There was a time when William Lyon Mackenzie King haunted Canada. King died in 1950, but over the next few decades he wouldn’t leave discussions of Canadian politics. Partly this was the usual sort of postmortem appraisals of a man who had been prime minister of Canada for more than 21 years, longer than any PM then or since.
But it was oddity more than success that kept King in the headlines. Like water from a leaky tap, revelations about King’s hidden life dripped out year by year, rumour after innuendo after anecdote. King had been a spiritualist, visiting mediums and gazing into crystal balls. He had practised table rapping (like an elaborate Ouija board) and believed that he was in regular communication not only with his dead mother but also with Wilfrid Laurier, Louis Pasteur and Franklin D. Roosevelt, among others.
The revelations culminated in the 1970s, when King’s literary executors agreed to open to the public his voluminous personal diary. The classic “tell-all” book of the period was C.P. Stacey’s A Very Double Life, which exposed not only the spiritualism but also the elaborate sexual fixations of this bachelor prime minister, who had usually been thought of as a spinsterish prig. Stacey told of King’s visits to “save” prostitutes – nocturnal missions that ended in King’s guilty diary entries about time and money “worse than wasted.” He also revealed King’s doomed quest for a wife, preferably wealthy and American. This set things up nicely for the novelists, playwrights and poets who soon had weird Willie on the stage, in the literary festivals and on the nation’s television screens.
In the years since, King has been everywhere and nowhere in studies of Canada’s past. He shows up in a great many histories, but there has not been, until now, a serious single-volume biography of Canada’s most successful prime minister.
Allan Levine has done his homework: He has waded through the historians and political scientists, the memoirs and biographies of King’s contemporaries. And, as always with King, we get his diary, that massive, intimate volume that he kept from 1893 until only a few days before his death in 1950. The result is the most complete book on King yet written.
Levine is better on the man than on his times, better as biographer than historian, and King himself would almost certainly be pleased with this sympathetic portrait. The best decision Levine makes is to do away with the spurious claim that King’s mystical side can be separated from King the prime minister: “No understanding of his public career and private interests can be achieved without considering the whole crazy package.”
Still, Levine himself draws us close only to tell us that there’s not much worth noticing. He is a traffic cop at a car crash, slowing us down with the pylons and flashing lights only to shoo us away as soon as we’ve come close, telling us: “Move along. There’s nothing here to see.”
Regarding King’s excessive and eccentric attention to his dog, Pat, we’re told that “any ‘dog person’ will readily identify with King’s instant attachment.” When Levine touches on the huge trust fund given to King by wealthy Liberals, something that would get any contemporary prime minister fired, we’re told, “Such party funds were routine in those years.” King’s practice of erecting fake “ruins” at his Kingsmere estate, something that baffled many of his contemporaries, is presented as “hardly unusual.” As a believer in spiritualism, King, Levine reassures us, had good company, that he was “only one of thousands.” He doesn’t say that these thousands were themselves a tiny minority among millions in North America and Europe.
Nonetheless, Levine recalls to us how King still matters. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for one, could benefit from reading the account of the famous King-Byng episode. King’s Liberals came out of the 1925 election with fewer seats than the Conservatives under Arthur Meighen. But the balance of power in the minority Parliament was held by the Progressives and a couple of labour MPs. They were unlikely to want to support Meighen, so King returned as prime minister. Despite Harper’s claims to the contrary, this is exactly how parliamentary democracy works.
The relevant history lesson doesn’t end there. In early 1926, King’s government was about to fall. The prime minister tried to avoid a vote of non-confidence in the House of Commons by asking the governor-general to dissolve parliament. Replace “dissolve” with “prorogue” and you will find yourself with a sense of déjà vu – a prime minister seeking to avoid parliament by dodgy and undemocratic unconstitutional manoeuvres. In 1926, though, the governor-general had the strength of purpose to do what any governor-general should do in such a situation: Refuse the prime minister.
In King, Allan Levine gives us a readable, comprehensive account of a prime minister we ought to know about. He also reminds us that, in ever-changing ways, King haunts us still.
Top five prime ministerial biographies, by Christopher Dummit
John A. Macdonald: Vol. 1 The Young Politician (1952) and Vol. 2 The Old Chieftain (1955), by Donald Creighton.
The classic biography of Canada’s first prime minister, written with the style of a novelist. Dated but magnificent.
The Life of Lester Pearson: Vol. 1 Shadow of Heaven (1989), Vol. 2 The Worldly Years (1992), by John English.
A fascinating account of a prime minister who accomplished so much without ever winning a majority government.
Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years (1963), by Peter C. Newman.
Not exactly a biography, but an too insightful and irreverent an account of a prime minister who may never have understood himself.
On the Take: Corruption, Crime and Greed in the Mulroney Years (1994), by Stevie Cameron.
There will one day be an authoritative Mulroney biography, but, until then, this is a must-read.
The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau: Vol. 1 Citizen of the World (2006), Vol. 2 Just Watch Me (2009), by John English.
The very readable authorized biography of the most important prime minister we may have ever had.
Christopher Dummitt teaches history at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.