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John Diefenbaker: A good prime minister?

The Story

John Diefenbaker's life and career were a "tragedy," biographer Peter C. Newman tells CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup. Newman says Diefenbaker could have "done miracles" with the massive 208-seat majority he won in 1958. But Diefenbaker had worked so hard for 37 years to become prime minister, he had no "psychic energy" left for the top job and squandered its opportunities, Newman says. Callers to the national phone-in show, however, remember a much different man. A woman from Edmonton recalls a "very sincere upright and dedicated man -- a true Canadian." She's disappointed that the CBC is highlighting the views of Newman and other Diefenbaker critics. A Vernon, B.C., man calls Diefenbaker the greatest Canadian prime minister of the 20th century, brought down by his cabinet of "prima donnas." 

Medium: Radio
Program: Cross Country Checkup
Broadcast Date: Aug. 17, 1979
Guest(s): Peter C. Newman
Host: Wayne Grigsby
Duration: 8:35
Photo: Canadian Museum of Civilization / 981-10-156

Did You know?

• The mixed reviews of Diefenbaker's legacy in this clip are a fair representation of the assessments expressed after his death in 1979. His skills as a speaker, debater and political campaigner were, however, acknowledged as being the best, or among the best, in Canadian political history.

• Peter C. Newman, who appears in this clip, is a veteran biographer and journalist. His detailed, devastating assessment of Diefenbaker's reign as prime minister, Renegade in Power - The Diefenbaker Years, was published in 1963. Although the book wounded Diefenbaker politically, the Opposition leader told reporters at the time he hadn't read it and didn't plan to.

• In a newspaper column, Joe Clark said his predecessor's "real and rare accomplishment is that he opened the sense of being Canadian to people who had felt shut out before." Clark cited Diefenbaker's expansion of the role of women and natives in government, his Bill of Rights and his stand against apartheid South Africa. Clark also acknowledged faults, calling Diefenbaker suspicious, distrustful and unable to understand changes in Quebec.

• Other accomplishments noted by Diefenbaker fans included the Agriculture Rehabilitation and Development Act of 1961 that helped stabilize farm incomes, the development of China as a customer for Canadian wheat, and programs to help reinvigorate the economies of the Atlantic provinces.

• The Globe and Mail called Diefenbaker "an exceptional leader with imagination and dedication to his ideals, as the first years of his prime ministership demonstrated." The newspaper also praised Diefenbaker's ability to communicate with people at all levels of society. But the "tragedy" of his career was that "he fought for so long so alone, and against so many obstacles even within his own party, that he came to mistrust political friendship and advice from any quarter."

• Tommy Douglas, the former NDP leader and Saskatchewan premier, noted two Diefenbaker accomplishments "for which Canada owes him a great deal." The first was a policy that Ottawa would pay half the cost of hospital care for people in any province with a medicare plan. As a result, more provinces provided hospital care until it became an insured service across Canada. The second accomplishment was construction of the South Saskatchewan dam providing irrigation and power to a former "dust bowl."

• Tommy Douglas was voted the "Greatest Canadian" in a 2004 CBC competition. Diefenbaker was voted No. 47, behind past prime ministers Pierre Trudeau (3), Sir John A. Macdonald (8), Sir Wilfred Laurier (43) and Jean Chrétien (45). Diefenbaker beat out prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King (49) and 15 other prime ministers who didn't make the top-100 list. The public cast 1.2 million votes over six weeks.

• Diefenbaker lives on in many ways. The Diefenbaker Canada Centre at the University of Saskatchewan is a museum and research centre. There's also Diefenbaker Lake, a man-made reservoir south of Saskatoon; John G. Diefenbaker International Airport in Saskatoon; John G. Diefenbaker High School in Calgary and many other tributes.



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