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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.