TORONTO — Long ago while I lived in Ireland, John Diefenbaker was the only practicing Canadian politician that I was materially aware of. And that awareness came almost entirely from reading my father’s weekly copy of Time. Apart from brief reports of federal elections, the Dublin papers had little coverage of Canada.
This all came back to me recently, courtesy of Allen Levine’s National Post piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of Renegade in Power. Apparently inspired by the style of Theodore White’s The Making of the President, Peter C. Newman set out to "chronicle the unmaking of the prime minister." And it was a huge success, eventually racking up sales in excess of 100,000 copies.
It was a book that Diefenbaker loathed. Full of inside information and gossipy anecdotes, it painted an unflattering portrait of an out-of-control leader. Diefenbaker claimed to have never read it, but Levine refers to a vitriolic handwritten note that suggests otherwise.
Born in 1895 Ontario and raised in Saskatchewan, Diefenbaker was a Red Tory, albeit one with a decidedly populist touch. A lawyer by trade, he made various unsuccessful attempts to win political office before being elected to parliament in 1940.
But that in no way slaked his ambition. Simply put, he wished to be prime minister.
Accordingly, he ran for the Tory leadership in 1942 and 1948, before finally winning it in 1956. A year later, he became the first Tory prime minister since 1935, going on to convert his initial minority situation into a stunning 1958 majority by taking almost 54 per cent of the popular vote and 208 seats (out of 265).
Although the word wasn’t in general vogue then, Diefenbaker certainly had charisma, thanks to the rhetorical skills of a criminal lawyer, a fiery platform style, and a penchant for speaking in terms of grand visions. Over time, this wore less and less well, even coming to be seen as bombastic. But not in 1958.
Diefenbaker was also very much a figure from the old Canada, a country still dominated by people with Anglo-Celtic or French backgrounds. Of German-Scottish ancestry himself, he took great care to push the concept of an unhyphenated Canadianism with strong emotional links to the British Empire.
As for his agenda in office, it was generally true to his Red Tory roots. He increased the old-age pension, appointed Canada’s first female cabinet minister, extended the federal franchise to all natives, introduced a Bill of Rights, and pioneered Canadian wheat sales to China. In foreign policy, he was a significant player in the evolution of the Commonwealth, including a key role in forcing apartheid South Africa out.
But when it came to relations with the Americans, Diefenbaker was always wary, forever sensitive to any infringements on Canadian sovereignty. And he also took severe umbrage at anything he perceived as a personal slight.
Still, with Dwight Eisenhower in the White House, relations were generally cordial. Eisenhower, who’d been Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Second World War, was skilled at managing oversized and prickly egos. But John F. Kennedy’s arrival changed things for the worst.
As personalities, Diefenbaker and Kennedy never hit it off. Indeed, it’s fair to say that they came to despise each other. In the end, Diefenbaker was the loser.
Buffeted by economic headwinds and controversies emanating from his own personal foibles, Diefenbaker’s popularity declined. The 1962 election saw his government reduced to tenuous minority status and he was defeated the following year, thanks at least in part to the poisoned relationship with Kennedy.
The final straw came as a consequence of the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bomarc nuclear issue. During the height of the crisis, Diefenbaker initially hesitated in acceding to Kennedy’s request to put the Canadian military on a war footing. And he also wavered on the subject of arming Canada’s Bomarc missiles with nuclear warheads, something which the Americans very much wanted him to do.
So when Kennedy — who was very popular in Canada — politically targeted Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson’s Liberals flipped their position on Bomarc to fall in line with Washington, Diefenbaker’s goose was essentially cooked. The cabinet split, the government fell, and he lost the ensuing election.
Although he hung on as Tory leader until 1967, the renegade never returned to power.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.