My latest in The Spectator: John Turner, RIP

Back then, I worked for John Turner’s Liberal government and my then-girlfriend worked for Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives.

On the afternoon of Sept. 4, 1984, I was heading home to Calgary and law school. So I went to the Ottawa polling station where she was volunteering.

She was sad to see me go (I guess), but happy about what was happening: her party was winning and mine was losing. We said our goodbyes and I headed to the airport.

In those days, there was no Wi-Fi on planes, because there was no Wi-Fi. There wasn’t even an internet. So when you got on a plane, you didn’t know what was happening down on Earth.

Down on Earth, Mulroney was heading toward one of the biggest parliamentary victories in Canadian history. When all the votes were counted, his Progressive Conservatives won 211 of 284 seats in the House of Commons.

The Liberals, formerly a majority government, would go from 135 seats to 40. It was the worst election result for a sitting government in Canadian history to that point.

I’d been supporting Turner for a couple years — he got to me before Jean Chrétien did, basically. He died on Saturday at age 91.

My Dad picked me up at the airport. I was happy to see him and happy to be back in Calgary. But we were quiet as we drove home, listening to the election coverage on the radio.

As we pulled into my parents’ northwest Calgary driveway, Turner came on the radio. He had won his seat in Vancouver Quadra, but his party had been decimated.

This was the moment that comes in every campaign, when all your work, ideas, emotion and hopes and dreams are decided by someone else.

And it was all over, just like that. So I can’t remember everything he said.

But I do remember this. As my Dad and I sat in the driveway, listening to him, Turner said: “The people are always right.”

I cried a bit when I heard him say that.

That moment is when you see political leaders for who they really are. There are no more rallies, no more speeches, no more votes to count. It’s over. And you get to see them for who they really are, even if for the most fleeting of moments.

And that’s what we heard. Turner was a democrat who believed deeply — in his soul — in the judgment and the wisdom of the people. That’s mostly what characterized his time in public life, too: a belief that the people’s will was inviolate.

That was the paradox of John Turner: he believed in that old-fashioned notion that the people knew best. They don’t always, of course: witnessing the foul, fetid Donald Trump era from afar, we know by now that the people aren’t always right. The people are often terribly, terribly wrong.

But Turner forever considered that to be an article of faith, a truth that deserved defending. It reflected the dignity he showed on election night in 1984 and it was seen in all that followed — when his caucus worked to jettison him and he seemed almost perpetually bewildered by their inability to accept a democratic vote.

Was he a man out of time?

Perhaps. That’s why he lost, some say: he clung to a long-ago, long-abandoned Canada, where there were no negative ads, no personal attacks, no Twitter. He left in the 1970s, when politics was about service and solemnity. And he returned in the 1980s, when politics was no longer about either.

Politics had changed. He hadn’t. He didn’t.

The last time I saw him, I introduced him at a 2015 Liberal event in Oshawa where I had asked him to speak. He was in a wheelchair and much older. He was handsome, but no longer as handsome as he had been, and a bit frail.

He listened as I told the story of that night, when he said the people were always right.

Later, after he spoke in support of the Oshawa Liberal candidate, he pulled me closer. “You remember what I said that night, eh?”

I told him I did.

He patted me on the arm. “Good,” he said. “Good.”

And then he had this faraway look, remembering what could have been — and what was.

[Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.]


Madame

 

Imagine you are in an Ottawa hotel suite with the former Prime Minister of Canada and a former President of the United States.  The Secret Service are watching the door, and there’s a photographer getting ready to take some shots.  Imagine that.

But then imagine that the door opens, and in walks Aline Chretien, looking as beautiful and as elegant as always.

And then imagine that the former President, Bill Clinton, rises to greet her, like one would an old friend.  And there is genuine affection and respect in his voice.

Imagine that the former Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, also rises to greet his wife.  And there is love and actual reverence shining on his face, and in what he says to her.  She smiles, and it is such a beautiful smile. 

Imagine all that.  And then Bill Clinton insists that Aline Chretien stands at the centre, at the middle, because that’s where she belongs.  And everyone smiles, and the photographer takes the picture.

In the thirty-plus years I have worked for him and supported him – because I have never really stopped doing either – there has been always one truth about Jean Chretien, Canada’s twentieth and best Prime Minister: he would have never been Prime Minister without her.  He would have never achieved the great things he achieved without her.

In the office, we simply referred to her as “Madame.” She came from a small town, with humble roots, like him.  She did not ever require us to stand on ceremony for her.  She was quiet, much of the time, and left the politics to him.

But she loved people, and people loved her.  One night, he invited me to come to a party at 24 Sussex.  I wasn’t sure why I was there: the place was full of their old friends from Shawinigan, all laughing and talking. There were no politicians or celebrities. They were cab drivers, and labourers, and teachers and waitresses and small business owners.

The Chretiens introduced me to their Shawinigan friends as “a fighter” for them, which was an honour.  And then Madame sat down at the piano – an instrument she had taught herself to master, later in life – and started to play and sing.  And the place was alive with her voice and everyone singing along.

She fiercely defended her husband for years, going back to when they were teenagers.  When the Conservatives mocked his facial paralysis in an ad, she was furious, and told me that “Jean is handsome.” And everyone knows the story, by now, about how she dispatched an intruder at 24 one night, using an Indigenous sculpture to do what the RCMP could not.

But when a too-ambitious Finance Minister tried to drive her husband out, she became resolute.  They had a mandate, and they would not be pushed.  One night, at a wedding, she took me and a couple other former Chretien staffers aside.  She pointed at me. “He tells the truth about Jean,” she said to them.  “He fights for Jean.  We all have to fight for Jean.”

And we did, we did.  But none as much as her.  She was his rock, his truest love, his everything.  And I confess that I am so worried for him, now.

Did you ever love someone so much, that they took your breath away, when they simply walked into a room?

Did you ever find yourself simply sitting at the edge of a group of people, watching your true love charm and delight those people, and saying nothing, because you are so proud and amazed that she chose you?

Did you ever love someone so much that you accepted, as a matter of course, that God sent her to you, so that you could breathe again, and so you could put one foot in front of the other, and go out into the day?

Did you ever owe everything you are, everything you achieved, to just one extraordinary person, who you loved so much that she was the air you breathe?

You don’t have to imagine a true love like that.  You don’t have to imagine it.  Because that is how much Jean Chretien loved Aline Chretien.  

And we all loved her as we love him.