Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Diefentrumper

Denis Smith has been writing about Canadian politics for pushing sixty years, since 1959, indeed. Rock's Mill Press has just brought out an anthology A Dissenting Voice, with selections from that impressive run.

The essay that really hit me between the eyes this weekend is Smith's introduction to a re-edition published in 1973 of Peter C. Newman's 1963 classic of political journalist, Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years . Read this and listen for the echoes:
Newman's thesis about Diefenbaker is, briefly, that ... he was a disappointing "renegade in power - a renegade both to his own cause and to the greater aspirations of the nation he was meant to be governing"; that he might have succeeded if he had taken the advice of the civil service instead of the "political hacks who sought his favours"; that he had "not the least inkling of what he wanted to do when he achieved that high office, and was rendered impotent by the magnitude of the claims its places on its incumbent:" that he cultivated his mystery and isolation and was "preoccupied with... personal stature"; that he always distrusted the establishment and never tried to understand...; that he was administratively inept...: that he could not accept responsibility himself, and constantly found it necessary to shift blame and humiliate his colleagues."
Smith did not accept every aspect of Newman's analysis  -- the "least inkling" part above being one -- and some of his own additions of Diefenbaker are relevant here:
Our task of understanding him is complicated by the existence of a carefully cultivated stage performer. Much of the time, John Diefenbaker was a dramatic performer of great skill... taking and giving great pleasure in the performance... Perhaps we can only know the performer.... The dramatic success may be the real triumph of John Diefenbaker's career.... Dief the public figure was not genuine but a work of art.
By the time he took the party leadership, he was a confirmed outsider, sensitive and lonely in his isolation from the ... establishment, but also conscious that he might use his outsider's status for political advantage.... His outsider's status was a dangerous asset, however, because the cultivated resentment, the jealousy, the distrust that it required could easily overreach themselves...  When his possession of office required magnanimity, he could not manage it.... There was no restraint in it.
Was John Diefenbaker just Donald Trump????

Americans are not outward looking enough to contemplate the possibility that they have resurrected John Diefenbaker to be their new president.  If they were outward-looking, they would never have created President Trump in the first place.

And so they will miss the little sign of hope that Denis Smith left for us in 1973:
John Diefenbaker's career was a spectacular failure.... The government was quite quaintly inept, unable in its confusions even to disguise its ineptitudes...  For the liberal opposition, which expected ten years in the wilderness..., the government's self-inflicted collapse was an unanticipated gift.


Update, January 24:  Denis Smith writes:
Thanks for "The Diefentrumper." I hadn't quite noticed the similarity myself.
Your neat ending of 'Hope!' is more than I can share at the moment, though I hope you are right. Dief's acts in his little sideshow couldn't make much difference to the world. Trump's already do.
Denis Smith, I might note, wrote the major Diefenbaker biography Rogue Tory   And it's  worth stressing the major Dief/Trump differences.  Similar in their self-absorption, their insecurities, their lack of insightor strategic planning -- but Diefenbaker within his limits meant well, respected social norms, and genuinely did aspire to make his country better.  Trump.... nah.

As to hope, President Obama said you don't need to hope when things are going well. It's in the tough times that it comes in handy.
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