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Heather MacIvor

Whelan: The Man In The Green Stetson, Eugene Whelan and Rick Archbold, Toronto, Irwin Publishing, 1986, 322p; and The Rainmaker: A Passion For Politics, Senator Keith Davey, Toronto, Stoddart, 1986, 383p.

American humorist Kin Hubbard once said that 1f there's any literary ability in a feller, gettin' bounced out of a good government job will bring it out faster'n anything." Since the Liberal defeat of 1984, Canadian bookstore shelves have borne out the truth of this remark. Three members of the Trudeau Cabinet have rushed into print, along with a former member of the PMO and an old backroom boy. Their books sold well or badly depending on the public profile of the author or the apparent relevance of their content to the political dramas of the moment. Regrettably, the stampede to read Senator Keith Davey's indictment of John Turner led many people to overlook the most readable and satisfying book of the whole crop: Whelan: The Man in the Green Stetson. This engaging portrait of a political maverick does much to justify Whelan's complaints that he is constantly underestimated. This, of course, is the theme of every political memoir ever written, but Whelan is an education in the limits of slick imagemakers with their patronising attitude toward little people", notably farmers. Whelan is a clever man and a canny politician, and a good storyteller besides.

Whelan begins in rural Ontario with an absorbing account of a large family struggling through the Depression. The first few chapters, which take Whelan from school to his first public office, his marriage and his entry into Liberal politics, are funny and gracefully written (the latter due in some measure to co-author Rick Archbold). Chapters Four through Seven describe Whelan's years as a backbencher under Pearson. The pages are studded with generous tributes to political luminaries, but there are also shrewd assessments of personal failings. In these chapters the book's major flaw appears: a tendency to self congratulation which mars the account of Whelan's battles in Ottawa. He is far from the worst offender among the political memoirists - and why write an autobiography if not to indulge in a little crowing or perfect hindsight? But watching an author pat his own back is a distasteful experience. Happily, the book usually overcomes this flaw and retains its interest and charm.

The chapters covering Whelan's years under Trudeau, first as parliamentary secretary and then as Minister of Agriculture, provide an unexpected bonus: an often excellent account of how a Cabinet Minister does his or her job - in the department, in caucus, in Cabinet and committees, and on the road. This kind of material is rare in Canada, where too little is known about the daily operations of government. Whelan is an invaluable addition to the academic speculations about the executive at work.

These middle chapters contain many entertaining digressions. One of these is an account of the Cabinet's failure to bail out Quebec dairy farmers in the spring of 1976, an episode which, according to Whelan, gave the Parti Québécois the rural votes it needed for its first majority. (So much for the tons of paper consumed by the academic debate on political ideologies in Quebec!). The tone of the writing starts to sour during the chapter on Trudeaus last decade in power, and the following chapter on Whelan's foreign travels is a welcome relief. He is not afraid to applaud Castro's Cuba, Ariel Sharon's initiatives as Israeli Agriculture Minister, or Princess Anne's earthier remarks. The section about his drinking contests behind the Iron Curtain is wonderful, and the pages about Mikhail Gorbachev revealing and poignant. The story about Gorbachev's meeting with Peter Lougheed is worth the price of the book.

Although Whelan has received far less than its share of attention, the final chapter did raise a few media ripples, It concerns Whelan's quixotic run for the Liberal leadership, his firing by John Turner, and his shabby treatment by the new Conservative government. The book makes clear that there was never any love lost between Whelan and Turner, although the bitterness of the early Turner anecdotes may be partly due to recent events. However, the reasons for Whelan's removal from Turner's Cabinet remain vague. Whelan accuses Turner's aides of convincing the leader that "Big Gene" was a political liability, but doesn't explain. Perhaps Whelan's misquoted remark about Africans not wearing hats, widely interpreted as racist, hurt him more than he likes to admit. Or it may have been his support for Chrétien at the leadership convention. Whatever the reason, Whelan, like practically everyone else concerned, claims to have counselled Turner against an early election call. (If all of these people really did have this much foresight, Turner's judgement must be seriously doubted). The book ends with a plea for a more small-"I" Liberal Party and a veiled incitement to Liberal delegates to vote for a leadership review and bring the party back to the left of centre. These few paragraphs are much gentler, hence less newsworthy, than Davey's frontal assault on Turner, and reflect much better on the author's character and discretion.

Whelan leaves a lasting impression of a shrewd, earthy populist trying to manoeuvre around over educated, out-of-touch bureaucrats and lawyer politicians. The real hero of the book is Whelan's wife Liz. His praise of her support, hard work and courage is frequent and generous, but barely enough for a quarter-century as a politician's wife - a role yet to be adequately studied or appreciated.

There are many contrasts between Whelan and another Liberal memoir, Senator Keith Davey's The Rainmaker: A Passion for Politics. Senator Davey's book failed to incite a revolt against John Turner in November 1986, so the topical interest which stimulated its early sales is no more. The book must now be judged solely' on its merits, which are meagre compared to Whelan. There is no absorbing account of a nascent politician; oddly enough, Christina McCall-Newrnan gave a much better portrait of the young Davey in Grits than Davey himself can muster. From the very first page, the tone of The Rainmaker wobbles uneasily between self-promotion, false humility and stabs at profundity. The writing has none of the charm of Whelan, the content is surprisingly dull, and the observations on Liberal ideology, often muddled.

In the midst of this, three things stand out. One is the large quantity of space devoted to pictures, most of Davey, the rest inscribed to Davey by various political notables. Another is the tendency to insert long lists of "maxims", "commandments" and ground rules", not to mention the names of Davey's favourite political commentators and lengthy quotations from Davey's own report on the media. This is both annoying and strangely pretentious for a man who claims nothing but scorn for pompous intellectuals. Finally, there is a surprisingly good chapter in defence of the Senate. It is heartening to see someone standing up for the valuable work which does occur in Senate committees and occasionally in debate. There are other virtues to the book, primarily some decent anecdotes, but little that is new or enlightening. The portraits of other political figures are especially disappointing, given Davey's intimate association with the great Liberal politicians of the last quarter century. He's too busy crowding the :spotlight, and the famous people he does present remain dim, shadowy figures in the background. Someone with Davey's career should have had a better book in him than this one.

In a way, these two memoirs represent what's right and what's wrong with the current spate of political books. There is great potential for revealing the actual workings of government, and breathing some life into academics' flow charts. There is the chance to enliven dry historical studies with personal anecdotes or a fresh perspective. But there are always the pitfalls of self-promotion, justifying past mistakes, or conducting a literary vendetta against old opponents. Politicians, being human, tend to succumb to these latter temptations.

Heather MacIvor, Parliamentary Intern Ottawa


Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 10 no 1
1987






Last Updated: 2020-03-03