Cap­tur­ing What Makes PMs Tick J.D.M. Ste­wart

Policy - - Contents - Re­view by An­thony Wil­son-Smith

J.D.M. Ste­wart

Be­ing Prime Min­is­ter. Toronto, Dun­durn Press, 2018.

The job of be­ing prime min­is­ter, Jean Chré­tien once ob­served, is “never easy.” Some frus­tra­tions in­clude the need to “hurt the feel­ings of a lot of peo­ple on a reg­u­lar ba­sis” and to “op­er­ate in the pub­lic eye with MPs who fret and bu­reau­crats who gos­sip and col­leagues who dis­agree.” Not to men­tion, of course, mak­ing de­ci­sions that af­fect mil­lions of lives—and some­times send­ing sol­diers off to wars from which some do not re­turn.

In those ways, the tribu­la­tions of be­ing a Cana­dian prime min­is­ter have not changed greatly in the 151 years since Con­fed­er­a­tion. In that time, only 23 peo­ple have held the job; seven are alive. All have shared the re­lent­less work­load while, at the same time, ap­proach­ing the po­si­tion’s evolv­ing, ever-grow­ing pres­sures in some­times unique ways. Those chal­lenges, and the ways in which re­spec­tive prime min­is­ters greeted them, are the sub­ject of Be­ing Prime Min­is­ter, the breezily-writ­ten, im­pec­ca­bly re­searched book by Toronto his­tory teacher ex­traor­di­naire and writer

J.D.M (James) Ste­wart. Ste­wart’s first book stands out for sev­eral rea­sons. One is its rigour; he in­ter­viewed six of the seven living prime Min­is­ters (only Stephen Harper re­fused) along with dozens of other sources, and spent count­less hours pok­ing through old books, cor­re­spon­dence and files dat­ing back to Con­fed­er­a­tion. (Dis­clo­sure: I read the early man­u­script of this book and made sug­ges­tions on anec­dotes and po­ten­tial in­ter­vie­wees. I did so very hap­pily—and for no money.)

Be­ing Prime Min­is­ter is apo­lit­i­cal in ap­proach. Ste­wart is in­ter­ested in what makes the oc­cu­pants of 24 Sus­sex tick rather than their pol­icy ini­tia­tives. He is also an anom­aly in a cyn­i­cal time; he ap­proached this project with a favourable prej­u­dice to­ward all his sub­jects. To that end, there are chap­ters on every­thing from fam­ily pets to favourite sports to travel habits and the wish for pri­vacy in a very pub­lic po­si­tion. He is clear-eyed about the flaws of some sub­jects. He notes, for ex­am­ple, John Diefen­baker’s dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion in ap­proach­ing key files and his will­ing­ness to ab­sorb opin­ions from the peo­ple phys­i­cally clos­est to him over those of ac­knowl­edged ex­perts. Some of the most com­pelling anec­dotes are small ones. Lester Pear­son, Ste­wart writes, of­ten told a story about “a phone call he took from his wife, Maryon af­ter he be­came Lib­eral party leader. She con­grat­u­lated him and told him not to for­get to pick up a pound of ham­burger on the way home.” (Maryon Pear­son, renowned for her sharp hu­mour, was also the cre­ator of the fa­mous line that “be­hind ev­ery suc­cess­ful man is a sur­prised woman.”) Chré­tien, who cul­ti­vated his “lit­tle guy” pop­ulist per­sona, was a so­phis­ti­cated art lover who liked to watch foot­ball on Sun­day af­ter­noons—with the sound off and clas­si­cal mu­sic in the back­ground. “One third of the play­ers are named Smith, any­way, so I could still fol­low it,” he joked to Ste­wart.

One of the most im­por­tant per­sonal chal­lenges for many re­cent prime min­is­ters has been find­ing a bal­ance be­tween their work­load and fam­ily: Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mul­roney, Stephen Harper and now Justin Trudeau have all had young fam­i­lies while in of­fice. All have noted that the time spent with fam­ily gave them, along­side joy, per­spec­tive and mo­ti­va­tion in their jobs. For re­lated rea­sons, as Ste­wart ob­serves, the great­est perquisite is the of­fi­cial prime min­is­te­rial sum­mer res­i­dence at Har­ring­ton Lake (Lac Mousseau in French) where they and their fam­i­lies can un­wind. (Even that is not trou­ble-free: Mul­roney re­calls how, on the fam­ily’s first week­end there, their stan­dard poo­dle, Os­car, lost a fight with a por­cu­pine, so the fam­ily spent the evening re­mov­ing quills from the star­tled dog.)

With books, as with all else, one of the keys to suc­cess is mak­ing hard things seem easy. Ste­wart’s seem­ingly ef­fort­less recita­tion of co­or­di­nated, well-told anec­dotes is the re­sult of his for­mi­da­ble re­search. The sto­ries flesh out our un­der­stand­ing of the ways that per­son­al­ity shapes des­tiny. Ste­wart’s mi­cro ap­proach to his sub­jects re­flects what the his­to­rian Bar­bara Tuch­man once de­scribed as “his­tory by the ounce”; through learn­ing about small de­tails and hu­man in­ter­ac­tions, we gain a more com­plete im­age of how larger events come to pass. Through un­der­stand­ing the peo­ple who served as prime min­is­ter, we also bet­ter un­der­stand the po­si­tion. As Pierre Trudeau once said in his trade­mark flip man­ner, “It’s not a per­fect job, but it sure beats work­ing.” Only 22 other Cana­di­ans have known how true that is first­hand. But thanks to Ste­wart, the rest of us now have a far bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of what it takes to be PM—and how to sur­vive the job.

An­thony Wil­son-Smith, Pres­i­dent and CEO of His­tor­ica Canada, is a for­mer Edi­tor-in-Chief of Ma­clean’s.

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