July 13, 2020

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Secrets in plain sight

Prestige of politics trumped taboo topics for most of King's life

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/6/2017 (1122 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Christopher Dummitt begins Unbuttoned with a 27-word summary of William Lyon Mackenzie King’s no-longer-secret secrets.

"Canada’s greatest prime minister was a mama’s boy," he writes. "Not only that, he was a sexually repressed, hypocritical, ghost-talking, spiritualism-practising, prostitute-visiting mama’s boy."

The Canadian Press files</p><p>In this 1945 photo, then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King addresses Canada by radio from San Francisco, Calif.</p>

The Canadian Press files

In this 1945 photo, then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King addresses Canada by radio from San Francisco, Calif.

By serving up the whole shebang right off the top like that it seems Dummitt, an Ontario-based author and historian, wants to clear the decks of prurient clutter and underline that this is not yet another "Weird Willie" exposé.

Rather, as the title promises, it is a history, and of a most unusual and beguiling subject — a secret life.

That we can know about it was a bit of a fluke. King’s secrets would have gone to the grave with him in 1950 had he not made the mistake of assuming his executors would destroy the evidence as he directed in his will.

But until then, how did the dull, little, pudgy ditherer pull it off? How did he keep 30,000 pages of confessions scribbled in diaries so secret for so long? How can anyone so completely compartmentalize their private fetishes and public functions?

In the age of the 24/7 news cycle, where the name Weiner is synonymous with the largely laughable idea of privacy, it seems utterly impossible that King enjoyed his privacy for 57 years.

You would think that King would have needed the silent collusion of hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. Which is, Dummitt explains in fascinating detail, exactly what happened.

Mackenzie King’s times were nothing like today. Deference to authority was taken for granted. Politicians were honourable men, pursuing higher callings in the service of the nation. What a person did in private was of no value compared to what was done in the public realm, which was exclusive and closely guarded.

In fact, even in those rare moments when King forgot himself and talked about conversations with people known to be dead, it was simply brushed off as foolishness.

The media were not interested in the vulgar work of digging into personal lives — hackers and a paparazzi armed with drones that peer in windows would have been (rightly) dismissed as beneath contempt.

All of which abetted secrecy.

"(Politicians) seemed better because we knew less about them," Dummitt explains.

The conspiracy of silence, however, was drawing to an end just as King’s life entered its last lap.

Postwar prosperity and Freudian theories about the importance of the inner life were creating new ways of understanding the "truth."

At first the leaks were a trickle easily ignored. When some of them found their way into a book, the Liberal party bought up and destroyed the entire print run. But slowly, King’s critics — including Grant Dexter of the Winnipeg Free Press and especially Bernard Ostry, the scion of a wealthy Flin Flon family — started turning King’s secrets into personal fame and fortune.

The result is a roller-coaster ride that follows King from peak to valley and back to peak again, when prurient interest is finally exhausted by over-exposure and the realization that his foibles, by today’s standards, were not so weird after all.

For someone like this reviewer, whose own life has unfolded contemporaneously with King’s afterlife, Unbuttoned is more sociology than history, a re-telling of the experience of living through the evolution of mores in the latter 20th century. That’s what the unbuttoning of Dummitt’s title refers to — the relaxation of a stiff culture.

The fault in Unbuttoned is that it is too short. Readers will wish Dummitt’s analysis continued until, say, the election of Donald Trump, when it seemed that unbuttoned became unhinged. Maybe next time; Dummitt says he is planning further explorations.

Gerald Flood is a former Free Press comment editor.

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