one that often baffles rational, educated citizens.

Somehow, in 1956, and for over a decade, the Chief got through to many electors as their champion. The majority of ordinary people in English Canada identified with him into the early '60s. Clearly, Bouchard has a similar rapport with many Quebecois. He speaks for them; he is them.

Forty years ago many Canadians were fed up with the Liberals and welcomed Diefenbaker as a savior. There was delight in his hyperbolic antics. His inconsistencies were ignored or forgiven by many. Despite the savage criticism of his leadership which developed in a few years and surged with increasing venom from the business, academic, and journalistic communities, a large core of his voters never deserted the Chief. The attacks, coupled with a clamorous opposition and confusion on Canada-U.S. relations, wore away the big majority. Nonetheless, the Chief's following remained substantial and was never to disintegrate entirely.

Insight from an insider

I recall this insight from an insider just before the Diefenbaker phenomenon flourished. It was in late 1956. George Drew, the Tory leader, was quitting and Diefenbaker won the succession handily, defeating Donald Fleming and Davie Fulton, each an excellent MP.

Before the convention I had a chat with Prof. Arthur Lower, Queen's University, one of Canada's leading historians and a former teacher of mine. I had had been in a Kingston hall in the '53 campaign for a Diefenbaker speech and had found him exuberant and wonderfully mocking about "our Liberal masters."

Lower was an old hand at analyzing politicians. In his middle years, half in jest, he had written a piece that used a classification of human body types -- e.g., endomorph, mesomorph, etc. -- rather than anything Freudian to elucidate the character and attributes of party leaders like William Lyon Mackenzie King and Arthur Meighen.

For several decades, Dr. Lower had been a bosom pal of Jack Pickersgill, a prominent Liberal and a very partisan minister of Louis St. Laurent's government. This day he confided to me that despite Diefenbaker's well-known advocacy of human rights, the man's world view, so reverential towards Britain, had not impressed him and he had worried about his success. However, Pickersgill had just told him not to fret about "Diefenbunker" as Jimmy Gardiner, the testy veteran minister of agriculture, called him.

The two Grit ministers had joked about Dief's instability and lack of stamina. They assured Lower they had "figured Diefenbaker inside and out." He was a vain, self-centered prima donna, neither a real leader nor a team man. The Liberals, they said, would far rather face Dief than either Fleming or Fulton. As for Canadians generally, they were too sensible to swallow his platform histrionics. The verbosity could not disguise the shallowness.

The veteran Gardiner had clinched it for Dr. Lower by telling him: "This man might be dangerous if he weren't such a fool."

So, it strikes me that the defining by those who oppose Lucien Bouchard, as with those who faced and underestimated Dief, may give foolish heart to those vying against him.

Of course, Bouchard can be beaten. But whatever any alleged disorder of his mind, many who speak his language find him magnetic. Put most simply, with sheer presence he stands with them for their nation.

His enemies may tag him as odd or even nuts. That's what the Chief's enemies did, and, oh, how it cost them.

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