Society rests upon written rules and established understandings. In the United States right now the written and understood are in tragic conflict.
From 1882 to 1968, 3,446 African Americans were lynched. Last week, we saw another one. A white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against George Floyd’s throat until he lost consciousness and later died. The written law responded. The officer was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. That makes sense. The protests that are rocking American cities also make sense. The legitimate protesters are not trying to bring attention to what is written but, rather, what is understood.
After 700,000 deaths in a Civil War to determine if all men are really created equal, America’s original sin was vanquished. But the belief that had created slavery – a belief in one race’s inherent superiority – remained. The belief was seen in segregation and Jim Crow. It is seen in practices that still suppress African American votes. The belief was seen in the decades of lynchings and when African Americans are pulled over for “driving while black” or shot while walking home with a bag of skittles, or when jogging, or when they are suffocated while on the ground and handcuffed.
There were and are laws standing against all that. But the laws don’t matter. What matters is the underlying understanding. Too many white people and white cops understand that unless there’s a video, they can get away with harassment, assault, and even murder. Too many African American parents understand the need to teach their children to cower, avoid eye contact, and assume the worst in all encounters with white people to keep from being arrested, beaten, or killed. Too many white people think all of that is just fine and too many African Americans think it will never change.
All those understandings violate a bigger understanding. The notion of a Social Contract was first expressed by French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1762. He argued that we all surrender a little of our rights to live in a society that can then protect our essential rights. The Social Contract stipulates, among other things, that if I work hard and live right I can earn a good living and if I obey laws the police won’t bother me.
But what happens if the Social Contract is broken? What if you work hard and live right but the system is stacked in such a way that you still can’t make a decent living? What happens if you obey laws but police and the ignorant and intolerant harass you anyway? What happens if you live in a society where everyone simply understands that the way you are treated every day and the opportunities available to you depend primarily on your race, class, ethnicity, gender, or how long your family’s been here? If all that and more becomes part of what is simply understood, the written laws stand but the Social Contract collapses.
Rousseau wrote that laws are binding only when supported by the peoples’ general will. If the Social Contract dies, that will dies with it. The pandemic tore one part of the Social Contract and the economic collapse ripped another. The recent killings of African Americans, after years of similar murders, left it in shreds. And so, we have Minneapolis and 40 other cities in flames.
We Canadians have our own original sin – the treatment of Indigenous peoples. We have our own less flagrant but equally virulent racism. We can’t be smug.
Thoughtful Americans and Canadians alike should listen to those advocating a broad national conversation not about changing laws but righting systemic economic injustice, racism, and bigotry. We should listen to and support those seeking a restored Social Contract based not on new laws but new foundational understandings. After all, we know that changing laws is easy while changing minds is hard but, in the end, it is the only way to clear the tracks, douse the flames, and save our souls.
CTV News called to ask my view on various leaders and their thoughts on the United Nations. As we are dealing with so many issues that transcend national boundaries, it is an interesting time to pause to consider the internationalist viewpoint that led to the creation of bodies such as the UN in the first place.
From time to time, thoughtful people reflect on whether there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Introspection is important for ourselves and our relationships with family, friends, and work colleagues. It is important for the health of our democracy to also occasionally consider how we see ourselves in our relationship with our elected representatives and how they see us. Are we consumers, taxpayers, or citizens?
Are we consumers? Consumer capitalism developed over many years and became the bulwark of our economic system by the 1920s. The prosperity of our nation became dependent on stuff being made and services being provided for us to buy. We, in turn, were paid for making all the stuff and providing all the services. It was a nice, symbiotic circle. We were in trouble when things stopped being made, or became too expensive, or when we stopped buying. That’s what happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of 2008-’09. Our leaders understand. That is why after the tragedy of 9-11, the first advice President Bush had for Americans yearning to demonstrate resilience was to take a trip to Disney World and to go shopping.
When our buying stuff became an economic imperative and patriotic duty, then it is unsurprising that some of our leaders began to think of us as nothing more than consumers. We consume Corn Flakes and health care. We consume I-Phones and education. Everything is a commodity and so government exists only to provide things to be consumed that private capitalists don’t or won’t. Our leaders, therefore, promote themselves as providers and we look at ourselves simply as consumers of what they have on offer. We complain only when price does not match quality.
(Image: UGA Career Centre)
Are we taxpayers? American Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxes are what we pay for living in a civilized society.” I don’t much like paying taxes but I get his point. I pay for things from which I benefit and I benefit from living in a society in which there are assumed and enforced modes of behaviour. For example, I can go to a restaurant knowing the food is safe and the kitchen has been inspected and my card or currency will be accepted. I have never left a restaurant without paying. After all, I benefitted from the meal and service and all the government regulations behind the scenes. In the same way, I believe that I benefit from living in society in which people are educated and healthy and so I may grumble from time to time but I pay my taxes that support public education and health care even though I don’t have a child in school and my last operation was when I had my tonsils out at age 4. I benefit so I pay.
In his victory speech after winning the leadership of the Canadian Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer said, “We are and always will be the party of prosperity not envy, the party that always represents taxpayers not connected Ottawa insiders.” With respect to a recent controversy he said, “As prime minister, I would have fought against this payout in court and made absolutely clear that taxpayers won’t be rewarding an admitted terrorist.” Are they mistakes, sloppy syntax, or a confession as to how Mr. Scheer sees us? Is that all we are to him: taxpayers? Are we not more than that? This has nothing to do with party, but perspective.
Are we citizens? Anyone can be a consumer because anyone can wander into a market and buy stuff. Anyone can be a taxpayer because anybody can be made to pay for stuff. Citizenship is more than both. It is a more noble concept. It derives from ideas born in ancient Greece. Citizenship suggests membership in something akin to belonging to a club or even, at its best, a family. It’s why we carry a membership card – a passport – sing the anthem, take pride in the flag, and celebrate our founding each July. Some of us are born into the family and others, after passing the muster of the gate keepers’ requirements, can join and become equal members. We can leave and live elswhere. In this way, citizenship is not about birth and blood but choice.
As with clubs and families, citizenship involves rights and responsibilities. The American Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms spell them out. They suggest that we not cherry pick but, as citizens, respect and live according to them all. Americans, for instance can’t stomp on the first amendment in their advocacy of the second. The American and Canadian Supreme Courts exist to remind us of that fact even if, occasionally, we and our governments are infuriated by their decisions. Even when we disagree, in fact, especially when we disagree, citizenship means that we are in this together with responsibilities to and for each other.
Buying stuff and paying taxes are only slivers of what it means to be a citizen. Rallying us as consumers and calling us taxpayers cheapens the concept of citizenship. It tears at the fabric of who we are and places in jeopardy the core of our democracy.
It matters whether we see ourselves as visitors to a mall, the government’s ATM machine, or members of a national family. Our founders believed it was important and created a system based on our considering ourselves, and our leaders treating us, as citizens. Perhaps we should reflect the wisdom of those founders whether Sir John A. Macdonald or Thomas Jefferson and whether there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us by listening carefully to how those who lead or aspire to lead, speak of us. Let’s be aware of how others within our national family speak of themselves and the rest of us. If among the greatest gifts the ages have bestowed upon us is the concept of citizenship, then let us respect and protect it. I would rather live in a country than a mall.
If you enjoyed this column please send it to others and even if you did not, please consider leaving a comment.
Canada is a conversation. When confronting troubles visited upon us, or of our own making, Canadians reach not for a gun but a gavel. We talk it out. Every leadership race and election, every new bill, public initiative or staggering crisis, and every table pounding in the House of Commons or at the local Tim Hortons is another element of that conversation. And when we’re talking, we’re always talking about power. So, let’s talk.
Political power touches us all. Positively expressed, it offers a vehicle through which we are collectively encouraged and enabled to act for the common good. Power matters, and so it matters who has it.
Our founders understood. In 1864, they met in Charlottetown and Quebec City and talked their way into the creation of a country. From Britain came the concepts of a limited monarchy and parliamentary democracy. From the United States, they took the ideas of a written constitution and a federal state, in Canada’s case one composed of a central government and provinces. This is where the real talking about power began.
Sir John A. Macdonald led the way in arguing that while the American Constitution was brilliant in its conception, the fact that the United States was, at that moment, butchering itself in the Civil War demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. Seeing this, the Canadian Confederation delegates decided to stand the American system on its head. Macdonald explained that Canada would reverse the “primary error” of the United States “by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.”
The provinces were given only municipal-like areas of responsibility and a limited ability to raise revenue. The federal government, on the other hand, was afforded the major powers relating to sovereignty, including trade, the military, the post office, criminal law, currency and banking. Unlike in the United States, where, until 1913, the states appointed senators, in Canada the prime minister was given the power to populate the country’s Senate. The prime minister would also appoint the lieutenant-governors, who approved provincial bills while sending questionable ones to the federal cabinet, which could disallow them. It was decided that responsibility for anything the Constitution left out or that came up later, such as airports, would go automatically to the federal government.
Throughout Canada’s 150-year conversation, provinces have worked to overturn our founders’ vision and shift power to themselves. An example is the decades-long provincial demand for greater power that sabotaged repeated federal efforts to earn greater independence for the country by gaining control of our Constitution. In standing up for what they believed was best for their province, too many premiers betrayed and undermined the very concept of Canada while dividing Canadians against themselves.
This is not to say that premiers are not patriots and provinces don’t matter. Of course they are and of course they do. But it was successive federal governments that fought to maintain our founders’ vision. Provinces were cajoled and dragged along as the federal government led the building of Canada through projects such as the transcontinental railway, St. Lawrence Seaway and the Trans-Canada Highway. The federal government needled, nudged and negotiated for Canadians in creating national policies such as pensions and health care. Federal governments rallied our response to emergencies such as global wars, the Great Depression and the FLQ crisis. The federal government spoke for Canadian values whether reflected as peacekeepers or climate-change leaders.
Some federal leaders have made boneheaded mistakes and some perpetrated tragic policies. Macdonald himself can never be forgiven for the crimes he committed with respect to indigenous people. Those actions condemn the men not the structure from which they worked.
Let us move to the present. Ignore whether you like or dislike our current Prime Minister or his policies, but grant that his Canadian tour last spring indicated his understanding that this country is indeed a conversation. He is also demonstrating that he is the personification of Sir John’s vision. He gathered the premiers and then led the revamping of pensions, unemployment insurance and health care. He told the provinces that we will combat climate change as a country and that they will step in line. His government organized a national emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfires.
We have been at our best when the power that our founders afforded the federal government was effectively employed. We have gone off the rails when firewall letters, referendums and power squabbles have attempted to distort that vision. We are better when we consider ourselves not as of a particular province but, more broadly, as Canadians first, stronger in the complexity of our citizenship.
Every time you hear our Prime Minister speak, listen carefully for a hint of a Scottish burr, for you’re hearing Sir John’s echo.
If you liked this column or disagree with it, please send it to others and consider leaving a comment. You see, the Globe and Mail posted it last week as an opinion piece and it sparked debate then. It is a summary of my latest book, Sir John’s Echo, which Dundurn Press asked me to write, urging me to stir debate as part of Canada 150. It has been doing so. The book is available at book stores or online through Chapters, Amazon, and elsewhere. Polite, informed debate is good, it’s our conversaion.
Canada is a conversation. When confronting troubles visited upon us, or of our own making, Canadians reach not for a gun but a gavel. We talk it out. Every leadership race and election, every new bill, public initiative, or staggering crisis, and every table pounding in the House of Commons or at the local Tim’s is another element of that conversation. And when we’re talking, we’re always talking about power. So, let’s talk.
Political power touches us all. Positively expressed, it offers a vehicle through which we are collectively encouraged and enabled to act for the common good. Power matters and so, it matters who has it.
Our founders understood. In 1864, they met in Charlottetown and Quebec City and talked their way into a country. From Britain, came the ideas of a limited monarchy and parliamentary democracy. From the United States, they took a written constitution and a federal state, one comprised of a central government and provinces. This is where the real talking about power began.
John A. Macdonald led the way in arguing that while the American Constitution was brilliant in its conception, the fact that the United States was, at that moment, butchering itself in Civil War, demonstrated its appalling failure in practice. The Confederation delegates stood the American system on its head. Macdonald explained that Canada would reverse the “primary error” of the United States, “by strengthening the general government and conferring on the provincial bodies only such powers as may be required for local purposes.”
(Photo: Canadian Colour)
The provinces were given only municipal-like areas of responsibility and limited ability to raise revenue. The federal government, on the other hand, was afforded the major powers relating to sovereignty including trade, the military, post office, criminal law, currency, and banking. Unlike the United States where, until 1913, the states appointed Senators, the prime minister would populate our upper chamber. The prime minister would also appoint Lieutenant Governors who approved provincial bills while sending questionable ones to the federal cabinet, which could disallow them. Anything the constitution left out or that came up later, like airports, would go automatically to the federal government.
Throughout Canada’s 150-year conversation, provinces have worked to overturn our founders’ vision and shift power to themselves. An example is the decades-long provincial demand for greater power that sabotaged repeated federal efforts to earn greater independence by gaining control of our constitution. In standing up for what they believed was best for their province, too many premiers betrayed and undermined the very concept of Canada while dividing Canadians against themselves.
This is not to say that premiers are not patriots and provinces don’t matter. Of course they are and of course they do. But it was successive federal governments that fought to maintain our founders’ vision. Provinces were cajoled and dragged along as the federal government led the building of Canada through projects like the trans-continental railway, St. Lawrence Seaway, and the TransCanada Highway. The federal government needled, nudged, and negotiated for Canadians in creating national policies such as pensions and health care. Federal governments rallied our response to emergencies such as global wars, the Great Depression, and the FLQ Crisis. The federal government spoke for Canadian values whether reflected as peacekeepers or climate change leaders.
Ignore whether you like or dislike our current prime minister, or his policies, but grant that Mr. Trudeau’s tour a few months ago indicated his understanding that Canada is indeed a conversation. He is also demonstrating that he is the personification of Sir John’s vision. He gathered the premiers and then led the revamping of pensions, unemployment insurance, and health care. He told the provinces that we will combat climate change as a nation and that they will step in line. His government organized a national emergency response to the Fort McMurray wildfires.
We have been at our best when the power that our founders afforded the federal government was effectively employed. We have gone off the rails when firewall letters, referendums, and power squabbles have attempted to distort that vision. We are better when we consider ourselves not as of a particular province but more broadly, as Canadians first, stronger in the complexity of our citizenship.
Every time you hear our prime minister speak, listen carefully for a hint of a Scottish burr, for you’re hearing Sir John’s echo.
If you enjoyed this column, please send it to others and perhaps even explore my full argument which is in my latest book, published just two weeks ago, and called, perhaps unsurprisingly, Sir John’s Echo. It’s available at bookstores, Amazon, and here through Chapters https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/sir-johns-echo-speaking-for/9781459738157-item.html
Patrick Whelan lived his life at the intersection of politics and passion. He was born around 1840, just outside of Dublin, Ireland. When only 14 years of age, Whelan did as most young Irish people did at the time and left school to pursue a trade. He found work as a tailor in Dublin and eventually completed his apprenticeship. Times were tough. They would get tougher.
Ireland was still suffering from a blight on the potato crops that, beginning in 1845, had led to wide-spread famine, dislocations, and nearly two million people leaving the country for Canada and the United States. The decade’s long economic and humanitarian crisis led to political upheaval. A group of Irish nationalists called the Young Irish sought to use peaceful, democratic means to win back Irish independence that had been lost to Great Britain in 1800. By the time Whelan arrived in Dublin, the group had failed to advance their agenda. Those frustrated by a lack of progress created a more radical group called the Fenian Brotherhood. Named after ancient Irish warriors called the Fianna Eirionn, the Fenians sought independence through revolution.
Whelan moved to England and again found work as a tailor. In 1865, the year of a violent but futile Fenian uprising, Whelan followed so many of his countrymen and fled economic hardship and political upheavals for a better life in Canada. He arrived in Quebec City and took up his trade with Mr. Vallin. He enjoyed horses, dancing, and drinking. He contributed to his new city in early 1866 by joining Montreal’s Volunteer Cavalry.
Irish political troubles crossed the Atlantic with the Irish immigrants. The American Civil War (1861-1865) saw a number of Irish-American regiments fight bravely. With the war’s end, Fenian leaders worked to use the military experience of the soldiers to their advantage. Approximately 10,000 men pledged allegiance to the Fenian cause and supported the idea that they would invade and capture the British North American colonies. (British North American at that time consisted of Canada – Ontario and Quebec. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland) Britain would be asked to trade Canada and the Maritime colonies for Irish independence. The 1866 Fenian border crossing in New Brunswick was a minor nuisance but there was a battle in June near Ridgetown, north of Lake Erie, near Niagara Falls. The Fenian Americans quickly withdrew.
Whelan’s cavalry unit was not involved in the Fenian raids but his sympathies were betrayed when he was arrested for trying to persuade a British soldier to join the Fenians. He was released when only the solicited soldier could testify about the conversation. At the time of the Fenian Raids, Whelan was reported to have been in Buffalo, the center of American Fenian activity. He then worked as a tailor in Hamilton before moving to Montreal. It was there that he was married to a woman about thirty years older than himself. He became involved with an Irish nationalist group called the St. Patrick’s Society. In the fall of 1867, he and his wife moved to Ottawa where he worked for tailor Peter Eagleson, a well-known supporter of the Fenian cause.
Whelan (Photo: CBC)
An important gentleman opposed to that cause was Thomas D’Arcy McGee. McGee had been born in Ireland, emigrated to Boston at age 17 and was the co-editor of a journal advocating Irish nationalism. Young Ireland leaders asked McGee to return to Ireland and write about the movement. He was among those who, in 1848, tried to spark a revolution to establish an independent Irish republic. The effort’s failure took him back to the United States and then, in 1857, to Montreal. Months later, the journalist, poet, author, and gifted public speaker was elected to the Canadian legislature.
By 1864, McGee was an influential member of the Canadian cabinet and in the Confederation meetings in Charlottetown and Quebec City that led to Canada’s creation in July 1867. He had also changed his political views and was now writing and speaking against Irish nationalism and the Fenians. By 1868, his close friend Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was considering him a possible successor but many Irish Canadians saw him as a traitor.
On April 7, 1868, McGee’s late evening House of Commons speech about Canada’s promise was met with rousing applause. The House adjourned just after two o’clock in the morning. McGee walked across the Parliament Hill lawn and then the two blocks to his Sparks Street rooming house, enjoying the unusually mild evening illuminated by a stunning full moon. He was reaching for his key when an assassin crept behind him and fired a .32 calibre bullet through the back of his head. He died instantly.
McGee (Photo: CBC)
Within an hour, Police Detective Edward O’Neill was on the case. The House of Commons doorkeeper told him to arrest the “sandy whiskered tailor” at Eagleson’s tailor shop. O’Neill knew the Irish community well and so he knew the man in question was Whelan. Whelan’s rooms at Michael Starr’s Hotel were searched and found to contain a great many Irish nationalist and Fenian publications. Police found several copies of the Irish American and several blank membership cards to Irish nationalist groups, which suggested that he was involved in distributing literature and soliciting memberships. Police also found Whelan’s Smith & Wesson, .32-calibre revolver. One bullet had recently been re-loaded and there was fresh powder on the muzzle. Whelan was arrested for the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
Based on the suspicion that the murder was a Fenian conspiracy, forty others believed to have been involved were also arrested. They included Whelan’s boss, his landlord, a number of his friends, and even prominent Fenians in Toronto and Montreal.
Whelan’s trial began in September. He appeared resplendent in a green suit and white vest. The courthouse was packed with reporters and Prime Minister Macdonald sat at the table with the crown’s lawyers. Testimony revealed that Whelan had been seen outside McGee’s boarding house twice in the days before the murder. He had been seen looking anxious and jittery on Parliament Hill on the night before and, with his pistol in his pocket, in the House of Commons gallery watching McGee’s final speech. It was stated that Whelan had spoken many times about wanting to kill McGee. A man who was incarcerated in the jail cell across from Whelan, testified that Whelan had confessed to feeling remorse about having shot McGee. Another gentleman testified that he had seen the murder take place and, while his testimony was confused in places, he was sure Whelan was the assassin.
The defense poked holes in the eye-witness testimony and much of that presented by others, but the evidence was clearly stacked against the accused. Whelan took the stand on the trial’s final day. Dressed all in black, he said that he was not a Fenian and had great admiration for McGee. He concluded, “Now I am held to be a black assassin. And my blood runs cold. But I am innocent. I never took that man’s blood.”
After several hours of deliberation, the jury found Thomas James Whelan guilty of the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee. The conviction was appealed to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Ontario but to no avail. It was appealed again and, in January 1869, the Ontario Court of Appeal rejected it again. There was nothing left but for Whelan to face the sentence the court had announced. He would be hanged.
Whelan languished in cell number 4 in Ottawa’s Carleton County Jail for ten months, awaiting the hangman’s noose. On the day before he was scheduled to die, he composed a three-page letter to Sir John A. Macdonald. As he had in court, he claimed to be a loyal British subject, to have never been a Fenian, and that he had not shot McGee. The letter went unanswered.
Whelan enjoyed his last meal on the morning of February 11, 1869. The gallows were ready. Whelan’s hands were lashed behind his back and he was slowly led up the wooden steps. A hushed crowd of 5,000 watched intently. Whelan’s last words, uttered a moment before a hood was lowered over his head: “I am innocent.” It would be Canada’s last public hanging and the only assassination of a Canadian politician.
The pistol that killed McGee is now on display in Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of History. Ottawa’s Carleton County Jail has become a hostel where people spend the night and hear of ghost stories including that of Whalen’s ghost, reportedly seen in his old cell, writing his letter to Macdonald. In August 2002, descendants of Whelan’s family came to the spot near the hostel where Whelan was buried. They proclaimed his innocence. A priest said a short prayer. A mound of earth was scooped into a box and taken to Montreal where it was interred next to Whelan’s widow, at Cote des Neiges cemetery. In the same cemetery, rests the remains of Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
This column is the second that I have been invited to contribute to the Canadian Encyclopdia. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others.
I refuse to believe that the truth no longer matters. I refuse to believe that the truth is simply what I choose to believe. I’m loath to admit it, but a clear-eyed look at world politics today and examples from the past suggests I’m wrong. Too many lies have been casually accepted as truth and too many lies have sparked monumentally consequential change.
A young George Washington never cut down a cherry tree or confessed with the line we all know: “I cannot tell a lie.” Biographer Mason Locke Weems made no mention of the tale in the first five editions of The Life of George Washington but the incident suddenly appeared in the sixth. Weems made it up. Similarly, there was no gift-horse, filled with soldiers, with which the Greeks duped the Trojans. Nero did not play the violin as Rome burned. When leaving the room, Galileo did not mumble, “But it does move.” Newton’s work on gravitation was not inspired by a falling apple. Benjamin Franklin never flew a kite in a lightning storm. I could go on.
Lies such as these have been repeated as fact by so many and for so long that they’ve become accepted as true. Joseph Goebbels would understand. As Hitler’s propaganda minister, he said a lie becomes truth when forcefully presented and repeated. Donald Trump certainly understands.
Politico.com studied Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign speeches and determined that, on average, he lied once every five minutes and sometimes twice in a single, rambling, non-sequitur littered sentence. He lied about having seen thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9-11 attack. He lied about MSNBC distorting his views by editing his statement on abortion. He repeatedly lied about America’s crime rate being higher than ever, about GDP growth being zero for the previous two quarters, and about the United States having the world’s highest corporate taxes. All the lies were shown to be lies but it didn’t seem to matter. Mr. Trump won the presidency. He continues to lie. He recently said there are 96 million unemployed Americans but that counts retired folks and kids in school.
Do the lies that inform so much of what we think we know about our past and Mr. Trump’s successfully lying his way to the White House prove that we don’t care about the truth? We should. Because sometimes lies bring about changes that are enormously consequential. Consider two examples.
President Truman said he approved the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan to save the lives of American soldiers who were preparing to invade the island. With each subsequent interview, Truman’s estimate of the number of men saved went up. He couldn’t quantify it because his justification was a lie. Truman had been advised by the scientists who created the bomb that its use would be immoral. A number of generals and military advisors, including future president General Dwight D. Eisenhower, said it was unnecessary. Japan was on the verge of collapse. All its major cities had been incinerated. The Soviet Union had declared war and was moving on Japan. Japanese leaders were preparing to surrender and Truman knew it.
But the bomb was not really about Japan. Truman agreed with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and other advisors that the bomb had to be dropped to brandish its power, especially to the Soviet Union, which they had decided to turn from ally to enemy. They had to demonstrate that America would dominate the post-war world. And so the bombs fell. Months before, Japanese leaders had offered to stop fighting with the condition that Emperor Hirohito stay in place but the Americans refused with their insistence on unconditional surrender. With the atomic bombs suitably displayed, Truman accepted the surrender terms that had been unacceptable before. Hirohito remained. The war ended. But Truman’s lie unnecessarily murdered 150,000 people in Hiroshima and 75,000 in Nagasaki with hundreds of thousands suffering life-altering wounds and horrifying birth defects.
While Truman’s lie involved the end of a war, other lies have started them. The Iraq War was based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t. In 1964, Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson unrestricted power to wage war in Vietnam after an attack on the American destroyer USSMaddox. But the attack didn’t really happen. The lies are disturbing but sadly, tragically, not rare.
At 9:40 in the evening, on February 15, 1898, a tremendous explosion sent a fire ball into sky above Havana’s harbour. The American battleship Maine, which had been anchored there as an expression of American power, had exploded. The ship was destroyed. Its burning, shredded hulk sank, and 266 Americans lost their lives.
Cubans had been rebelling against their Spanish colonial masters in a low-level guerilla war. Thousands of Cuban refugees had been working from new homes in Florida and New York to entice America to intervene on their behalf. After all, they argued, the Monroe Doctrine said that the United States considered the western hemisphere its back yard and would take action to keep countries stable and Europe out.
Powerful newspaper owners had joined their fight. The New York Journal’s William Randolph Hearst and the New York World’s Joseph Pulitzer were in a circulation war and both saw a Cuban war as their ticket to victory. They both had reporters in Cuba before the explosion writing articles that urged President William McKinley to take military action. Two days after the Maine explosion, Hurst’s Journal ran the headline: “Destruction of the warship Maine was the work of the enemy.” The next day, an article quoted unnamed naval men as believing that a Spanish mine had caused the explosion. Hurst offered $50,000 to anyone who turned in those responsible for the mine. Readership soared.
Thousands of Americans wrote to their president demanding a war of revenge with Spain. Militia groups formed and volunteered to leave immediately. Men yelled “Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain!” as they swamped recruitment offices. Congressmen joined the jingoist parade, declaring that American honour had to be respected. A March 28 Naval Court of Inquiry moved with lightning speed to conclude that the Maine had indeed been downed by a mine. President McKinley was suspicious of the evidence but the mounting political pressure was enormous. He acquiesced. In April, the United States declared war on Spain.
The war lasted only ten weeks. The most famous battle was the taking of San Juan Hill by the Rough Riders, a rag tag group of cowboys, college students, and ex-convicts organized by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who had quit his post to join the fight. The war was won when the American navy destroyed Spain’s Atlantic fleet in the Philippine’s Manila Bay. About 2,000 Americans died in the war, all but 385 of disease. About 60,000 Spanish and Cuban soldiers and civilians died. America’s victory led to the Paris Treaty which gave Cuba its independence and ceded the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States.
The war’s second phase began when Filipino nationalists insisted on independence rather than trading one colonial master for another. When rebuffed, they shouldered rifles. The fighting lasted three years and took the lives another 4,200 Americans and over 20,000 Filipino combatants. The war also saw about 200,000 civilians die from war-related famine, violence, and disease.
The Maine attack and wars that followed entered American civic understanding alongside Washington’s hatchet and Franklin’s kite. They were true because they were believed to be true. But the truth is stubborn.
In its rush to not really investigate but simply confirm the mining of the Maine, the US Naval Court of Inquiry had refused to hear from a number of experts. Included among them was Navy ordnance professional Philip R. Alger. He told the Washington Star that the explosion’s power and ship’s wreckage suggested that the blast had originated with a fire in the Maine’s engine room that ignited its magazine, the room where ammunition and gun powder was stored. In fact, another naval inquiry had reported only a month before that designers of ships such as the Maine had put magazines too close to coal-fired engine rooms. This was alarming because coal bunker fires were a regular problem on naval ships at the time and it had been found that those carrying bituminous coal, like the Maine, were far more likely to suffer spontaneous engine room fires than those carrying anthracite coal. Those salivating for war knew all this but ignored it as they silenced Alger.
In 1974, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover initiated an inquiry into the Maine’s sinking. American, Spanish, and Cuban records were scoured and experts on ship explosions were interviewed. The study concluded that “without a doubt” the Maine had been sunk by a spontaneous combustion fire in her engine room that ignited the magazine. The Spanish had nothing to do with it. Wars had been fought in Cuba and the Philippines, thousands had died, the Spanish empire had shrunk, the American empire grew, and Roosevelt’s political career took flight, all because of a lie. It was a lie the American media helped create and then exploit and that the American people were too willing to believe.
Today, in the revered Arlington National Cemetery, just across the Potomac from Washington, lay the remains of over 14,000 American veterans. On a hilltop near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, towers a gleaming white mast. It’s the Maine’s mast. In 1915 it was salvaged and erected atop a large concrete base resembling a ship’s turret. The mast throws a shadow over the respected dead laying nearby while serving as a monument to the power of lies.
Maine Memorial (Photo Arlington National Cemetery)
Lies led to the dropping of the world’s worst weapons, were cynically employed to elect a president and used to start unnecessary wars. Lies ended lives and changed the world. It is said that we live in a post-truth era. No. No! We can’t afford that luxury, that embarrassment, that threat. Ignorance is not bliss, it’s dangerous. Ask those resting in American military cemeteries laid there by lies or the ghosts haunting Cuba, the Philippines, Japan, Iraq, and Vietnam. Ask Joseph Goebbels.
The media has an awesome responsibility as the citizens’ eyes, ears, and conscience. It must question and say no to power and not be its poodle. Rewriting press releases is not journalism. The media cannot, as Hearst did, and as Fox and others do, report lies or fashion lies of their own for ratings, clicks, and sales while making us dumber and less safe. We must join the media in robbing lies of their power by calling them what they are and calling out those who either don’t speak the truth, don’t seem to care, or don’t know the difference. We deserve the truth. We can handle the truth. We must demand it.
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American presidents have ways of getting rid of governments they don’t like. Ask Iran (1953), GuatemalaAmerican presidents have ways of getting rid of foreign governments they don’t like. (1954), Congo (1960), Dominican Republic (1961), South Vietnam (1963), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973). Or, as explained in my November 7th blog, part one of this story, ask Canada (1963). President John F. Kennedy played a direct role in helping to topple the teetering government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
Now for part two. Kennedy’s efforts would be wasted if Lester Pearson’s Liberals, his preference to form Canada’s government, did not win the ensuing election. Kennedy set out to put Pearson in power.
Pearson’s team had all read Theodore White’s brilliant The Making of the President 1960. It outlined factors that determined Kennedy’s success, including the use of frequent and targeted polling. Kennedy had hired former marketing executive Lou Harris. For the first time in electoral politics, a pollster worked exclusively for a campaign and employed daily random sampling to correlate and analyse massive amounts of data then suggest changes that shaped the candidate and message.
The Liberals had asked Harris for help in the 1962 election. He had previously been asked to assist the British Labour Party but the president wanted the Conservatives re-elected and so asked him to decline the job. After the call from the Canadian Liberals, Harris again asked Kennedy’s permission. He was soon on a plane to Ottawa. Now, a year later, he heading north again.
Like before, the Liberals sought to hide Kennedy’s man so Harris again assumed his wife’s maiden name and used the phony passport forged by the State Department. He avoided Parliament Hill where he might be recognized and attended weekly meetings at Pearson’s home. Harris hired 500 women who made daily calls across the country. The polling determined, for example, how Pearson would dress – in a straight and not bow tie – which cities he would visit, the policies he would emphasize, phrases he would use, and that the campaign would sell the team and not the leader.
Harris later said that Kennedy was, “…all but shouting from the sidelines. He hated Diefenbaker…He obviously couldn’t say anything publicly. But every day or two he would want to know how the election was going.”
One of Kennedy’s closest friends was Newsweek magazine’s Washington bureau chief Benjamin Bradlee. Several times the two had discussed the need to get rid of Diefenbaker. In the campaign’s first week, Newsweek arrived in mailboxes and on newsstands across Canada with an arresting cover showing a disturbingly close-up and alarmingly unpleasant photograph of Diefenbaker over the title: Canada’s Diefenbaker: Decline and Fall. The accompanying article embarrassed even the prime minister’s staunchest critics: “It would be too flattering to dismiss him just as a superficial fellow – he’s really much dimmer than that.” The article claimed that that Diefenbaker lacked leadership skills, was unable to make decisions, and had been bad for Canada, NATO, America, and the world.
At a news conference the morning after the magazine’s release, Diefenbaker was greeted by reporters holding its cover up over their smiles. He laughed but burned inside. The Newsweek issue allowed him to openly add Kennedy to those he said were out to unseat him.
Among the newspapers clearly against Diefenbaker was the widely read Toronto Star. It published over a dozen articles by Sam Lubell that were crammed with quotes gathered from Canadians. None supported Diefenbaker. Typical were these from an April 2 article: “He’s so irresponsible he makes me ashamed I am a Canadian.” “I can’t stand to look at him on TV.” “He’s out on a limb sawing off our relations with the United States.”
Lubell was an American journalist, pollster, and political strategist. Among his closest friends was Kennedy’s national security advisor McGeorge Bundy. After the election, Lubell left for Europe carrying a letter of introduction from Bundy that stated, “He has been very helpful to the Government on more than one occasion, and he is a very able and disinterested reporter.”
The American ambassador to Canada was an old friend of the Kennedy family, Walter Butterworth. As all ambassadors do, Butterworth sent home regular reports that summarized the editorial stands of a host of Canadian newspapers. He went further, though, and held regular, secret briefings with a select group of Canadian journalists who were known to be critical of Diefenbaker. Throughout the campaign, he fed them information to augment their pro-Pearson, anti-Diefenbaker articles and editorials. In communications to Washington he boasted of the degree to which he was shaping Canadian public opinion.
The Kennedy administration’s interference became so blatant that Pearson was forced to deny that he and the president were in direct contact. He was repeatedly heckled as an American stooge. As he approached the podium to address a large Vancouver rally, an American flag was unfurled before the stage and burned. Hecklers shouted “American Slave” and “Yankee Lover” as a group of young men in the balcony loaded long straws and pelted him with frozen peas. He shouted his speech while his wife, Maryon, sat stoically on the platform with tears streaming down her cheeks.
A couple of days later, Pearson was about to speak in Edmonton when he was told that he and Kennedy’s mutual friend,Washington-based Canadian journalist Max Freedman, was on the phone from the White House press room. Pearson was rushed to a janitor’s room to take the call. He was told that Freedman and Kennedy had been having dinner and discussing the election and that the president wanted to speak with him. A tired and frustrated Pearson explained how Kennedy’s actions were backfiring and finally shouted, “For God’s sake, tell the president not to say anything. I don’t want any help from him. This would be awful.”
Lou Harris reported to Kennedy that all the American interference in the Canadian campaign was actually hurting Pearson and pleaded with the president to “call off his dogs”. “And for God’s sake,” he said, “keep quiet about Pearson no matter what you’re thinking.” The chastened president directed Bundy to order staff not to necessarily stop interfering in the election, just stop getting caught. A memo read: “The President wishes to avoid any appearance of interference, even by responding to what may appear to be untruthful, distorted, or unethical statements or actions. Will you, therefore, please ensure that no one in your Departments, in Washington or in the field, says anything publicly about Canada until after the election without first clearing with the White House.”
When Kennedy had visited Ottawa in 1961, he had mistakenly dropped a briefing memo written by his deputy national security assistant Walt Rostow. It was given to Diefenbaker who was incensed that it listed policies Kennedy would “push” Canada to adopt. Near the end of the 1963 campaign, Canadian journalists learned of the memo and wrote of the degree to which Kennedy was indeed “pushing” Canada.
The next morning, Kennedy saw an AP news story about the Rostow memo and immediately called Assistant Secretary of State Tyler. Kennedy read him excerpts and noted parts that he said were false. “Now it seems to me,” he said, “that he may have leaked this – Diefenbaker. It makes him look good and us look lousy…he’s a liar.” Kennedy asked Tyler to see what reaction the story was sparking in Canada and said, “If it is helping Diefenbaker we ought to knock it down. The question is how.”
A new Montreal Gazette article suggested that the memo contained a margin note, scribbled by the president, in which he referred to Diefenbaker using a “derogatory term” that was quickly purported to be “SOB”. Kennedy and Bundy discussed how they could handle the latest bad press without lending credibility to Diefenbaker’s claim that they were involved in the campaign. They decided that Kennedy’s press secretary would call the Gazette reporter and deny the SOB rumour. Minutes later, Time magazine’s Hugh Sidey was ushered into the White House for a previously arranged meeting. Still upset, Kennedy declared, “Now I want you to get this damn thing about Diefenbaker correct. I’ve been in this damn business long enough to know better than that. There are a lot of stupid mistakes I make but that isn’t one of them.” He added with a smile, “Besides, at the time I didn’t know what kind of guy Diefenbaker was.” Ben Bradlee later reported that Kennedy confided with him that he did not think Diefenbaker was a son of a bitch, he thought he was a prick.
Kennedy’s press secretary privately briefed selected reporters on the Rostow memo. From that meeting came an article by New York Times syndicated columnist James “Scotty” Reston, a mutual friend of Kennedy and Pearson. It appeared in the Montreal Star on the morning of April 8 – Election Day. It blamed Diefenbaker for the whole kerfuffle saying he had been wrong to have kept the memo, probably leaked news of its existence, had lied about it, and was wrong in using it for political advantage. As Canadians went to the polls, they pondered whether their prime minister was a liar or political rapscallion, and perhaps whether the president they admired so much thought he was a son of a bitch.
Canadians did as Kennedy had hoped and elected a Liberals government. Lester Pearson became Canada’s prime minister. What had just happened was not secret. Washington Daily News columnist Richard Starnes noted, “It is an irony of history that President Kennedy’s Administration while properly charged with failures in Cuba, Laos and Europe is prevented by the rules of the game from claiming credit for a skilfully executed triumph elsewhere. The victory occurred in Canada where adroit statecraft by the American State Department brought down the bumbling crypto anti-Yankee government of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker and replaced it with a regime which promises to be faithful to the concept of Canadian-American interdependence…the Kennedy Administration must congratulate itself in private for its coup.” The Starnes column was passed around the State Department and White House with readers adding smug handwritten notes to its cover page. Assistant Secretary of State Tyler wrote to McGeorge Bundy: “Mac, You see how smart we, I mean you, are!”
Canadians knew too. In a column that appeared in papers across Canada, syndicated columnist Charles Lynch wrote, “Diefenbaker was defeated by Kennedy.” His observation was echoed even in France where the Paris-Presse headline was succinct: “Canada has voted American.”
This question that comes first to mind is how this could have happened. The second, and more important given the Donald Trump victory, is could it happen again.
We Canadians are a smug lot. For the last while, we’ve pressed our noses to the window on our southern border and been shocked and chagrined by the gong show masquerading as a presidential election. We’ve been stunned by, among other things, all the talk of rigged elections and secret shenanigans. Let’s get over ourselves. Let’s consider a Canadian election that was truly rigged. First, let’s see how the Americans helped topple the Canadian government.
President John F. Kennedy hated Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Their political difference would have put them at odds even if they had gotten along famously. The final straw in the feisty fight was Kennedy’s rage over Diefenbaker’s failure to offer enthusiastic and unreserved support during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy needed the Canadian government changed. He usually got what he wanted.
Strike One: Two and a half months after the Cuban crisis ended and the world returned to the gritted-teeth peace, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander General Norstad ended his career with a tour of alliance capitals. On January 3, 1963, he arrived in Ottawa. Resplendent in his medal-bedecked uniform, Norstad made a brief statement and then, in response to reporters’ questions, suggested that Canada’s prime minister was a liar. He had been lying, the general said, about a number of things including the need for Canadian troops in Europe to have American nuclear weapons.
Many newspapers and people had already turned on Diefenbaker but Norstad’s stunning declaration turned more. A few days after igniting the firestorm, Kennedy welcomed Norstad to the White House, pinned a Distinguished Service Medal on his chest, and praised him for displaying “great skill” and “sensitivity” in his diplomacy and especially for having, “…in a unique way held the confidence of our allies in Europe and, of course, our partner to the north, Canada.”
Strike Two: Amid withering attacks from all sides, Diefenbaker rose in the House of Commons to explain and defend his government’s nuclear policy. He concluded that his government’s policies would always reflect Canadian interests and not those of “people from outside the country” who cared only for their own national interests.
The speech was a grand performance but confused more than clarified. It intensified questions about Diefenbaker’s leadership in the media and among his cabinet and caucus. The Americans then poured oil on the gathering flames. The American ambassador sped a message to the State Department in which he took specific exception to nearly every point Diefenbaker had made. The letter was reworked by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and then Secretary of State Dean Rusk took it to the president. Kennedy agreed to the letter’s release saying, “We can’t let these fellows get away with this.”
Late in the afternoon of January 30, the State Department press release was given to Canadian reporters in Washington. It was astonishing. Point by point, it explained how Diefenbaker had misrepresented a range of issues and facts. Only three weeks after General Norstad had told the Canadian people that Diefenbaker was being disingenuous regarding nuclear weapons, Kennedy’s State Department, even more bluntly, had called their prime minister a liar.
In the House of Commons Diefenbaker thundered: “[Canada] will not be pushed around or accept external domination or interference in the making of its decisions. Canada is determined to remain a firm ally, but that does not mean she should be a satellite.” The fury of indignation led by media on both sides of the border forced Secretary of State Rusk to respond. Far from apologizing, he said that after hearing Diefenbaker’s speech the Kennedy administration was justified in laying out the facts. News of Rusk’s statement appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was reprinted in papers across Canada. Yet another high-ranking American, the third in three weeks, had called the Canadian prime minister a liar.
Kennedy called his special advisor George Ball twice that night to say that he understood the effects of his government’s action in Canada but that Diefenbaker deserved it. Ball confirmed that as a result of their interventions the Diefenbaker government could fall. Kennedy doubled down saying, “We should feed some…up there that Diefenbaker’s in trouble. We knew that he has always been running against us so that it’s very important.”
Strike Three: The growing tension brought all that had been tearing the Diefenbaker cabinet asunder to the fore. In an unprecedented shouting match meeting at the prime minister’s residence, the cabinet split and the defense minister resigned. Shortly afterward, Rusk appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Canadian Affairs that had been called to investigate the State Department’s intervention into Canadian domestic political. Revealing that he obviously had an Ottawa mole, Rusk said that six or seven Canadian cabinet ministers were splitting from the prime minister. He then bluntly reiterated everything the State Department memo had said. For those keeping score, it was the fourth time a senior Kennedy administration official had publicly called Diefenbaker a liar.
Ottawa fell into chaos. There were bizarre late night meetings, hushed hallway conversations, private deal making, and public back stabbings. On the evening of Tuesday, February 5, for only the second time in Canadian history, a government was defeated on a vote on non-confidence. Diefenbaker visited the Governor General and the election was set for April 8.
The news sparked laughter and celebration at the White House. The American ambassador telegrammed the State Department to gloat about America’s role in having brought down Diefenbaker: “In effect, we have now forced the issue and the outcome depends on [the] basic common sense of Canadian electorate… we see grounds for optimism that over the long run this exercise will prove to have been highly beneficial and will substantially advance our interests.” Kennedy said nothing publicly about his administration’s role in the Canadian government’s fall. However, McGeorge Bundy later admitted to President Johnson, “I might add that I myself have been sensitive to the need for being extra polite to the Canadians ever since George Ball and I knocked over the Diefenbaker Government by one incautious press release.”
Let us not be naive. Politics is tough. Politicians will do things to advance their careers, political appointees will do things to support their bosses, and political leaders will do things to advance their agendas. Occasionally that leads one government to overthrow another with a violent revolution or coup. Sometimes, such as in Canada in 1963, it leads to a nudge through shaping perceptions and changing course.
Kennedy’s efforts in helping to overthrow the Canadian government would not have been worth it, of course, unless Lester Pearson and his Liberals won the ensuing election. The president would not leave that to chance. But that is for part two.
I have been away from my Monday blog for a while to complete my next book but I’m back. Part two of this story will appear next week with more in the weeks that follow. For more on Kennedy and Canada you could check out Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front which is available online and at bookstores throughout Canada and the United States.
There were five of them. They were experienced professionals who were good at their jobs and respected by their peers. But then, what had been going so well for so long went suddenly wrong. In the end, their lives were derailed and their boss resigned. But it was not really the end. The five and the resigned offer lessons for us all.
It was two in the morning when a Watergate Hotel security guard heard noises on the 6th floor. Plain-clothed police officers soon arrested the five for attempting to rob and bug the Democratic Party’s National Headquarters. It was soon discovered that all five had connections to the CIA and one was the security chief for the Committee to Re-elect the President.
And there, on June 17, 1972, it began. As the scandal unravelled it became clear that the burglary was a blip in a pattern. And the pattern was the point.
Nixon’s press secretary once blurted that the president would not be brought down by a “third-rate burglary.” He would not. Nixon later wrote that his presidency had been ruined by a botched burglary. It was not. Along with his supporters and apologists, Nixon never understood, or perhaps admitted, that the burglary was but a symptom of the problem, an example, and not the problem itself.
All presidents’ staff know the mantra: “We serve at the pleasure of the president.” It’s true but only to a point. Nixon directed his senior staff to do things they later admitted to knowing at the time were wrong. However, Nixon ordered Attorney General Richardson to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson said it was wrong, refused to do it and resigned. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General Ruckleshaus to fire Cox. He too said it was wrong, refused, and resigned.
Richardson and Ruckleshaus remembered that they served at the pleasure of the president but, more importantly, that they were responsible to their conscience and that their greater service was to the country and all for which it stood.
The burglary earned a tiny mention, buried deep in local papers. A couple of intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, however, would not let the story die. No matter how often or vehemently the people around Nixon and Nixon himself deflected, defended, and explained, the growing few who believed something was fundamentally wrong refused to surrender to fear or intimidation or to let it go.
The tenacious group asked increasingly pointed questions, refused to be shushed, and noted demonstrable untruths in official statements. Eventually, determination trumped stonewalling.
Nixon never understood that he was the temporary occupant of the office and not the office itself. He forgot or never got that his primary job was not to be a crusader for policy initiatives but a guardian of the constitution and its fundamental values. Among his biggest mistakes was seeing those reminding him of his job’s fundamental function as enemies to be fought or interests to be managed.
When the pattern of questionable behaviour was slowly revealed, Congress began to investigate and the Supreme Court began to rule. Nixon appeased but resented both. He employed the same obfuscations and delaying tactics used to fight critics and reporters. He never understood that the president is not the country’s sole authority and that power is quite rightly shared with others who are equally responsible for protecting its interests.
On May 22, 1973, Nixon released a long statement that contained a litany of lies. One thing, though, rang true: “A climate of sensationalism has developed in which even second- or third-hand hearsay charges are headlined as fact and repeated as fact.” He would not allow himself to see that when the truth is shaded, masked or denied, people will make up their own. And there is always a Toto Moment when the curtain is drawn.
Nixon appeared on television on August 8, 1974, and became the first man to resign the presidency. He had a chance to begin America’s healing. He did not take it. Instead, from the first sentence to the last, the speech was sprinkled with the word “I”. Just like all that took him down, it was all about him. He said he was resigning due to the absence of, “a strong enough political base in Congress.” He never acknowledged his responsibility for having destroyed that political base or, for that matter, for anything else.
Nixon’s inability to see beyond himself, to truly understand the presidency, acknowledge mistakes, or to offer an apology, rendered the resignation yet another a moment of profound sadness.
The day after his resignation, Nixon climbed the steps to the president’s helicopter. He turned, smiled, waved, and, for some reason, ironically, formed his fingers into symbols of peace. He was off to his opulent California home where he wrote books and was accorded the prestige, money, and support of any ex-president. He was pardoned for his crimes.
Meanwhile, the five were imprisoned. Many of Nixon’s staff would join them. Others suffered ruined careers. After causing such havoc, shattering institutional trust, initiating a culture of suspicion, and destroying so many lives, the helicopter’s symbol was indelible – he just flew away.
Fill a bucket with water. Drive your fist in, swirl it around and then yank it out. Watch how quickly the water calms. That was Nixon. The day after he resigned, fields were ploughed, classes were taught, kids climbed trees, pilots flew, fishers fished, and lovers loved. There were victims, gloomy apologists, and lost souls who had tied their wagons to the failed president but most folks just carried on.
America and all that word entails and inspires was there long before Nixon arrived and remained long after he left. The water settled. The people were warier and tougher to lead. But the place, along with and, in fact, because of the ideas, laws, and values that pumped its heart, moved on.
The whole sad affair is rife with lessons. Most important among them is that downfalls are less often about an event than a behavioural pattern. Power is divided for a reason. There are always opportunities for honourable action. A dribble of discontent can become a tsunami. Truth always wins. Failure is never an orphan and seldom absent good intentions, unintended consequences, or innocent victims. Leadership is about little else than character. Leaders lead only with the assent of the led.
And, perhaps most important of all, redemption and renewal arrive on the wings of deeply held values and that which is true to its values and visions of its founders will always endure – always.
Let’s forget Donald Trump’s bragging about things better left personal and insults masquerading as debates and consider instead what is really going on. We are witnessing the third American Revolution.
The first began in the 1760s with rival Boston street gangs joining to challenge the authority of a British governor. Unrest spread and years of requests were ignored and demands snubbed until the government’s legitimacy was lost. Only a third of the colonists supported the rebels but in any revolution that’s plenty. By 1787, a new state was in place.
The second revolution was also a slow-motioned affair. It began with the constitutional compromise that allowed southerners to keep their slaves. The deal was torn asunder as every new state sparked arguments regarding slave or free. Lincoln’s election was the last straw for those fighting to protect their economic and social structure from a government that threatened both. Over 600,000 Americans died in the ensuing struggle and many old wounds are yet to heal.
The roots of the third American Revolution lay in Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. In 1968, the wily presidential candidate determined that white middle and working class southerners were angry about the Civil Rights movement that was desegregating their schools, the Women’s movement that was tempting their daughters, social policies that were increasing their taxes, and longhaired students who were insulting their beliefs. Nixon welcomed white segregationists and blue-collar workers to what he called his “silent majority” that would “win back America.”
Ronald Reagan expanded Nixon’s constituency to white, God-fearing Christians who feared the widening gulf between what they saw on their televisions and heard from their pulpits. Rights to abortionists, then gays, then immigrants, signalled the road to perdition with the government doing nothing to stop it.
The shift from all in which they had once believed became more disturbing when the fading industrial revolution closed factories and real wages stagnated or fell. Debt rose to desperately hold lifestyles that had before been assumed. Then the World Trade Centre fell with the government having failed to prevent it. Iraq became a debacle with sons and daughters arriving home in flag-draped caskets amid government lies about why. Finally, in 2008, homes were taken along with jobs and savings while people watched their tax money bail out those who caused the crisis. People recalled Reagan’s exhortation that government was not the solution but the problem itself.
Fox News and radio screamers fanned the flames of discontent and the donor elite, epitomized by the Koch Brothers, tried to convince the Nixon-Reagan folks to continue to vote against their interests. The Tea Party gave voice to the angry and cheated who increasingly rejected those claiming to speak for the little guys but once in Washington voted with and for the one percent. The Tea Party, and to a lesser extent the Occupy Movement with whom it shared enemies, was Toto who drew back the curtain to reveal the rigged game.
As in the first revolutions, the elite has lost control of the narrative. Mitt Romney’s recent speech attacking Trump showed the old oligarchy playing the old game but Trump’s supporters listened to him like the colonists heard the King or the Confederates heeded Lincoln. Equally dismissive of the DC elite are those “Feeling the Bern.” Of course Trump spouts nonsense and many of Sander’s ideas are impractical. It doesn’t matter. While Hillary Clinton offers the old world view, Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz, Sanders, and Trump speak to the same rage; to the same people with nothing to lose who gathered on Boston streets and Gettysburg fields.
America’s third revolution has arrived. We can look back at the slow progress of the first two and identify tipping points where power shifted and a new order was born. Let’s consider now if the current nomination races represent a new tipping point or, perhaps, if that point is already behind us.
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There was no welcoming crowd. There were no reporters. Although the 1960 presidential election was three years away, Senator John F. Kennedy had been vigorously campaigning and so he must have found his silent arrival in Toronto on that slate grey November afternoon either amusing or disconcerting.
Throughout 1957, he had been a frequent and entertaining guest on American political chat shows. His office flooded newspapers and magazines with press releases and articles he had written or at least edited. He accepted 140 speaking engagements. The herculean effort to render his already famous name even better known had spilled over the border, as these things do, and so Canadians knew of him and his ambition.
John F. Kennedy (photo: historynewsnetwork.org)
Twenty female University of Toronto students certainly knew of him and were waiting. They were outside Hart House, where Kennedy was scheduled to participate in a debate. Since Hart House was opened in 1919, its lounges, library, and recreational facilities had become the university’s social and cultural hub. The impressive gothic revival building was a gift from the Massey family that had insisted on guidelines stipulating that within its stone, ivy-covered walls, Hart House would allow no studying, drinking, or women.
The first two rules were often and flagrantly broken but Margaret Brewin, Judy Graner, and Linda Silver Dranoff led a contingent hoping to end the third. They asked the Hart House warden to allow women to see the debate. When rebuffed, they gathered friends and created placards and greeted Kennedy with chants that alternated between “Hart House Unfair” and “We Want Kennedy”.
Kennedy smiled but said nothing as he was escorted through the drizzling rain and noisy protesters. Beneath its towering, dark oak-panelled ceiling the Debates Room could seat two hundred and fifty. It was packed. A scuffle interrupted introductions when a sharp-eyed guard noticed a guest’s nail polish and removed three women who had snuck in disguised as men. With the women locked out, the men inside prepared to argue: “Has the United States failed in its responsibilities as a world leader?” Kennedy was given leave to present remarks from the floor in support of the team opposing the resolution.
Reading from a prepared text, he offered that Americans did not enjoy immunity from foreign policy mistakes but that the difference between statesmanship and politics is often a choice between two blunders. He expressed concern regarding the degree to which public opinion sometimes dictated sound public policy and admitted that the United States had misplayed some recent challenges. Regardless of these and other errors, he argued, American foreign policy rested on sound principles and his country remained a force for good.
Hart House (photo: toronto.cityguide.ca)
The address was well written but poorly delivered. Kennedy read in a flat tone and seldom looked up. The student debaters tore him apart. Leading the team against him was a nineteen-year-old second-year student named Stephen Lewis. As a member of the four-man U of T debate team, he had competed at various Canadian and American universities and won accolades, including the best speaker award at a recent international competition. Lewis argued that the United States consistently acted in ways that violated the tenets of its Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He accused America of trying to be, “policeman, baby-sitter and bank to the world.” The audience offered good-natured ribbing throughout the debate. Cheers rewarded good points and witty rejoinders. Kennedy seemed to enjoy himself and was heckled along with the rest.
The audience gasped in disbelief when adjudicators scored the debate 204 to 194 and declared Kennedy’s side victorious. Afterwards, at a participants’ reception, Lewis and others spoke with Senator Kennedy and expressed confusion as to why a Democrat such as he would defend the hawkish policies of the current Republican administration. Kennedy startled them by confessing that he was a Democrat only because he was from Massachusetts. He agreed with the suggestion that if he were from Maine, he would probably be a Republican.
Kennedy was not through raising eyebrows. When leaving Hart House, a reporter asked his opinion of the women’s loud but polite demonstration. He smiled and said, “I personally rather approve of keeping women out of these places…It’s a pleasure to be in a country where women cannot mix in everywhere.”
Although his side won, Kennedy had impressed few with his speech, fewer with his confession of political opportunism, and fewer still with his flippant dismissal of women and the concept of gender equality. His brief meeting with a small group of the protesting women the next morning changed no minds. Kennedy’s Toronto flop was surprising because by 1957 he had become quite adept at handling gatherings that demanded a blend of political chops and charm.
The next time Kennedy visited Canada it would be a president. In pursuit of his Cold War goals he would ask Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to meld Canadian policies with his own. Diefenbaker’s response offered Kennedy an even rougher reception than he had received three years before on that chilly November evening in Toronto. Diefenbaker wanted Canada to be more sovereign. Kennedy wanted a satellite. And there it began.
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Sometimes I feel a need to apologize. Like everyone, I harbour a few regrets, wish some things were a little different and others a trifle easier. Mostly though, I feel like I’m in a hurricane’s eye. Things are calm here, they’re nice, and yet all around me seems awhirl in furious thunder. While so many are so angry, I’m happy. Sorry.
Am I missing something? I’ve recently seen two sources of curious anger that gave me pause.
Hockey is a great sport. Unlike football and baseball, offense and defence flip with no time for pauses or plans. Its beauty is the patterns in the chaos. Hockey culture, on the other hand, is another thing altogether. I’m not talking about the billionaire’s business posing as sport, but children’s hockey.
It’s not the kids’ fault. Nearly all of them are there for the fun but too many parents see games as invitations to display their character’s worst colours. They yell at referees, coaches, their kids and other peoples’, and sometimes even each other. Those yelling loudest are always those who understand the game least.
How many of those shouting for their kids to do this or that or about someone denying their kid opportunity are revealing personal rage regarding chances they didn’t take or doors slammed on their ambitions? How many parents are pushing kids and attacking others in blatant attempts to chase unrequited dreams through imposing them on their children?
My seven-year-old granddaughter plays on two hockey teams and I love to watch her. The score is kept on the big board but tallying stops whenever the spread grows to more than three goals. Teams shake hands after every game. Afterwards, we ask only if she had fun. She never knows who won and never cares. Parents and grandparents laugh and cheer and shout nothing but encouragement. It’s great.
Folks at other games are apparently different because the arena found it necessary to erect the sign below. I hope it helps those unable to park their regrets, fears, and vicarious dreams that manifest as ugly anger. I wonder, though, if those who need the sign ever read it, heed it, or even understand it’s for them.
Last week I also watched a Donald Trump speech on YouTube. Trump is fascinating but it’s not the first time we’ve seen his ilk. In 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace ran for president and attracted much the same people. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that he attracted the same emotion.
In the late 1960s, like today, a great many people were afraid that their world was changing in ways they didn’t like or understand. They were mad. Women and African Americans were demanding equality, the economy was shifting from its long post-war prosperity, and America was losing a war in Vietnam. Now, gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are demanding equality, the industrial revolution is over with nothing to replace avenues for middle-class prosperity and working-class mobility, and America seems to be losing the war on terror.
What can be done? One could delve into nuanced and complex causes and effects and accept that economic and social shifts take time and demand concessions from all sides. Forget that! There is no time for that nonsense when one’s life is happening now, children need their futures to start now, and a living must be made and debts paid right now.
It is much easier to get mad at those deemed responsible for the disconnect between how life is and how it was expected to be. Wallace knew it then and Trump knows it now. Therefore, blame the desegregationists or the immigrants. Blame the other, whether it’s the other race, religion, ethnicity, lifestyle, region, party, and, of course, blame the government. Get mad at those who are causing the changes or not stopping them or refusing to acknowledge that the way things were before was better.
George Wallace, February 1968. (www.eurweb.com)
Trump rides the difference between nostalgia and history. It’s why facts don’t matter and lies are accepted. His followers, like Wallace’s, yearn for a misty-eyed past that never really existed; when rules were certain, dreams assured, and everyone knew their place.
It’s a fretful yearning that fuels anger, fills stadiums, makes signs, and fills lungs with desperate rage. It’s the same yearning that sparks screaming at little hockey loving kids.
I don’t yell at hockey games. I don’t support Mr. Trump. I just can’t muster the necessary anger. This makes me neither better nor smarter than anyone – far from it. But I choose to be informed rather than bamboozled. I choose to be calm around children, knowing that they’re watching and learning how to behave and how to be an adult.
Emotions are decisions. I choose to go outside, run, be with family, enjoy friends, play music, be childlike but not childish with children, set and celebrate achievable measurable goals, enjoy goofiness, and when I encounter one, to say right out loud, “This is a good moment.” In short, I choose not to be angry but happy.
Happy is not a surrender of personal sovereignty, a rejection of values, or naive. Anger, on the other hand, is all three. Anger’s adrenaline is cheap tequila while happy’s endorphins is a fine wine. No one’s happiness led them to become a bully in the stands or to follow one behind a lectern. I’ll leave those yelling at Mr. Trump’s rallies and in hockey arenas to their rage.
For me, happy is a better decision and the eye of the hurricane is a pretty nice place. I think I’ll stay.
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Values matter. Values inform our character and offer touchstone and compass for our lives. If values are sacrificed for expediency, opportunity, or fear, we become blind wayfarers, adrift beneath a starless sky.
Values are as essential to us as individuals as to our collective selves: the nation. That is why we write them in the documents we cherish. They ring from the American constitution’s amendments, reflecting sacrifices made and victories won, as well as from the defiant, aspirational Declaration of Independence. Similarly, Canada’s constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms express values ingrained from lessons learned.
Sometimes, and seldom when seas are calm and skies blue, we are tested. The tests are not of the values themselves but of our fidelity to them.
Canadians were tested in 1914 when a ship called the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver’s harbour. Aboard were Indian families seeking to trade the corruption, poverty, and violence of their homeland for Canadian sanctuary. Officials discovered that the ship had passed through Hong Kong and so cited a 1908 law called the Continuous Passage Act which barred entrance to anyone arriving through a third country. It was a ruse. There were no direct routes from India to Canada. Canadians simply did not want Indians and certainly did not want the Komagata Maru’s 352 Sikh migrants. They were forced to steam away.
A generation later, in May 1939, the German ship St. Louis left Hamburg for Cuba. 937 Jewish refugees were fleeing Hitler’s madness. Nearly all had applied for American visas and saw Cuba as their stepping stone to freedom. Everyone knew of the Holocaust. Western newspapers had been reporting on the theft of Jewish dignity and rights and of Kristallnacht, the two horrifying nights the previous November in which synagogues and Jewish businesses were smashed. Everyone knew.
And yet, the Cuban government refused to allow the St. Louis’ passengers to disembark. The ship was forced to leave. It steamed north and when close enough to see Miami’s lights, American warships turned it away. President Roosevelt was told of the people’s plight and of their certain death if forced back to Germany, but he said nothing. A State Department telegram explained that the refugees must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” At that time, the waiting list was several years long.
The St. Louis was forced up the coast until it finally reached Halifax. Its reception was the same. The passengers were not allowed landfall. Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King was travelling in the United States at the time and referred the matter to his Immigration Branch director Frederick Charles Blair. Blair ordered the ship gone. When asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada he retorted, “None is too many.”
The St. Louis arrived back in Europe and Belgium, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands accepted some of the passengers but not all. With options exhausted, 532 returned to Germany and 254 perished in the Holocaust’s ovens.
The Komagata Maru and St. Louis are, in essence, again at our door. This time it is Syrian refugees fleeing the horrors of a complex and brutal war. As in 1914 and 1939, many Canadians and Americans are arguing that we should bar that door. We should, it is said, ignore the fact that unless we are indigenous people that we are all from somewhere else and, more significantly, that we should ignore our values.
One argument for saying no to the refugees is that Islamic terrorists could slip in with legitimate refugees. However, we should note that recent terrorist attacks in neither Mali nor Paris were conducted by Syrians or refugees. Should we trust our screening systems and our police and security organization or should we surrender our values to the fear that of the thousands of people who could be saved that one might be dangerous? Are not domestic terrorists such as those who have blown up buildings, or crowds such as in Boston, or shot up schools, and theaters not a greater threat?
America’s Homeland Security and Canada’s RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service agree that Syrian refugees present no threat to Canada or the United States. Time Magazine reported Pentagon sources as stating that the Syrian refugees are being carefully screened and that nearly all are, “survivors of torture, victims of sexual violence, targets of political persecution, the medically needy, families with multiple children and a female head of household.”
A second argument is more disturbing. The racism that sent the Komagata Maru and St. Louis away is with us still, it’s just become more cleverly hidden. The embers of racism are kept alive not just by the obscene beliefs and actions the KKK that we seldom see but by the little racist jokes at coffee shops that we too often hear. A number of pundits, politicians, and even some who wish to be president have been fanning those embers into flames. Canadian cities have seen Muslim women harassed and a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario was burned. Donald Trump has called for a registry of Muslim Americans. Jeb Bush said that only Christian Syrians should be admitted.
Do these fears, attitudes, actions, and proposals reflect the values inherent in our founding documents? Do they reflect the lessons learned from the Komagata Maru and St. Louis, or the Holocaust, by the treatment of indigenous people, or our Second World War Japanese internment camps? What would Lincoln, Kennedy, Diefenbaker, or Pearson say? Or, if you rather, and if you believe, in the Bible’s Matthew 25:35, Jesus taught that showing love for Him was done by caring for the most needy: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.” And you invited me in.
The question of the Syrian refugees, like all questions, whether at home, at work, or on the national stage, circle back to values. We believe in our values or we do not. Talking about them doesn’t count. We should measure ourselves, our leaders, and our nation according to the congruency of words and actions. If we do not act according to our values then we really don’t believe in them. If community doesn’t really matter then let’s stop pretending it does. If we really don’t believe in multiculturalism or tolerance or diversity or the separation of Church and State then let’s say so. Let’s concede that all men are not really created equal after all. Let’s take a chisel to the Statue of Liberty so that it no longer proclaims:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
We have a choice. We can listen to our values. Let us insist that the Komagata Maru and St. Louis incidents were aberrations from which we learned. Let us celebrate our values by living them. Let us reject those who sully established values for personal, professional, or political gains no matter how cleverly disguised as for the greater good.
We should welcome Syrian refugees because our values say that we should. And if all that is not enough, there is one more reason that we should save them – because we can.
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In TV’s political drama West Wing, C. J. once bemoaned a trivial incident being reported as news and said, “Everybody’s stupid in an election year.” Charlie replied, “No, everybody gets treated stupid in an election year.” With the first debate in Canada’s long electoral slog heading toward the October vote now over and the campaign gathering steam, sadly, it appears that C. J. was correct. But there remains time to change. Canadians can enjoy the campaign they deserve if party leaders obeyed the following rules:
Don’t call us voters or taxpayers. We are citizens. Citizenship is a profound concept that informs our collective identity, individual rights, and responsibilities to others. Don’t cheapen citizenship’s nobility by confusing it with voting and paying taxes. They are merely two of its duties.
Don’t tell us we’re choosing a prime minister. We’re not Americans picking a president or Human Resource directors involved in a hiring. Rather, we’re architects designing a House. The 338-member House we create will decide which party enjoys its confidence and that party’s leader will become ours.
Don’t deride coalitions. Canada fought the First World War with Borden’s coalition government. In 2010, Britain’s Conservative and Liberal Democrat party leaders negotiated a coalition that successfully and responsibly governed Britain for five years. Coalitions are a legitimate option in any parliamentary democracy.
Don’t offer false choices. The most obvious example is the old chestnut of picking either a thriving economy or sustainable development. Respected scientists and economists have argued for years that we can have both or neither.
Don’t employ terms without definitions. Promising tax changes for the rich and middle class without defining either invites cynicism. Promises to help families are similarly shallow when the concept of family is so broad.
Don’t try to scare us. We know that foreign policy discussions must involve Canada’s support for aid, international justice, environmental stewardship, and fair trade. We know we must sometimes go to war. Please don’t pretend that foreign policy is about nothing more than tempering liberty to battle terrorism that, after all, is not an enemy but a tactic.
Don’t bribe us with our money. Monthly cheques for this program or that are just dribbles of our cash that you held for awhile. Come tax time, you’ll get part of it back again anyway. We are not children and our money is not your candy.
Don’t devalue social media. If you shade the truth or outright lie, change your message in various regions, or contradict a previously stated principle, we’ll know instantly. We’ll know before you can react or spin. Your TV ads won’t save you because fewer of us watch them than follow Twitter and Facebook.
Don’t underestimate us. Kim Campbell once said that campaigns are not a time to discuss complicated issues. The unusual length of this campaign offers a unique opportunity to prove her wrong. Trust our intelligence and attention spans by engaging us with complex ideas and grand visions. We just may surprise you.
Don’t forget character. Impress us by your ability to rise above empty slogans, staged events, sophomoric behaviour, and bully tactics. Speak not at us but with us. Speak with journalists who inform us. We all suffer slips of the tongue so if you commit a verbal gaffe, apologize and move on. Relax. A leader’s most important attribute is not a bursting war chest, lists of promises, strict adherence to a script, or even, forgive me, nice hair. Leadership is about character. In fact, that’s all it’s about. Show it. We’ll recognize it. We’ll reward it.
West Wing’s Leo McGarry once said, “We’re going to raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.” We respect all those working to earn a seat in our House. Just imagine if party leaders, in turn, respected us by obeying the ten rules and adopting McGarry’s goal as their guide. We could then engage in a campaign worthy of Canadians.
If you liked this, please send it to others through Facebook or your social media of choice. This column appeared as an op. ed. in the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, and Maclean’s online.