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Going gently… or not

We all know the type. The ones who, after the hosts have turned out the lights and gone to bed, are still jabbering away on the couch in the living room, occasionally looking at their watches and murmuring, "I should probably get going," without making any move to leave.

There's a definite skill to it, knowing when to leave. But there are always some who just never seem to learn when to say good night.

John Diefenbaker
John Diefenbaker  

For many Canadians, the classic example of this lack of instinct will always be John Diefenbaker. "The Chief," as he was known, was prime minister from June 1957 to April 1963. But after his defeat to Lester Pearson, Diefenbaker stayed on, accusing the U.S. Kennedy administration of somehow masterminding his downfall. He kept his job as leader of the Conservatives, despite pressure to leave. His own party finally called a leadership convention. Not seeing the writing on the wall, Diefenbaker ran, but was defeated by Robert Stanfield.

For many, that would have been hint enough, but Diefenbaker hung on yet longer, looking over Stanfield's shoulder. It seems he was doing what he loved, and so saw no reason to move on. He was quoted in 1971, saying, "Law firms want me on their letterhead. And they'd pay me $100,000 a year just to hang around. But that's not the way I want to go out."

Diefenbaker died in August 1979, three months after being elected to the House of Commons for the 13th time.

William Lyon Mackenzie King was also reported to have had trouble relinquishing the reins. In his book Mr. Prime Minister (Longmans Canada Ltd. 1964), Bruce Hutchison writes that at the end of his time in office, King only worked a few hours a day and, "the Cabinet knew that he was unfit for office and should retire but no one dared to bell that formidable cat."

 Sheila Copps
  Sheila Copps

There have been other times when the party hasn't been so delicate. Liberal party stalwart Sheila Copps would not let her leader Paul Martin push her to the sidelines without a fight. Even Jean Chrétien stayed longer than many in his party would have liked. Speculation before the 2000 election that he would step down was proved wrong when his wife urged him to run again, in part to foil Martin's attempts to become leader.

The key is not to wait until the only other choice is ignominious defeat. Richard Hatfield, premier of New Brunswick, outstayed his welcome with voters in 1987, and lost every seat in the province.

Joey Smallwood
Joey Smallwood  

Joey Smallwood was the first premier of Newfoundland under Confederation. He was premier for 23 years. In 1971, unemployment was going up and the electorate had tired of the Liberals. Although he delayed it for almost as long as possible, Smallwood eventually called an election, which resulted in a tie for his Liberals and Frank Moores' Conservatives. Despite the number of seats, the popular vote was strongly with the Conservatives.

But Smallwood hung on, asking for recounts and waiting out court challenges until there was no hope. A court decision gave the Tories the majority. Smallwood resigned two days later.

In the flurry of analysis following his departure, a man who should know had this to say about Smallwood's decision: "He would have had a greater place in history if he had withdrawn gracefully once defeat became inevitable." That man was John Diefenbaker.

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