Jim Coutts was supposed to have succeeded Pierre Trudeau as prime minister – that’s what insiders say Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Coutts had planned.
But the backroom whiz kid of the Liberal Party, the man they called “the fixer” because of the work he did for two prime ministers, could not win his own seat in Parliament.
So he spent his last years out of the political limelight, donating his time and his money to causes close to his heart and enjoying the rich life he had built for himself.
Mr. Coutts died late on New Year’s Eve after a long battle with cancer.
He had a law degree from the University of Alberta and a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard.
But his first love was politics. He was, above all, a devoted Liberal – which was rather unusual for a kid from rural Alberta.
Mr. Coutts was born to Ewart and Alberta Coutts in High River in 1938 and he grew up in a stucco bungalow in the small town of Nanton, a 20-minute drive to the south.
His great-uncle was a minister of highways in the Alberta government of William (Bible Bill) Aberhart.
But his interest in politics was stimulated by Dorothy Dowhan, the editor of the Nanton News and a committed Liberal, who took him under her wing when he was a child and hired him
at the paper when he was in Grade 9.
A former classmate described him as a teacher’s pet – someone who always did his homework and stayed out of trouble.
At the age of 15, Mr. Coutts was the campaign manager for Joe McIntyre, a mine manager who ran unsuccessfully as a Liberal in what was then the Macleod riding.
Those who watched Jim Coutts in action said his organizational skills were evident even at that age.
He attended the University of Alberta concurrently with Joe Clark, who today credits Mr. Coutts with playing “a significant role in the Liberal decision to bring down my government in a budget vote in December, 1979.”
Francis Saville, the former chairman of Nexen Inc., was also at the university at that time.
Like Mr. Coutts, he was an ardent young Liberal. And he remembers the two of them driving from Edmonton to Calgary and back again in an evening just to hear Lester Pearson speak at the Palliser Hotel.
“I just felt that the upper thing in his mind was politics and probably being prime minister would have been included in that,” Mr. Saville said.
“But I thought of him more as a very able backroom guy. And that’s what he was. It never worked when he ran himself.”
The first of three times that Mr. Coutts suffered a personal political defeat was in 1962, at the age of 24, when he was the Liberal candidate in Macleod.
He did not even place second in that race. But his loyalty to the party caught the attention of the Liberals in Ottawa.
Liberal Senator Keith Davey selected Mr. Coutts to be the party’s campaign chief during the Alberta provincial election of 1963. Then Lester Pearson brought him to Ottawa to be his appointments secretary.
For two years under the Pearson government and then for six under Pierre Trudeau, Mr. Coutts was at the right hand of a prime minister.
His mother was less than impressed. When he called to tell her he had been appointed principal secretary to Mr. Trudeau, she asked him when he was going to get a real job.
In politics, he was shrewd and he was tough. And he was a superlative tactician – not that he wanted to be known as such.
“Jim would always come up with something that was unique and different and off the top. And usually he was right,” says former senator Jerry Grafstein, Mr. Coutts’s long-time friend and Liberal cohort.
“He was a thinker and he prided himself on being a thinker. The thing that he hated the most was people thinking of him as an influence guy, as a fixer. He did not like that because he believed in policy. He believed in ideas.”