Author Tags: History, Politics
It’s a safe bet that most Canadians under 40 have little recollection of B.C.-based John Turner who was the prime minister from June to September of 1984. Turner’s short term as PM was only 10 days longer than that of Sir Charles Tupper in 1896, making him the second-shortest serving Canadian leader in history. Many people under 30 have no idea who he is.
Our reviewer Shane McCune reports Carleton University historian Paul Litt’s brisk account of Turner’s life and times is well-paced, the characters are vividly drawn and the research is exhaustive.
Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner by Paul Litt (UBC Press $39.95)
The heading on Paul Litt’s introduction to Elusive Destiny is “The right man at the wrong time.”
Throughout the book Litt keeps circling back to that theme, that Turner was a great prime minister manqué, thwarted by bad luck and bad timing.
One can just as easily argue that Turner was one very lucky guy.
His widowed mother snagged a civil service job during the Depression and was able to send her son to private schools, where he was a popular and accomplished scholar and athlete. After the war his mother married a wealthy industrialist and the family settled in a Point Grey mansion with an indoor pool.
He was a big man on campus at the University of B.C., hosting fraternity parties and writing a sports column in the Ubyssey under his new nickname, Chick.
He was also a track star, bound for the 1948 Canadian Olympic trials until a car crash wrecked his knee. He earned a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, where he made contacts that would prove invaluable. His stepfather’s connections landed him a job in a prestigious Montreal law firm.
Political contacts helped him sidestep the Quebec bar exams. He became friends with Robert Kennedy, attended Canadiens games with Maurice Duplessis and dated Princess Margaret.
Not exactly a hard-luck story.
He won his first election campaign in Montreal in 1962, aided in part by computer analysis of the riding by the smart and monied Geills Kilgour, whom he married in 1963.
Just three years later he ran for the Liberal Party leadership, casting himself as the bold young champion of a new generation.
“I’m not bidding now for your consideration at some vague convention in 1984 perhaps when I’ve mellowed a bit,” he announced with eerie prescience. “My time is now and now is no time for mellow men.”
But the new generation was falling hard for Pierre Trudeau, 10 years Turner’s senior. Trudeau won on the fourth ballot with 1,202 votes to 954 for Trade and Commerce Minister Robert Winters and 195 for Turner, who had refused to concede or throw his support to another candidate. The “195 club” formed the core of a political network that would stand by him at his next run for the leadership, though Litt says it was never the well-oiled political machine outsiders liked to imagine.
Following the 1968 landslide, Trudeau named Turner justice minister. Litt reminds us that it fell to Turner, a Catholic, to guide through Parliament legislation stiffening penalties for drunk driving, relaxing the ban on abortion and legalizing homo-
sexuality — though he didn’t exactly celebrate those ideals.
“The conduct contemplated in this clause, homosexual acts between consenting adults in private, is repugnant . . . to the great majority of the people of Canada,” he told the Commons.
Another task that Turner found distasteful was the implementation of the War Measures Act in October 1970 in response to FLQ kidnapping and murder.
Yet none of these affronts to his own principles was enough to push him to resign, so why did he suddenly quit as finance minister in 1975?
Litt hints it might have been disappointment at Turner’s inability to coax labour and business to agree to voluntary wage and price controls, or to spur his cabinet colleagues to greater spending cuts to rein in inflation. But then the author concedes it just wasn’t in Turner’s interest to stay.
“He had done everything he could do in federal politics, short of being prime minister, and that job wasn’t available.”
For the next few years Turner tried to keep his name in the public eye while avoiding public criticism of his former colleagues. But several speeches and articles critical of the Liberal government increased the gulf between Turner and Trudeau.
This growing enmity, and the way proxies for the duellists waged war for the next few years, provides some of Elusive Destiny’s richest material, at least for those of us political junkies who can’t get enough of this stuff.
Given his 11 years as a dauphin waiting for the king’s exit, it came as a shock to the Liberal system that when Joe Clark formed a minority government in 1979 and Trudeau announced his retirement, John Turner said he would not seek the leadership.
“If he truly lusted after power, this was his moment to jump in, fight for the prize, and seize his destiny,” Litt writes. “Instead, he was ambivalent and hesitant—not the qualities required for the cutthroat competition of national politics.”
And a good thing, too. Trudeau’s retirement lasted exactly as long as it took for Clark to self-destruct. Trudeau roared back with another majority in 1980, once more putting on ice any prime ministerial ambitions Turner might have had.
He had other consolations. According to Litt, in 1983 Turner’s law firm was billing more than $20 million a year, and Turner’s personal income was reputedly around $350,000 annually. He raked in six figures just in director’s fees from the 17 corporate boards on which he sat.
When Trudeau finally retired in 1984, Turner, after some hesitation, deigned to let his name stand for nomination. He conveyed an attitude of a party stalwart who had been waiting long enough and now expected his due, but he had been a private citizen for almost nine years and had not even taken baby steps toward building a campaign machine.
Litt quotes one party insider after another describing the utter chaos of Turner’s campaign. His supporters and the press had been expecting a slick machine oiled and ready for the flick of a switch. What they saw instead was rust.
One journalist wrote that Turner on a campaign swing “creaked and scraped and stumbled like the Tin Man waking up in Oz and looking for an oil can.”
The term “yesterday’s man” began to crop up.
Turner somehow defeated Jean Chrétien to win the nomination, but he still looked uncomfortable campaigning, especially on TV, where his sweaty face, alarmingly intense eyes and constant throat-clearing bark made him too “hot” for the “cool” medium.
And then there was the bum-patting. On Friday the 13th of July, during a campaign event in Edmonton, CTV cameras caught Turner patting party president Iona Campagnolo on the behind. The network didn’t run the footage until a few days later, when he did the same to a female party official in Quebec.
“Turner had been warned about patting bums during the leadership race,” Litt writes. “The warning didn’t register, because he thought he needed no advice on gender relations. There were a number of strong women in his life, and he treated them with respect. He encouraged women to enter politics and strongly endorsed women’s causes.”
But Litt does note that Turner made things worse by refusing to apologize, which allowed the issue to fester, in contrast with Brian Mulroney’s apology for the “old whore” patronage remark about Bryce Mackasey. Feminists produced “bum shields” and reporters dubbed Turner’s campaign plane “DerriAir.”
Turner was already sinking by the time of the debate. The Liberals emerged from the vote with 40 seats, their lowest ever (until 2011).
In the aftermath, pundits offered various explanations of the Liberal collapse. Turner had mistakenly taken the party to the right, allowing Mulroney to outmanoeuvre him toward the centre. Or he was doomed by pent-up resentment of Pierre Trudeau. Or the media had ganged up on him unfairly.
Litt finds a measure of truth in all of these theories, but allows that “some of the blame must be laid on Turner.” And what were Turner’s sins? Being too high-minded, the author argues. Turner didn’t want to be “seen as grasping for power.” He tried to micro-manage the campaign not because he was a control freak but out of “a misplaced sense of responsibility.”
After saying that it is facile to blame the media, Litt claims mere “missteps” such as bum-patting and wilting in the debate “might have been incidental under different circumstances”—namely, a world in which elections did not depend on the candidate’s image on TV and treatment at the hands of journalists.
That world had evaporated 24 years earlier during the Nixon-Kennedy debates, and many politicians less experienced and less likeable than Turner (Bill Bennett, Gordon Campbell and Stephen Harper, to name three) have engineered electoral success despite a notable lack of warmth or wit.
Nonetheless Litt nails the electorate’s attitude at the chapter’s close:
“Canadians ended up with a prime minister they didn’t really like or trust because, compared with his rival, he seemed a less embarrassing representative of the nation.”
Following the election debacle, many thought Turner would resign immediately, and many thought he should. Litt recounts stunning incidents of brazen back-stabbing by supporters of Trudeau and Chrétien, who campaigned openly for a leadership review at the party’s 1986 convention.
The author singles out Keith Davey, the Liberals’ longtime “rainmaker” and a Trudeau loyalist who eventually shifted his allegiance to Chrétien. Litt flatly states Davey spread rumours that Turner, like his mother, had Alzheimer’s, and contends that inaccuracies in Davey’s 1984 autobiography smack of a rushed job to hit the bookstands in time for the 1986 convention.
But the anti-Turner forces overplayed their hand, producing a backlash that scotched any thought of a leadership review. That might have been a mistake. Turner entered the 1988 campaign with his party still in disarray. He more than doubled the party’s seat total to 82, but that still left Mulroney with a second majority. Turner resigned soon afterward.
Elusive Destiny was written with Turner’s co-operation, and he agreed to speak about it at the Economic Club of Canada in November. It may not be a warts-and-all portrait, but for an authorized biography it has an ample supply of cringe-inducing vignettes and critical observations.
“When he returned to public life, he could be remarkably maladroit even after he had time to adjust to the new political environment . . . .
“He was no longer the lean and hungry up-and-comer but an elder who felt he had paid his dues and deserved respect. Years of adulation in the private sector had reinforced this mindset, instilled habits of indulgence, and conditioned him to deference rather than dissent. Ironically, the post-1984 Turner seemed something of the
‘mellow man’ the young Turner had warned against in 1968.”
Litt says little about Turner’s family life, offering only occasional glimpses of Geills, who by most accounts played a major role in Turner’s decision-making. The author obliquely acknowledges rumours that Turner was too fond of Scotch, but neither confirms nor denies them. By and large he sticks to politics and politicians.
“If Turner had been elected in 1984 or 1988, in all likelihood he would have been a successful prime minister,” Litt insists.
It depends how you define success, perhaps. The cruel but obvious question is: Why read a biography of a man who seems noteworthy only in the degree of his political failure?
Turner was a competent administrator who wanted to be PM, not because he had any great vision for Canada, but because it’s good to be king.
Ditto for Chrétien and Paul Martin.
And if Jean Chrétien was Cassius to Turner’s Caesar, the same could be said of Brian Mulroney’s earlier ouster of Joe Clark or, for that matter, Paul Martin’s subsequent knife job on Chrétien.
Litt even suggests Turner’s painstaking rehabilitation of the Liberal party laid the groundwork for its return to power. But come on—the 1993 election result was all about Mulroney. If you’re looking for a Greek drama of hubris and retribution, gather the chorus around the party that nosedived from 169 seats to two, not the one that fell from 147 to 40. 978-0-7748-2264-0
Review by Shane McCune, a former Province columnist who freelances from Comox.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner