I came of age politically in the late Fifties and early Sixties in a Liberal household. In my Manichean worldview, the good guys were JFK and Lester Pearson and the bad guys were Richard Nixon and John Diefenbaker. In eighth grade every day at recess, I debated the 1962 federal election with a young Conservative. Two of the earliest political books I read were Theodore White’s heroicization of JFK in The Making of the President 1960 and Peter Newman’s demonization of Diefenbaker in Renegade in Power.
The columnist and author John Ibbitson had a very different political coming of age story. Six years younger than me, his first strong political memory was the Conservative leadership convention in September 1967 that dumped Diefenbaker, much to the dismay of his mother and grandmother in Gravenhurst, Ontario. (I was then leaving to study at a small college near Boston.) Our different perspectives were likely influenced by location and religion (Jewish in Toronto, Protestant in rural Ontario).
In contrast to the adage referring to the (drug) culture, I lived through the Sixties and vividly remember its politics. Ibbitson is a few years too young to remember federal Canadian politics in the early Sixties, so he has just written a book to bring that period to life: The Duel: Diefenbaker, Pearson, and the Making of Modern Canada.
Challenging Conventional Wisdom
Ibbitson has three purposes in the book: first, to challenge Newman’s characterization of Diefenbaker as a “dithering windbag” with few policy accomplishments, now conventional wisdom; second to show the personal similarities and differences between the two men; and third, to outline the connections between Canadian politics, on the one hand, and Canadian and, to an extent global, economics and culture on the other. The first two are directed to people of my generation, who were most likely to admire Pearson and disparage Dief; the third is directed at younger generations, whose knowledge of the social and economic history of the twentieth century is as weak as their knowledge of its political history.
A simple listing of the accomplishments of Diefenbaker’s Governments between 1957 and 1961 refutes the “dithering windbag” image: expanding public health care and appointing the commission that laid the groundwork for Medicare, enhancing public pensions, ending race-based immigration, enacting a Bill of Rights, giving First Nations the right to vote, providing simultaneous translation in the House of Commons, signing the Columbia River Treaty, completing the Trans-Canada Highway, negotiating grain sales with China, reforming the prison system, building the South Saskatchewan Dam, and standing up to apartheid.
This apparent shopping list has several common threads. Referring to his party’s label of Progressive Conservative, Diefenbaker was more progressive than conservative, a prairie populist who was willing to use the public sector to improve people’s lives. Prior to politics, Diefenbaker built his reputation as a criminal defence lawyer and many of his policies reflect concern for the civil rights of the most vulnerable, the people who had been his clients. Because the Fifties and Sixties were years of strong economic growth, Canada had the fiscal resources to support activist government. Finally, there is always a measure of continuity in public policy, often due to the efforts of interest groups outside government and the bureaucracy within. Thus, in many policy areas there was either continuity or evolution among the St. Laurent, Diefenbaker, and Pearson Governments.
Alike and Unalike
Diefenbaker (1895-1979) and Pearson (1897-1972) were contemporaries, which facilities Ibbitson’s biographical approach of cutting from one to the other. Fascinating similarities and differences emerge. Both were born in southern Ontario to petite bourgeoisie families, Diefenbaker the son of a teacher, Pearson of a minister. Both served in World War I, but invalided out and never saw service, Ibbitson suggesting they suffered traumatic stress. Both were interested in policy and politics. Diefenbaker regretted his unusual and Germanic-sounding surname, but Pearson had no such problem. Diefenbaker had a weak father and had an abnormally strong connection to his mother, whereas Pearson had a much more normal family background.
Diefenbaker was a loner, which well suited the performative art of criminal defence. Pearson had a talent for camaraderie and connection, which just as well fits a career in the bureaucracy. So, to explain my title, Diefenbaker was the orator, initially in the courtroom and then on the hustings, whereas Pearson was the smooth operator, initially in the bureaucracy, and then in cabinet.
Like Trump and Biden
The contemporary duo Diefenbaker and Pearson remind me of are Trump and Biden. Both Dief and Pearson were in the political limelight in their late sixties and at that time, when life expectancy was shorter than today, were considered over the hill. Like Trump, Diefenbaker was a powerful orator, holding the party base in thrall. Pearson was an uninspiring orator; like Biden’s stutter, he suffered from a lisp. That said, during the 1963 campaign, my father took me to a Liberal rally that filled the 15,000-seat Maple Leaf Gardens. I remember Pearson sounded enthusiastic as he anticipated victory, though hardly as charismatic as Kennedy. Pearson and Biden are similar in that both had long careers in governance so that when they became head of government they knew how to work the system.
Getting the Context Right
I realize that Ibbitson had to present the cultural and economic history for the benefit of readers younger than myself. But this is history I know, so I skimmed through it only to check whether he got it right, at least by my lights. I discovered two matters I take issue with. Ibbitson writes that after World War II, the anticipated mass employment didn’t occur because of technological progress and economic stimulus provided by government. Ibbitson ignores a third factor, which is pent-up consumer demand after years of rationing. The government was shutting down the wartime economy to provide room for the private sector to satisfy consumer demand. I touched on this in a paper I wrote many years ago about the use of Crown corporations during World War II and their subsequent liquidation.
In discussing the background to post-war Canadian foreign policy towards the Middle East Ibbitson writes, “Now the [holocaust] survivors flooded into Palestine, determined to make a country where they could defend themselves. But Palestine was already occupied, by Arabs. To create a homeland for the Jews could mean evicting Arabs from their homes” (p. 120). Ibbitson wrote before the Hamas War, but these sentences greatly oversimplify the situation in Palestine prior to the partition and repeat the false settler-colonialist narrative. If the book is popular enough to be reprinted, I hope he rewrites this paragraph.
Two Thumbs Up
Overall, I greatly enjoyed Ibbitson’s book. His side-by-side presentation of the two most important Canadian politicians in the years I came of age is fascinating, suspenseful, and well-written. And he has made me reconsider my dismissal of Diefenbaker’s legislative achievements. Coming from this lifelong dyed-in-the-wool Liberal, that’s high praise.