I went to the sad-sack NDP convention in Toronto eight years ago that half-heartedly elected Jack Layton as party leader.   The seats were at best half-filled, mainly by people confirming a just-published academic study putting the party's median age at 59.

The lights were dim and, eerily, there was a lack of sound. No chatter. No buzz. I recall a stale smell in the place.

The news media, always such powerful mouthpieces of orthodoxy, were publishing who-cares-who-wins reports and speculating on whether the NDP was still breathing — or deserved to breathe. So marginal it was said to have become before the mainstream great tide of neo-liberal ideology sweeping all before it.

I went because I'm a journalist, of course. But primarily I went because I am attached to my country's history and a Westerner steeped in the West's historical tradition of social gospel — the tradition of Baptist pastor Tommy Douglas and Edward (Red Ted) Scott, the former Anglican primate of Canada.

Thus, I had a romantic attachment to the candidacy of Winnipeg MP and social gospel clergyman Bill Blaikie, who had the support of virtually all of the party's parliamentary caucus as well as Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton, Manitoba NDP Premier Gary Doer and Shirley Douglas, daughter of Tommy.

In that contest, Jack Layton was the pushy outsider, too brash and slick by half, a Toronto city councillor from the cosmopolitan downtown who boldly declared he had no intention of campaigning for a seat in Parliament until the next general election, whenever that might be.

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He was backed by former leaders Ed Broadbent and Audrey McLaughlin, and he won.  

When he died, he was the first NDP leader of the Official Opposition, at the head of a 103-member caucus.

Where did he fit in the NDP's history? He didn't. He was Jack.

Jack be quick

He was Jack the scion of generations of conservative politicians, Jack who cared about people and liked them and passionately loathed inequality.

He was also Jack who didn't come from labour's halls or social gospel's parsonages. But he was Jack who had a marvellous political imagination and could make creative political deals like a used car salesman on speed.

"If he'd been in business, he would have made a fortune," his friend, Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan, said in conversation. "He was devious when he needed to be devious, a charmer when he needed to be a charmer."

He was Jack who liked to party, carouse, sing, play his guitar and have fun.

When he heard a couple of years ago that graduate students at University of Toronto's Massey College had carved a jack o'layton pumpkin for Halloween, he invited them over to his house for drinks. With their pumpkin!

Above all else, this was a man who changed the face of national politics with a new kind of political vehicle for the Canadian discourse on what the nature of this imagined community should be — sunnier, more optimistic and more concerned with inequality, pensions, education and health care than with fear and cutting taxes.

Brassy Jack, they said

By the definition of their work, politicians and journalists are compelled to maintain a measure of distrust of each other.

In Jack Layton, I knew a man for more than 30 years whose intellect, humanity and energy I admired and who never failed to charm me. And yet the face of cocky self-confidence that he showed made me uneasy. How could someone be that sure of being right all the time?

 

'He was devious when he needed to be devious, a charmer when he needed to be a charmer'—Adam Vaughan, Toronto councillor and Layton friend

I knew what so many of my friends in sophisticated downtown Toronto thought of his campaign for mayor in 1991. Too slick. Too self-promoting. Not the right kind of Left.

I almost wrote: Not WASPy enough, because being WASP in downtown Toronto is a behavioural cult, not an ethnicity. But, then again, Layton was almost the ultimate Red Tory WASP.

He appeared to change substantially after his mayoralty loss. The flashy hustle became muted. There was less brazenness.

His deftness at working with people to find common ground became more apparent and his language became more visionary.

Friends say it was Olivia who raised his political game — he married artist and Toronto school trustee Olivia Chow in 1988 and she later joined him on city council and the benches of the House of Commons.

Whatever the case, the polls over the past few years have reflected the image of what the man himself has wanted to project: warmth, decency, the best political leader in Canada to join in his back yard for a beer.

All of it accurate. None of it theatre. I found him, after his mayoralty loss, not softer or gentler, but something like that.

What kind of a mayor of Toronto he would have made, we'll never know. He continued growing as a politician after 1991, which is one of the many interesting things about Jack Layton.

We'll also never know what kind of opposition leader — prime minister in-waiting — he would have made.

But there's a lesson here for the pundits and political scientists who dismissed as puffed-up pomposity Layton's electoral declarations that he was campaigning to be prime minister.

Brassy Jack, they all said. "I was one of the last to take him seriously," allowed Will Straw, director of McGill University's Institute for the Study of Canada.

So, I confess, was I, and he used to call me at home.