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Lawrence Martin (Bill Grimshaw)
Lawrence Martin (Bill Grimshaw)

Lawrence Martin

R.B. Bennett finally gets some credit Add to ...

Richard Bedford Bennett became prime minister in 1930. Just for good measure, he named himself finance minister and foreign minister as well.

R.B., or "Dick," as he was known to friends, liked the smell, taste, feel and exercise of power. He wasn't long in office before a cartoonist at the Winnipeg Free Press depicted a cabinet room in which every man at the table was Bennett.

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The showpiece of Bennett's stewardship was his dramatic shift to the left with a Canadian version of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. He introduced it without telling anyone in his cabinet. The only exceptions were his foreign minister and minister of finance. They were well briefed.

Though the Progressive Conservative prime minister loathed the print media, he loved doing radio broadcasts because radio couldn't talk back. His manner toward opponents, Liberal Chubby Power recalled, was hardly kindly, more like that of "a Chicago policeman."

While our conventional wisdom suggests that the office of the prime minister has slowly evolved over time into something resembling an elected dictatorship, a look at Bennett's inglorious days at the helm tells a different story. Our power mongers have been around for a while.

It's not often a week goes by without Stephen Harper being described as authoritarian or autocratic. At least he's got company. 'Twas often thus, he might say.

Not much has been known about R.B. Bennett. Amazingly, no full-scale biography was written about him until now, 75 years on. John Boyko, the dean of history at Lakefield College, has finally done the deed and indeed he has done it well.

Bennett's story is a rich one. This was no ordinary man, but a huge talent. He had brain power by the barrel, was a gifted wordsmith and speech maker who could go on for hours at a stretch with perfectly constructed sentences. He was a readaholic, his knowledge not limited to politics but covering a vast panoply. A businessman extraordinaire, he was a multimillionaire at a young age.

His gifts were such that, had he come along at any other time than the Depression, he may well have been a superior prime minister. But it's doubtful any leader could have survived the ravages of that time.

The dictator image hurt him. The grumpy old bore Mackenzie King, Liberal leader of the day, pilloried him on that account throughout the 1935 campaign. "The great struggle today is between democracy and dictatorship," King said. "During these past four years in Canada, the free institutions of Parliament have gradually been subjected to a change which permitted many of the abuses rampant in a dictatorship."

In the book, Mr. Boyko does not fully buy into the autocrat image, saying Bennett answered every letter, ran cabinet meetings that sometimes extended several hours and dedicated almost his every hour to the job of trying to drag the country out of those black days. His mistake in the Depression was not to open the spending taps early enough because he feared taking the country deeply into debt and deficit. The thinking was different then. The Keynesian revolution was only in its infancy.

Bennett was a brutally honest man who called things as he saw them. In his final appearance in the House, he heard charitable words from all sides and after his bitter rival King had spoken, he rose. "I shall never forget your kindness at times and your cruelty at others," he responded.

Although he has gone down in history as a prig, the portrait that emerges from the rich and abundantly researched Boyko account is a largely favourable one. It is good to see that this much-degraded figure finally gets some credit.

A few years after being defeated, Bennett moved off to spend the rest of his days in England. He has been derided for this, as if he somehow fled the country in disgrace. That's far from the truth. He did a farewell tour of Canadian cities and the crowds that came out to greet him were grateful and grand.

Bennett loved the country. "A land endowed by heaven with incalculable wealth," he called it. "A people free and brave and strong with the strength that comes from the mountains and the prairies, the rivers and the sea."

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