01.17.2011 02:27 PM

Sen. Keith Davey: A giant is gone

Story from today, here; story from years ago, below.

I will miss him very much.

The Rainmaker: After 50 years in politics, 30 in the Senate, Keith Davey is still using his political magic and savvy
By Susan Kastner
29 September 1996

Even though winter is on its way and his stooping head shines silver, the Rainmaker can still bring out the faithful.

At an early morning fundraiser in Toronto, a gaggle of well-shod Liberal muffin nibblers gather to see if Keith Davey – after five decades at it, after officially retiring – can still shower lifegiving rain on their arid provincial voterscape.

He left the Senate in June, he’s supposed to be smelling roses. But at the Rainman’s right hand sits new protege Gerard Kennedy, the young food bank firebrand turned Liberal by-election star, a putative provincial prince.

“I know you thought I’d quit but I haven’t,” Keith Davey chuckles, hunching into the meeting like a race car driver revving into high.

At 70, after 30 years in the Senate, 50 years in politics, Canada’s longest-lived and most frequently resurrected political warhorse exudes his olden, golden relish, suffuses the room with his olden, golden twinkle. But his stoop is sharper, his white hair thinner, his pale eyes paler than they used to be.

September sunshine touches the earnest spectacles of the 35-year-old contender, a new Liberal generation tensing for tutelage. Kennedy’s is the highest profile in a field of half a dozen longer-pedigreed leadership candidates; the latest in an eclectic lineup of Davey picks and patrons that stretches from Toronto Mayor Barbara Hall, Justice Minister Allan Rock and hockey great Red Kelly, back to Liberal prime ministers all the way to Lester Pearson.

“I’m sure The Leader will be pleased to answer your questions,” the Rainmaker urges the crowd. It’s super-Daveyism, optimism bordering on hubris. Not just his signature It’s never over till it’s over, but It’s a done deal even before it’s begun.

Around the long shining table, two dozen clubby Liberals in a clubby private breakfast room chuckle and prepare to play a familiar game; $250 apiece invested to test their hopes and float their doubts, put the princeling and his handlers through their paces.

The Rainmaker rests chin on hands, his pale eyes weigh the crowd. A few seats away, her strong unvarnished hands curved and tense, Davey’s wife Dorothy, his longtime helpmate, shield, and strong right arm, watches, too.

But though the faithful chuckle they don’t relax. The Rainman has brought them out. Can he make them believe?

About the only thing in the world which I pride myself on knowing better than most is how to read an audience of Grits. I know what they want to hear in any given situation.

– The Rainmaker, Keith Davey’s 1986 tell-almost-all memoirs.

Descriptions of himself The Rainmaker likes to recall:

A 1984 encomium from U.S. pollster Lou Harris, whom Davey introduced to Canadian politics 20-some years earlier:

Keith, you possess the keenest ability to know what needs to be done to win elections, then how to do it consummately, and, finally, just what intelligent, humane, and decent government should be. You are rare in the annals of power and a thorough credit to the human race. And the lovely Dorothy makes you and your capacities all the better.

A 1970 newspaper account by the late Sandy Ross, who had helped write Davey’s 1969 Senate committee report on the media:

The players would be floundering and . . . Davey would lope in – sideburns, sharp suit, hulking football shoulders, black briefcase, always armed with a new piece of funny gossip – and simply dissolve the problem with a few amazing words. I saw this happen often enough to be persuaded that the man really does have a knack for extracting the essentials from a situation, then coming up with a policy in response to it.

A photo inscription from Davey’s brightest hero, Pierre Elliott Trudeau after the Davey-run victory of 1974: To Keith Davey, who made the sun shine. With a thousand thanks.

The way he describes himself: “A wide-eyed pragmatist.” And, “a heckuva lucky guy.”

The care and feeding of journalists: advice to aspiring politicians: No matter how close your relationship with any member of the working press, that person will put his craft ahead of your friendship. – part of the teachings at Campaign College, co-founded by Davey in the ’70s.

“Are you sure the Senator is coming today?”

How can the Park Plaza maitre d’ doubt? At the stroke of 8 a.m., here he is, sure as rain and faxes, blue striped shirt, white collar, a spunky forward stoop. “I’m here most mornings.”

Friends and contacts, many with similarly silvering hair, work neighboring tables. Senator Jerry Grafstein glows by, in a dress shirt of deepest pink.

Publishing doyen Jack McClelland breakfasts on his own against a wall. Words were had, it was reported, on the publication of the Senator’s 1986 memoir The Rainmaker; McClelland deploring the Davey assault on beleaguered leader John Turner as a nefarious publicity ploy – hard words from the man who pretty well invented book publicity.

The senatorial Davey twinkle prevails. Murmured drawling compliments, familiar anecdotes, a couple of barbs. Everyone mostly is: A really nice man. I like him. Except. . . .

He brings copies of his Senate valedictory on June 20, the gently-roasted tributelets rolling down the Red Chamber to the retiring kingpin. He brings his retirement party speech, and a list of presents: from Senator Jerry, who is inheriting Davey’s Senate office, a solid gold lapel pin: an L cuddling a maple leaf. From all of them: a Canadian flag, seasoned by 10 years atop the Peace Tower. And, a lecture series in his name at his alma mater: starting next January, the Keith Davey Lecture in political science at Victoria University.

“Pierre refused to kick off with the first. He said, you know I never do that sort of thing for anybody, I won’t even do it for you. Will you be there? I said to him. Yes, all things being equal, I’ll be there. He was there for my book launches, of course. We still speak regularly. . . .

Pierre Elliott Trudeau: the hero for whom Keith Davey’s heart beats fastest, still.

Davey’s friends worry about him getting his due, staying plugged in, feeling needed.

Jerry Grafstein, who says Davey “invented” him, insists the unique Davey magic will always be indispensable.

“I’m just the depressed little neurotic guy at a gathering. Keith has the gift of making people feel good. You’re either born with that or you’re not. He’s a genuine democrat. You’ll see all kinds of people at his place, big guys, little guys. He treats everyone exactly the same way. He’s the true common man.”

The cheques to fund the Keith Davey Lecture, 100 big fat ones, were gathered by Grafstein. Even Pierre is said to have kicked in.

Keith Davey was born in Toronto on April 21, 1926 – the same day as the Queen, who evinced no interest in the fact when Davey was presented to the Royals several decades later. His father was the late veteran Toronto Star production manager Charles Minto Davey, universally known as Scotty – “a natural PR man. He wouldn’t have called himself that, he wouldn’t even have known the term. But he could make people feel good about things.”

The Daveys were strong United Church people; young Keith had a passion for sports though not for schoolwork, thought of becoming a minister.

A North Toronto Collegiate teacher advised him to stay out of pro sports; a divinity professor at Victoria College urged him to forget about going into the church.

At university Davey ran pep rallies, fell in love with campus politics, overcame a brief infatuation with the socialist CCF, precursor of the NDP.

By the time he got his BA in 1949, he was president of the Toronto and Yorks Young Liberals; by the early ’50s the fledgling Rainmaker had settled in to his future. Married to college sweetheart Isobel Hart – they had three children, Doug, now 40, Ian, 38, and Cathy, 33 – Davey worked by day as an ad salesman at Foster Hewitt’s rinkydink sports station CKFH, worked the provincial backrooms by night. His reputation grew as an organizer, networker, one who could rally the troops.

At the 1957 leadership convention to replace Louis St. Laurent, Davey was with the winning team: Lester Pearson and his brilliant political economist amanuensis Walter Gordon. In 1961, the gung-ho young turk, though still little known in federal politics, was named national director of the party.

It was after the 1963 Pearson rout of John Diefenbaker’s Tories that newspaper columnist Scott Young first dubbed Davey The Rainmaker.

But by 1966, mindful of the uncertainties of political weather, Davey moved to create a solid base for all future dealing. At the age of 39, against Pearson’s doubts, Keith Davey managed to get himself appointed to the Senate – a couple of months short of his 40th birthday, the youngest appointee ever.

It didn’t pay enough to support a growing family – he established himself as a political consultant, too. But it kept his skills razor keen, and it kept the Rainmaker at action central – through years in and out of political vogue: embraced and discarded and rediscovered, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by leader after leader: from Trudeau to John Turner, Jean Chretien, David Peterson. He would emerge a figure of legend: the most indestructible backroom Roman of them all.

“Keith is such a fan. The ultimate fan, in politics and in sport,” says PR wizard Patrick Gossage, Trudeau’s press secretary in the ’70s.

“His most valuable lesson, absolutely without question: You’re on a winning team until you lose. Until the CBC declares you’re on the floor. A tremendous lesson.

“You can’t find anyone to say a bad word about him. He has no skeletons,” Gossage says. “And he’s such a good source. Nobody burns a source: someone who always answers the phone, always gets you the info, always puts you in touch.

“Trudeau would get bored with Davey and (fellow veteran strategist) Jim Coutts. They were such politics freaks; he couldn’t care less about politics. But he really came to value what Keith had to offer.

“That’s why they keep calling on Keith. Strategy, networking, instinct. He’s all there.”

Although Dorothy Speare and Keith Davey graduated from University of Toronto the same year, it was more than a decade and a half before they would meet.

“At university, I knew who he was. Everybody knew who he was,” Dorothy says. But when they met in 1966, he was ascending to the Senate and she was Dorothy Petrie, married and with two young sons, a rising back room star in provincial politics, lauded as a natural organizer, high-personality, sharp and savvy.

By the 1968 leadership convention she was a major Toronto force, and serious supporter of Paul Hellyer, as, unofficially, was Davey.

After the 1974 Trudeau sweep (Dorothy the chairman of the provincial campaign), she and Davey flanked the victors at the victory party table: Dorothy next to the prime minister, Keith next to Margaret Trudeau: the backroom royal couple mirroring the front-of-house stars.

There was talk: press friends warned Davey of “potentially damaging gossip which fortunately never materialized.”

The following year, they both left their marriages. Dorothy was appointed to the Citizenship Court, two years later, to the Immigration Appeal Board. She retired as chair of the board two years ago.

Keith and Dorothy married in 1978. It was a mating of souls.

Dorothy’s son’s Greg and Bill were grown, as were Keith’s, but, Davey says, the split was tough on daughter Cathy.

“I have a black book,” Dorothy Davey says, pouring tea in the pretty cream-colored living room of their new town house. “I mean a book of people on my black list.”

Dorothy nods. Yes, she does feel protective. For herself, she’s outspoken, she doesn’t care. But for Keith. . . “There was one terrible time in the ’80s, when Keith and (Liberal cabinet minister) Marc Lalonde called for accountability by the leader, a vote of confidence in John Turner. In the aftermath . . . it was very difficult.

“That’s why I have my little black book. My little blacklist book. Keith doesn’t have one.”

Keith, fidgeting his big frame in a dainty blue chair, waves it away. “Why the heck bother? Life’s too short.”

He whisks a tour from one pristine room to another, Dorothy masking her unease (“It’s a mess”) as he troops from workroom to bedroom (kingsize bed) to washroom (seat down; walls thick with photos and political cartoons).

Photos of the early days: Davey with bitten nails and Pearson bowties. Davey’s easy smile and watchful eyes captured in a pen sketch. Pictures of politicians, the children, the grandchildren. In the basement office where he still scribbles everything on foolscap pads: a precious collection of autographed baseballs.

“Once, she let the grandchildren play with my baseballs,” he says, sounding genuinely aggrieved.

“Now they know: don’t play with grandpa’s baseballs,” says Dorothy serenely. When they married they made an agreement. She learned to go to ball games. He learned to go to art galleries.

At his 70th birthday party on April 21, 170 people, including Trudeau, thronged to the Ontario Club. “We had a real live band, and we danced! We danced and danced,” Dorothy says.

Keith announced that night he was going to quit the Senate. He was resigning five years before mandatory retirement, because politics just wasn’t fun any more. He was stopping to smell the roses.

At the Kennedy breakfast, a pair of corporate lawyers who call themselves “the two cynics” slouch, narrow their eyes, fire test questions: about lowered spending, new realities, tax cuts. How to break the logjam. Crush the comic book revolutionaries. Get the keys to the car.

“This is the guy who can get us back to the business of governing. I’m delighted with this guy. I wanna just say once again, we’re in your corner,” says Davey.

“We need people like Keith,” says Dr. Caroline Bennett, an intense young GP who lost St. Andrew-St. Paul to Isabel Bassett. “To tell us, it’s all right, it’s necessary to take the risk, you’re doing great, we’re with you. His enthusiasm. His rock-solid belief. Because you’re jumping into this enormous risk.”

Afterward, the handlers conduct a hard-nosed post-mortem. Kennedy is “a work in progress.” He needs to be firmed up. To get his answers shorter, tougher. “No,” says Davey, “no, he is tough, but he’s trying not to be. That’s why he’s talking around the question. He has to go for focus.”

Dorothy nods briskly. Davey gleams.

The most durable tub-thumper of them all, disappearing to smell flowers?

Not while there’s still so much fertilizer to spread.


  1. Namesake says:

    Nice tribute. And here’s a little shout-out of interest to your secondary audience about that great Liberal:

    the “newspaper columnist Scott Young [who] first dubbed Davey The Rainmaker” was Neil Young’s dad, no?

  2. WesternGrit says:

    He will be missed. Both the man, and his words…

  3. Scott Tribe says:

    Oscar, you SCREAM concern troll on here.

    • Namesake says:

      Yeah, and even here at the virtual funeral of the father of the host’s close friend, he couldn’t help himself from showing up & doing his Iago routine.

      I think he may actually be Observant / Consistent back again (albeit back on his meds); you might want to check that, WK.

      I’d also be curious whether he’s being paid by the PMO, i.e., the taxpayer, to be trolling a key Liberal site so heavily, right when they’re doing a full court press to trying to dampen the resolve for a spring election.

      Wouldn’t be the first time the conbots are being paid from the public purse, http://interchangepa.com/blog/?p=102

  4. Scott Tribe says:

    Hi Warren: I saw this quote from Senator Davey online.. or I think it’s from him:

    ?I learned that it is when the Liberal party shifts to the right that we lose elections. The Liberal party wins when it is most liberal. Whenever the Tories outflank us on our left, we inevitably lose.?

    Words to live by, whether he said it or not.

  5. james Smith says:

    Sad to hear of his passing. I met him when I was a kid, it was March break in the ’70’s I got to hang around my late Pop’s radio station & Mr Davey was doing some guest commentaries. I remember him being very focused in the studio on air, but very funny when he was off the air & chatting with the other commentators & the staff. I remember screwing up the courage one day to ask if he really knew PET, he smiled & said something like “son you’ve got it backwards, he knows me.” My Pop had to explain the comment & the larfs on the ride home.

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