Clark­son’s magic mag­ni­fy­ing glass


National Post (National Edition) - - EDITORIAL LETTERS - Rex MuR­phy

Ego­tist (n.) A fool­ish per­son, more in­ter­ested in her­self than me. — Am­brose Bierce

It has been said, and with con­sid­er­able au­thor­ity, that there are few pas­times more con­ge­nial than the con­tem­pla­tion of one’s own virtues. As long as we re­mem­ber that our own eye is the kind­est that will ever light upon us, the prac­tice is harm­less. It is gen­er­ally a mis­take, how­ever, to pub­lish the find­ings of self-in­ven­tory, as it in­vites the world to mea­sure the chasm be­tween what we think of our­selves, and what oth­ers — de­cid­edly more scrupu­lous on the topic — think of us.

The great or­a­tor Mar­cus Tul­lius Cicero was be­yond all dis­pute an or­na­ment to the Ro­man state, and ap­pre­ci­ated as such, but even Cicero raised a blis­ter on his rep­u­ta­tion when he is­sued the im­mor­tal self-flat­tery: “O Happy Rome, to be born dur­ing my Con­sul­ship.”

Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is the sin­cer­est form of hy­per­bole, and it has al­ways been thus. Th­ese and kin­dred thoughts stum­bled into prospect when I read The Post’s Platt, Smith, and Ivi­son’s var­ied ac­counts of the gor­geous af­tertenure of once gover­nor gen­eral Adri­enne Clark­son, oc­ca­sioned by the rev­e­la­tions of her tu­mid in­cur­sions into gov­ern­ment ex­pense ac­counts. In one of th­ese fine writ­ers’ re­ports there stood this quo­ta­tion from her for­mer Ex­cel­lency’s web­site:

“Madame Clark­son is univer­sally ac­knowl­edged to have trans­formed the of­fice dur­ing her six years at Rideau Hall and to have left an in­deli­ble mark on Canada’s his­tory.”

Now, for ex­am­ple, were a pi­rate read­ing this, this is the point at which he would let rip — “Well, shiver me tim­bers, that’s a bit much” — for even an un­schooled marine brig­and would lift an eye patch at so gen­er­ous a self­assess­ment. And even be­yond the pi­rate class, mere or­di­nary cit­i­zens would likely call a halt at the same spot, and sadly con­clude that Madame Clark­son was read­ing her ca­reer at Rideau Hall with too pow­er­ful or kindly a mag­ni­fy­ing glass.

The full mod­ern monar­chy it­self, El­iz­a­beth II and all her fledglings, is but a shadow re­gency, as we should say, all shell and no tur­tle. The cen­turies have left it hol­low in (al­most) all func­tion but the cer­e­mo­nial. The ves­tige of it that we in Canada re­tain, more from tra­di­tion and cour­tesy than use, is then but the shadow of a shadow. I can­not see there­fore how such a dou­bly void in­sti­tu­tion can be “trans­formed” by any given ap­pointed oc­cu­pant. What is there, in sub­stance, to trans­form?

And from there to launch a claim that one’s ten­ure, as a sur­ro­gate, in a sym­bolic role, has or could leave an “in­deli­ble mark on Canada’s his­tory” is to en­ter re­gions of fan­tasy best left to am­a­teur nov­el­ists or pro­fes­sional used-car sales­men. As in Christ­mas fes­tiv­i­ties, one should never mis­take the bauble for the tree.

On the mat­ter of her ex­pense­claim­ing over the 13 years since Madame Clark­son in­hab­ited the role, peo­ple are cor­rect in rais­ing their eye­brows (in sync with their gorge) at the scale of sums claimed. The Post’s more re­cent ac­count tells of charges, for sin­gle years, that breached the high-wa­ter mark of two hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars! I think we have ship­build­ing projects that cost less.

What kind of job is it, that has no du­ties, but for which there is an ex­pense bud­get of one-fifth of a mil­lion dol­lars? An ab­so­lutely ideal one maybe. But in the or­di­nary run of things, vol­un­teer ac­tiv­ity, pub­lic ser­vice, “giv­ing back” — call it what you will — does not sum­mon such com­pen­satory sums from the pub­lic vaults. It rather con­fuses the idea of “mak­ing a con­tri­bu­tion” with re­ceiv­ing one.

All have ac­knowl­edged there are “no rules be­ing bro­ken here.” And in­deed, that is a song we have heard on other ju­bilees, such as dur­ing the sagas of Mike Duffy’s res­i­den­tial woes, and the less epic tra­vail of Bev Oda’s or­ange juice. “No rules bro­ken” is a maxim of last re­sort when the pub­lic’s view of things takes a dark turn.

I do not think there can be any ra­tio­nal ob­jec­tion to pro­vid­ing the pub­lic with a de­tailed ac­count­ing of the mil­lion or mil­lions of ex­penses claimed, and the func­tions or ac­tiv­i­ties that re­quired such splen­did sup­port­ing ex­pen­di­tures. It might even be worth ex­plor­ing whether the Con­fed­er­a­tion can sus­tain so bur­den­some a con­tri­bu­tion as Madame Clark­son is will­ing to oblige us with.

What seems most to come out of this af­fair, the scale of ex­penses claimed af­ter the of­fi­cial du­ties were ended, is that old fa­mil­iar and al­ready-cited-by-many re­frain of “I am en­ti­tled to my en­ti­tle­ments.” To put it sim­ply, there’s some­thing very con­de­scend­ing, even of­fen­sive, about the en­tire busi­ness, how­ever — if we have to think of it this way — le­gal it is.

Cana­di­ans feel, and feel cor­rectly, that there is a cer­tain class of dig­ni­taries, cul­tural fig­ures and pseudo-celebri­ties who as­sign them­selves an im­por­tance to our pub­lic life, who see them­selves as “sig­nif­i­cant” to how the coun­try runs, in a way that is all out of pro­por­tion with the ac­tual facts of the case.

So far as I can tell of the most re­cent train of oc­cu­pants, David John­ston looks to be most peo­ple’s idea of the very model of a mod­ern gover­nor gen­eral. Mr. John­ston has, with no re­luc­tance what­so­ever, promised to pro­vide the de­tails on what ex­penses he has in­curred since leav­ing Rideau Hall. He seems to have kept his bal­ance in the role, and has been pur­pose­fully mod­est and unas­sum­ing.

Will Ms. Clark­son be is­su­ing a like ac­count? Surely we can­not ex­pect less from one who has trans­formed the role, in­scribed our his­tory, and in at least in one depart­ment — ex­penses — set the bench­mark for all oth­ers, both fore and af­ter.

Adri­enne Clark­son

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