One thing John Diefenbaker will never be is a shadow of his former self

Allan Fotheringham December 12 1977

One thing John Diefenbaker will never be is a shadow of his former self

Allan Fotheringham December 12 1977

One thing John Diefenbaker will never be is a shadow of his former self

Allan Fotheringham

The trial that made John Diefenbaker a legend was the defense of Alfred John Atherton, a 22-year-old CNR telegrapher charged with manslaughter after a train wreck at Canoe River, British Columbia, which had killed 17 Korea-bound soldiers. Diefenbaker had to pay $1,500 to join the closed-shop union of BC lawyers for the privilege of defending the 1950 case and discovered early in the trial that the soldiers had been in wooden coaches while officers on the train were in secure steel cars. To his further delight, the prosecutor, the BC deputy attorney general, turned out to have the name of Colonel Eric Peppier K.C. At every possible occasion, Dief laid on the references to “colonel,” all the while hammering away at the contrast between the officers encased in their safe steel cars and the men dying in wooden coaches. As always. Dief had a friend spotted in the gallery to watch the reactions of the jury.

When his spy, a man named Snow, reported the disgust on the faces of one juror in the front row, a First World War veteran, and another in the back row, a Second World War vet. Dief knew he was home free. He won an acquittal for the young telegrapher and marched back to Ottawa to the plaudits of the nation.

The incident is a key to understanding John George Diefenbaker and explaining why this strange man, so reviled by political observers and almost everyone in Ottawa, is still the only mythic figure in our politics. He has a touch for human emotions which has never deserted him—even on these days when he verges on becoming a caricature of himself. He is forever The Outsider in the corridors of power, luxuriating in his exaggerated martyrdom, reveling in the fact that only he knows the truth. The interpretation of him, to the Canadian public, has been done by journalists based on the Ottawa-Toronto circuit who basically feel offended that someone not of the structure can burst into the political scene. Dief epitomizes the distrust felt in this country for the Ontario power circuit. As such he has never been fully understood, has never been explained sympathetically.

Of course he was a terrible prime minister, mystified by decision-making, obsessed by his suffocating inferiority com-

plex, never feeling secure, happy only when appealing directly to the public for succor. Of course his latest apologia, the third volume of his memoirs, is a dreadful self-serving document, always blaming others for his sins. But he has a gift—a gift shared by few others among us—of spotting totems, symbols, rituals that strike a nerve. He may have been a lousy leader; he is excellent litmus paper.

He sits in a chair, in quiet enjoyment of his own notoriety, head shaking with the

riveting fascination of a metronome. At 82, the famous silver and black rivulets of hair still spring from his forehead like the bolts of lightning in those early Duncan Macpherson cartoons, the eyes of evangelical intensity bulging in enhanced horror at the onset of a punch line. He is the raconteur supreme, slowly rearranging the mental furniture, each anecdote sculpted in elaborate sentences, moving sedately to the denouement—remindful of the present 49-year-old Gordie Howe casually, carefully, inexorably boring in on goal—holding off interruptions with a cautionary eyebrow, a threatening finger.

Why, sir, do you feel it so necessary to denigrate in this third volume so many dead people who can’t answer back?

The wattles shake with suppressed glee. “They have had their say. They have given their versions. Now 1 am having mine.”

It is a staggering list of incompetents that he has stumbled upon. In the book Lester Pearson comes out a cheat, George Hees a blubbering fool, Wallace McCutcheon an

incompetent turncoat. Douglas Harkness, whose resignation was “not of great importance,” allegedly needed liquid lubrication before resigning. He is savage to Davie Fulton. John Robarts is unfaithful. Ged Baldwin is petulant. Even Grattan O’Leary somehow comes out a traitor. It is literary necrophilia.

Like all men of surpassing ego, the Chief has few close friends. Only acolytes. (Though he was loyal: both the lawyer who assisted him in that railway wreck trial and the two benchers who eased through his BC license were appointed judges.) Historians might ponder on the fact that Dief—like R. B. Bennett, like Laurier, like Borden, like King—was childless. As such, of course, obsessed with self. (How much of the character of this prim country is a product of such incomplete, driven men who have ruled us as prime ministers?) Equally, one could puzzle over the Tories—supposedly the party of Bay Street—consistently. maddeningly going to the plains of the West for their leaders: Bennett, John

Bracken, Dief, Joe Clark. The pros sneer and the press sneers, but he moves about the country like a stately battleship, enjoying each wave he makes. His deadly tongue is still feared, especially within his own party. He never forgets a slight, nor forgives. In the Commons galleries, when he deigns to appear in the House, the public still tenses, still leans forward when he stands in question period, hands on hips, spurious indignation rising in sheets from him. With a phrase he can still capture a corner of page one, a gift denied his newest leader. He has a connection cord to the public, a nerve end for simplistic issues—a mailbox, a Mountie, a railway telegrapher. He is an anti-Ottawa man, which is why he failed as PM and why he survives as an 82-year-old tribune of the people.

What, sir, is the secret of surviving to 82?

“To make a decision, and to leave it behind. Olive taught me that: ‘Whatever is, is. What is done, is done.’ Never hold a grudge.”

In fact, as his life has shown, he is the world champion grudge-holder. He has never forgotten a single one. That, too, is human.