August 4, 1984: that was the first time I can recall seeing Sen. Keith Davey up close. It was one of those hot, humid Ottawa Valley afternoons and, among other things, the Liberal Party of Canada was in a freefall, the campaign manager had quit, and things were rapidly going from bad to worse.
We – the majority government, the Natural Governing Party – were going down the toilet. So Sen. Davey, ever the Grit optimist, agreed to step up. To try and save the unsaveable.
I, and a few dozen other Liberal national campaign staff, had gathered in a boardroom in our national headquarters in downtown Ottawa. We huddled there amongst the heat and the fax machines (such was modern campaign technology in 1984), and we waited.
Sen. Davey bounded into the room, well-attired, well-groomed and exuding energy. “I am a Liberal!” he said to us. “I was a Pierre Trudeau Liberal, and now I’m a John Turner Liberal! And we are going to win this thing!”
We didn’t, of course. Exactly one month later – as I returned home to Calgary to attend law school, but also to escape the inevitable – the once-great Liberal Party of Canada was reduced to forty puny seats, and Brian Mulroney won one of the biggest majorities in Canadian history.
But Keith Davey never lost the faith. He never did. Whenever I was back in Ottawa in the succeeding years, I would run into him in the hallways on the Hill, and he refused to accept the gloomy obituaries being written up about the Grits. He was a Jean Chretien Liberal, by then, and – soon enough – Chretien would do rather well.
Not long after we received the privilege of governing again, Sen. Davey started taking me to lunch at Hy’s. He always sat at the same table, and he always ordered the same thing – a Cobb salad. Mostly, I would say nothing, and listen to him recount tales of the victories he won for Pierre Trudeau between 1968 and 1984. To a student of politics, like me, it was like being asked to sit with a deity.
He gave me his book. The title of it was The Rainmaker: A Passion for Politics. “For Warren Kinsella,” he wrote inside it. “A great Grit. So young to be an old pro. With respect, Keith.”
In later years, his health got worse, and he retired from the Senate. I saw him less often. Around that time, I became close friends with one of the Rainmaker’s sons, Ian. The two of us bonded over music – we both loved punk rock in general, and Iggy Pop in particular. Amusingly, Ian was then working for another Iggy, the one he had convinced to come to Canada and lead the Liberal Party. “I don’t like your candidate,” I told Ian, “because I think he’s too conservative, and he’s too pro-American. But if he’s got Keith Davey’s son, he can’t be all bad.”
Ian went on to be Michael Ignatieff’s Chief of Staff, so I agreed to go up to Ottawa to run the party’s war room when Ian asked me to. When Ian was dismissed by Ignatieff – in as thoughtless and as callous a manner as I’ve ever seen – I decided to quit. I wrote Ignatieff a note, I can now reveal, and said I objected “to the appalling way in which my friend Ian has been treated.” So long and good luck, Iggy. (You’ll need it.)
Keith Davey knew that you do not get ahead in politics by treating members of the family like trash. You stick together.
Observing the Liberal family gathered at the Rainmaker’s Toronto funeral on Friday morning – attended, as it was, by so many past giants of Canadian politics – I could not help but think about that.
Political parties are like families. This week, the Liberal Party of Canada lost one its fathers.