Let me you tell my Herb Gray stories.
First off, this: Herb Gray was an eminent citizen. He was a special person. He had an impact on this country. He was, truly, a great Canadian.
Each of those accolades has a specific meaning. Each one has been used to describe Herb Gray for a reason. I’ll tell you why at the end of this column.
Before that, however, let me tell you about Mr. Gray. That’s what we called him, those of us who had the privilege to work for and with him on Parliament Hill: “Mr. Gray.” Other MPs, and even cabinet ministers, might be called by their first names. Not Mr. Gray.
I met him in the Fall of 1990, when I quit my law practice to work in the office of Jean Chretien as his Special Assistant. Chretien had won the Liberal leadership in June, but he hadn’t won a seat in the House of Commons yet. Until he did so, Mr. Gray was acting leader in the House of Commons, and he ran the show in Question Period.
Assisted by the likes of Jerry Yanover and Bruce Hartley and Rick Wackid and others, Mr. Gray was a giant. He had kept the Liberal Party viable towards the end of John Turner’s reign – and, during a fractious Liberal leadership race, Mr. Gray was the glue that kept the party together.
One time, he asked me to write a speech for him. I can’t remember what it was about, but I remember he drove me crazy. Through draft after draft, revision after revision, Mr. Gray revealed himself to be a perfectionist – with no detail too small.
I would sit in his office, surrounded by hundreds of editorial cartoons about Herb Gray on the walls, and watch him run a pencil under certain phrases. “For emphasis,” he told me, and then he went to deliver the speech in a monotone that was his oratorical hallmark.
He was kind, and he was perceptive, too. When one issue broke in 1991 – the collapse of the shadowy Bank of Credit and Commerce International – I was on holiday with my family in Maine. I called Mr. Gray from a pay phone.
“I sense that you want to come back,” he said, correctly. “But stay there with your family. You need a break. We will keep it alive until you get back.” And so he did.
I never saw him lose his temper. I never saw him be rude. I never saw him exhibit anything but gentlemanly grace towards the women who worked for him for years, and who clearly adored him.
Mr. Gray wasn’t perfect, of course. He remained conspicuously absent from the Liberal leadership wars – leaving some of us Chretien loyalists wondering about the faith we had placed in him. (The Martin people probably wondered the same thing.)
He was inscrutable, but about some things, his love was apparent. His country, for whom he had become the first Jewish cabinet minister. His party, which he never let down. And his family – and particularly his remarkable wife Sharon, who achieved distinction in health care without any assistance from her powerful husband.
Mr. Gray died a few days ago, at the age of 82. I, and many others, were very sad to see him go.
Oh, and those words at the outset?
You know: that he was an eminent Canadian. That he was a special person. That he had an impact on this country. That he was, truly, a great Canadian.
Each of those descriptions are the requirements, if you will, for someone deserving of a state funeral. They’re taken right from the Government of Canada web site about state funerals.
I don’t think anyone begrudges Jim Flaherty getting a state funeral. Not at all.
But if Mr. Flaherty deserved one, then Mr. Gray sure as Hell did, too.
And that’s not just a Herb Gray story. That’s the truth.