Distasteful, grasping and undignified chest-thumping

"A few more years will put us all in the dust,” American founding father John Jay wrote to his wife after losing the 1792 New York state governor’s election, “and it will then be of more importance to me to have governed myself, than to have governed the state.” I’m not certain how I’d go about trying to explain this concept to modern Canadian politicians. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t start in question period. As it turned out, Jay avoided the dust until 1829. Just 46 when he wrote that letter, he had already served as president of the Continental Congress in 1778-79, helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War, helped draft the constitution and write the Federalist Papers supporting its ratification, then been first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Three years later he even became governor of New York, but in 1801 declined re-election, and reappointment as chief justice, and retired to his farm.

Gad, you may be thinking, they don’t make men like that any more. But if they did, would we elect them? Leaving aside the quality and quantity of his services (did I mention he also wrote the New York State constitution?) he seems to have done his duty cheerfully and modestly, indeed cheerfully because modestly. Then he did a Cincinnatus. See, he was this Roman who ... I’d bet silver dollars thrown across the Rappahannock to Krispy Kreme doughnuts that John Jay had read Plutarch and absorbed his lesson about the importance of following a good example ... and setting one. Whereas our MPs are as unlikely to know about Cincinnatus’s example as to try to follow John Jay’s.

Jay obviously did not despise governing the state. But he said self-government mattered even more. Contrast his attitude with the snarling self-advancement of our contemporary political class. Now contrast their achievements. Try to imagine any contemporary Canadian politician compiling a career anything like his as statesman, political philosopher, jurist, diplomat. Not that many of them don’t see themselves that way as they flit from highly paid public post to highly paid public post issuing self-congratulatory press releases.

Jean Chretien, to be sure, held many government jobs during a long career in public life. But they were all political; he was never a diplomat (thank goodness). As for statesman, it is to laugh. Then there’s Joe Clark’s quarter-century of self-satisfied futility. Paul Martin’s long pursuit of political power he was unfit to hold would have been scarcely less shabby if it had succeeded. Like Mr. Chretien’s superficially more successful machinations, his did lasting harm to the country. And for what? When the Rat Pack’s pet controversies such as opposing free trade and the GST are trivia questions on restaurant placemats, will their sneering tone be something we cherish as part of our heritage? Along with Ralph Klein’s long, boorish, empty reign?

There’s less emulation of John Jay nowadays than of Gollum, desperately pursuing a brass ring that can’t bring happiness anyway, muttering about dusssssst. There doesn’t seem to be any calm centre to most of our politicians, any mature self-control, perspective or ambition to do something rather than to be somebody. Only endless vanity, right down to the tiresome chest-thumping about new ideas that, when pressed, they can’t articulate.

It’s not just bad for the country. It’s distasteful, grasping and undignified. Try to imagine someone in a backroom saying you know, that would really work, but it would be wrong, or devious, or base, or vulgar, or vainglorious. I don’t want it on my tombstone, so let’s not do it. Instead, I expect the only way you could get politicians to retire to farms would be to convince them there were votes in it, that rural people would identify with them if they showed up in overalls spattered with promises of subsidies. They seem to think votes, or pull, will get them through the Pearly Gates. Or do they simply aspire to be counted among our Founding Shouters once we are all in the dust?

Wait a minute. Did you say dust? We could throw some in people’s eyes. We could raise a cloud of it in a frantically confused, obscure and pointless political dust-up. But first things first. We should do a poll. Let’s see how people feel about dust, how to package it, whether a few years putting us in the dust resonates in Quebec, whether we can alarm people about Alberta’s position on biting the dust. (Prone, probably.)

Here’s an angle. Global warming means drought which means dust. It also means flooding which turns dust into mud. Hey, mud. We can sling some of that.

Mr. Speaker, will the honourable member admit that his party is responsible for the increased production of dust in this country and moreover for its tendency to blow into people’s eyes?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson