In Canada’s early history, politicians were always ready to debate their opponents in a public forum and were never shy to issue a stinging barb to a heckler while on the hustings. Some were better at verbal exchanges than others, but before television turned debates into little more than uninspiring gab fests, after which the media judges the outcome using tidbits of selected quotes and sound-bites to determine the so-called winner, politicians directly addressed the people they hoped to sway to their cause, appearing in the “raw” in every sense of the word.
Tuesday evening’s televised debate will not go down in history as having a “knock-out punch” delivered by one of the three vying for prime minister — separatist Gilles Duceppe excluded. There was no clear winner or loser, the three hopefuls simply survived to campaign another day, despite what each party’s spin doctors would have us believe. In the process of emerging relatively unscathed, they did little to change the minds of Canadian voters.
Game-changing “zingers” are apparently beyond the talents of those now pursuing the nation’s highest political office. But unlike today’s aspirants, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, a Conservative, had a deft command of the fine art of making a subtle point in a public setting, allowing him to turn what many perceived as potentially campaign-destroying adversity into a strength. For example, he once appeared on the same stage as an opposition Reform (Liberal) candidate in a North Ontario constituency. “When he mounted the platform, after having taken too much strong drink and being shaken over a rough track on the train,” wrote E.B. Biggar in his book, Anecdotal Life of Sir John A. Macdonald (1891), “he became sick and vomited on the platform while his opponent was speaking. Such a sight before a large audience disgusted even many of his friends, and the prospects for the Conservative cause that day was not bright.
“The opposing candidate, whom we will call Jones, ceased speaking, and John A. rose to reply. What could he say, or how could he act to redeem himself and gain respect or attention?
“‘Mr. Chairman and gentlemen, he began, ‘I don’t know how it is, but every time I hear Mr. Jones speak it turns my stomach!’ The conception was so grotesque and so unexpected, that the audience went off in fits of laughter, and disgust was instantly turned into general good humour and sympathy.”
Macdonald ranks among Canada’s greatest prime ministers, despite his occasional lapse into binge drinking. He had a “national dream,” and he carried it out while in power. His greatest accomplishment was linking Canada by rail from the Atlantic to the Pacific, creating a unified nation in the process. But for all his achievements, he still possessed flaws that would effectively prevent him from becoming prime minister today.
There was the occasion when a writer attempted to make a verbatim shorthand report of a speech delivered by Macdonald at a political rally in Kingston. Macdonald looked over the written copy with “pain and surprise,” according to Sir John Willison (Reminiscences Political and Personal, 1919), “and with the mild austerity of a grieving father added, ‘Young man, if you ever again undertake to report the speech of a public man be sure that you keep sober.’”
Alexander Mackenzie, Canada’s next prime minister, who berated Macdonald for his overindulgences, was on the hustings attacking the Ontario government as a pawn of Macdonald and the Conservatives during the 1872 election campaign, and said the Grits (Liberals) stood for “correct administration and parliamentary purity” (Dale E. Thomson, Alexander Mackenzie, Clear Grit, 1960).
“Mackenzie told the electors; he and his fellow-campaigners were ‘clear grit in every sense of the word.’ What did it mean? called someone in Strathroy. ‘Clear Grit,’ he replied with an impatient flash of his steely, blue eyes, and an extra rasp of the Scottish brogue, ‘is pure and without a particle of dirt in it.’”
Just as today, partisan politics was rampant in the early days of Canadian politics. Oxford historian Goldwin Smith, who became a Canadian journalist, was attending his first political picnic rally in his adopted nation. “After listening to the speakers harangue their opponents, Smith drew an old farmer aside and asked him what the real difference was between his party and the other (Abraham Rotstein, ed., The Prospect of Change, 1965). The farmer thought long before replying. ‘We say the other fellows are corrupt.’”
But not all political candidates could control their message. Campaign-changing errors periodically popped up. Nicholas Flood Davin, known as the “Voice of the North-West” as the Conservative MP for Assiniboia West in Saskatchewan, was enlisted to help Conservative candidates in Ontario. Davin prized his reputation for “ready retorts” (Hector Charlesworth, More Candid Chronicles, 1928), “and was even accused of preparing such retorts beforehand and placing hostile agents in his audiences to ask seemingly embarrassing questions, which would be swiftly and amusingly answered. Next morning the report would read ‘With ready wit, Mr. Davis silenced his questioner, etc., etc.’”
Unfortunately for Davin, his ego got the better of him on one occasion when he was scheduled to address a meeting for a Conservative candidate in Owen Sound. Before leaving Ottawa, he took the precaution of givig the Ottawa Citizen, then a Conservative Party organ, a copy of his speech. “The copy had the phrase ‘Cheers and applause’ interlarded at appropriate intervals. It was also studded with questions to which the speaker had responded ‘with ready wit.’”
A blizzard struck and Davin could not reach the political rally, so he sent a wire to the Citizen editor, “Let the speech go,” meaning not to publish it, but the message was interpreted as giving permission for its printing. “The undelivered speech therefore appeared next morning with ‘cheers and applause,’ ‘ready retorts,’ and other ornaments in their proper place.”
Dr. George Landerkin, a Liberal MP, learned the facts and read the undelivered speech as reported in the Ottawa Citizen in the House of Commons to the embarrassment of Davin, “giving diabolical emphasis to the ‘cheers and applause’ and the ‘ready wit,’” wrote Charlesworth.
Politicians of yesteryear risked their careers by engaging the public and appearing in the “raw.” Regardless of his state of inebriation, one can only imagine how Macdonald would have done in a televised debate against the three sober, but quite uninspiring, hopefuls on Tuesday evening.