You’d likely agree, very few Canadian political books would be classified as beach reads. But one newly released book — about the private lives of Canadian prime ministers — is about the closest we may get this year to a breezy, summer read about politics in this country. “Being Prime Minister”, by history teacher J.D.M. Stewart, is filled with many of the details that are more common to works of fiction than non-fiction … a lot of humanizing information, such as the prime ministers who liked to stay up the latest seemed to be R.B. Bennett and Mackenzie King — both of them, probably not coincidentally, bachelors in office. We also learn who had the most meetings and who the least… and how prime ministers kept fit on the job. And what our prime ministers liked to eat for breakfast. For instance… Wilfrid Laurier enjoyed oatmeal with salt or an occasional baked apple, while Jean Chrétien is fond of toast and Raisin Bran. Hmm…. no-one liked Captain Crunch?
Further: The book is organized around aspects or themes of the PMs’ private lives while they held power — everything from travel, pets and what sports they enjoyed to how they handled security and privacy. It’s a lot of trivia, but it’s not trivial. How these prime ministers lived often tells you a lot about how they worked, since the job is a 24-7 one.
We learn, for instance, which prime ministers liked meetings and which ones avoided them when they could. Stewart contrasts the number of cabinet meetings held by Louis St. Laurent during his time in office in the 1950s, to those held by John Diefenbaker, who came after him. Though Diefenbaker held nearly double the number of meetings, Stewart writes, that was more a testament to his lack of efficiency — a trait at which St. Laurent reportedly excelled.
We learn a little bit too about how prime ministers tried to stay healthy on the job; several seemed to enjoy swimming in the pool that Pierre Trudeau installed in the 1970s at 24 Sussex. Fitness regimes, however, are often the first to be sacrificed on the busy, unpredictable prime ministerial schedule, we’re told. All of the prime ministers who had access to it adored Harrington Lake, the Gatineau Hills cottage retreat that’s been in the news recently because of the cost of added amenities for Justin Trudeau’s family.
The research is based on memoirs, papers and biographies of past PMs, as well as interviews with six of the seven living former prime ministers. (Stephen Harper would not agree to an interview, unfortunately.)
Stewart’s clear intent is to make Canada’s prime ministers a little more multi-dimensional than their portrayals in history books, the media or even by their own handlers. In one early chapter, he sets down some broad personality profiles and categorizes the longer-serving prime ministers into some basic types: charmers, gentlemen and loners. (Brian Mulroney, unsurprisingly, is classed as a charmer, while Harper, equally unsurprisingly, gets the loner designation.)
Three prime ministers are deemed one-of-a-kind — not easily compared with the others: Diefenbaker, Pierre Trudeau and Chrétien. The current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is also treated as a bit unusual, too, since he’s lived the life twice — once as the son of a PM, now as the one with his own family and life to manage while head of Canada’s government.
There’s an increasing tendency these days to dehumanize political leaders of all stripes; to see them as little more than products or message-delivery robots. It’s a limited, rather uninteresting view of politics. But everyone involved, whether it’s the media or politicians themselves, has contributed to the trend.
Being Prime Minister gives us all a break from that brand of politics — and isn’t that what we’re all looking for this summer?
(Source: Susan Delacourt, Toronto Star Columnist; Image: rakinginthesavings.com)