John Turner, at 90, is still first among equals

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - EDITORIAL - AN­DREW CO­HEN POST­MEDIA An­drew Co­hen is a journalist, pro­fes­sor and au­thor of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made His­tory.

Some­thing strange and won­drous took place in Ot­tawa on Mon­day. In a po­lit­i­cal cul­ture that has be­come ran­corous, shrill and coarse, our po­lit­i­cal class had a mo­ment of lev­ity, sen­ti­men­tal­ity and gen­eros­ity.

Six for­mer prime ministers and the cur­rent one of­fered trib­utes (three of them recorded) at a din­ner to hon­our John Napier Turner, Canada’s old­est liv­ing for­mer prime min­is­ter. He has just turned 90 years old. Their tes­ti­mo­ni­als were the cen­tre­piece of the oc­ca­sion or­ga­nized su­perbly by Lisa Ha­ley and Marc Kealey of Toronto.

Four of them were Con­ser­va­tives. This was an evening of un­com­mon bi­par­ti­san­ship, wit­nessed by a galaxy of politi­cians, jour­nal­ists, col­leagues and friends.

Joe Clark, whose stature as an el­der states­man grows at 80, spoke of Turner’s “be­lief in the principles of Par­lia­ment be­fore he got there,” which Turner en­hanced in a bril­liant (if in­ter­rupted) ca­reer from 1962 to 1993.

Brian Mul­roney called Turner “a gentleman of Cana­dian pol­i­tics,” a tough op­po­nent whom he al­ways took se­ri­ously. There was “no mal­ice or vin­dic­tive­ness” about him, he said.

Stephen Harper con­veyed re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion. You would hardly know that Turner is a Lib­eral, most of whom Harper dis­dains. On this oc­ca­sion, Harper’s win­try smile warmed.

If the theme was cel­e­bra­tion, the ef­fect was re­flec­tion. What has hap­pened to John Turner’s Canada, we won­der? What has be­come of his high pur­pose and sim­ple de­cency in pub­lic life?

Turner’s fore­most com­mit­ment was to democ­racy, which, he told the au­di­ence, “does not just hap­pen.” More telling were his acts of kind­ness, big and small.

Paul Martin Jr. re­mem­bered the an­guish of his fa­ther, Paul Martin, Sr., when he lost the lead­er­ship to Pierre El­liott Trudeau in 1968. His ca­reer was over. That evening, the tele­phone rang. It was Turner, who had also lost, invit­ing the Martins to brunch the next day. “He didn’t have to do that, but he did,” said Martin, his voice qua­ver­ing, re­call­ing Turner’s em­pa­thy.

Turner was hand­some, smart, grace­ful, charm­ing. He will al­ways be known as the daz­zling heir ap­par­ent who was never elected prime min­is­ter.

Still, Turner held port­fo­lios in con­sumer af­fairs, jus­tice, fi­nance and as so­lic­i­tor gen­eral. He was a re­former, com­mit­ted to le­gal aid, mak­ing the tax sys­tem fairer and pro­tect­ing the land, which he came to know in­ti­mately as an in­trepid ca­noeist of Canada’s north­ern rivers.

In him, there was a sense of no­blesse oblige, an obli­ga­tion to serve, a faith in pub­lic ser­vice. Turner brought en­ergy and ideas to pol­i­tics. This was Turner’s Canada, but it was also that of Louis St. Lau­rent, Lester Pear­son, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chré­tien. In a dif­fer­ent way, it was Joe Clark’s and Brian Mul­roney’s, too.

Much of that is gone. Stephen Harper was un­gra­cious in a decade in power; as a per­son, he was un­in­ter­est­ing. Mean­while, so­cial me­dia has bred di­vi­sion and pet­ti­ness. The tra­di­tional me­dia has changed, too. The Na­tional Press Club, a place where jour­nal­ists and politi­cians could min­gle, is gone. In Turner’s time, it roared.

Turner was a de­vout Catholic but he was no an­gel. He swore and he drank, of­ten too much. He was of­ten crude. But we re­spected his pri­vacy, an ethic that has also dis­ap­peared.

To­day, politi­cians use Twit­ter to in­sult and de­ride. They call Justin Trudeau by his first name, de­mean­ing him and the of­fice. Many are medi­oc­ri­ties of no pro­fes­sional, lit­er­ary or scholas­tic achievemen­t. Par­ties once at­tracted the best and par­ties ac­com­mo­dated ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences; among Lib­er­als, there was once Wal­ter Gor­don and Mitchell Sharp. That’s gone, too.

On Mon­day evening, though, we were re­minded of the pol­i­tics of prin­ci­ple. A blood sport it was, with big­ger is­sues then than now: abor­tion, cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, na­tional unity, con­sti­tu­tional re­form, free trade. But, as pub­lic his­to­rian Art Milnes notes, we have had lead­ers of qual­ity. We have not had the malev­o­lence of Richard Nixon, the in­com­pe­tence of Ge­orge W. Bush or the ignorance of Don­ald Trump.

Our prime ministers have been im­per­fect, but for the most part they have been hon­est, honourable and pa­tri­otic.

John Turner al­ways was. He was not prime min­ster long, but he re­mains, in our hearts, first among equals.

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