When we watched Jack Layton hobble to the bus on the first day of the election campaign, many of us in the parliamentary press gallery shook our heads and muttered that he could not possibly make it through the next five weeks.
The fight seemed still to be in him but he looked old and frail. He had only recently been discharged from hospital after hip surgery. How could he expect to repeatedly traverse the country and back, to crawl through the daily grind of the election trail? It is a physical test that has defeated even healthy people.
On the other hand, some of us had doubted just a week earlier that he would have the nerve to pull the plug on the Conservative government.
Standing there on March 22, with sweat dripping down his face and his slim frame shaking in the television lights, I, for one, assumed he would support the Tory budget just to give himself some time to heal before an election call.
It wasn’t as if his party was riding high in the polls. On the contrary, it was mired at the lower end of its seemingly limited popularity range. To any reasonable political observer, the NDP had nothing to gain by forcing a vote at that juncture.
But I was wrong. We were all wrong.
Jack Layton, the man who was probably too decent for the political milieu he inhabited, did what was his heart and what his party told him was right even if was not the best time for him personally. He took the government down.
So we reporters found ourselves following him around the country, cringing a little as he leaned heavily on a crutch while climbing to the top of a podium, remarking on how the campaign schedule was not as rigorous as in previous years.
But it didn’t take him long to rally. At one of his opening events in Surrey, B.C., you could hear the determination is his voice as he talked about defeating Stephen Harper “once and for all.”
By the time we hit Halifax at the end of that first week, Jack was stumping with the same vigour we had seen in previous campaigns. He was once again that guy who had made us chortle when he announced in 2006 that he was running for prime minister.
There is a reason why we called him Smiling Jack. It’s because he smiled. And laughed – at himself as much as anyone – with a single, punctuated, “ha!”
We in the press gallery felt at ease with him. There was the time in Sudbury when we all donned paper moustaches for the duration of his early morning news conference. He grinned from ear to ear.
Jack Layton was not a master of the diffuse-and-deflect style of politics that is insidious in Ottawa. If you asked him something, generally he gave you a straight answer. Sometimes he would try not to, but it never worked very well.
And he liked to have fun.
When he came to the back of the plane early on in the campaign, he explained that his balance was good and his strength was coming back. We could see that. He was playing his guitar and cajoling us to sing along to Barrett’s Privateers.
He performed a duet with Lawrence Joseph, the NDP candidate in Desnethé–Missinippi–Churchill River.
He did a little jig when he introduced Nycole Turmel, the woman who would eventually succeed him as Interim Leader, at a sugar shack in Gatineau.
But he never strayed from his message. Costs were too high for working families. Too many people did not have jobs. Canadians were falling behind.
Its was campaign that did not catch on at first. One of his own candidates defected to the Liberals, saying that was the only way to defeat Mr. Harper. There were bad days for the NDP.
At one point, about halfway through, it seemed like the party was destined to repeat its fourth-place showing of past years. Mr. Layton, for all his passion, could not gain traction.
Then the leaders debates sparked what we now call the Orange Wave in Quebec and Jack never looked back.
I was on the campaign bus on my birthday, something I didn’t acknowledge to my travelling companions until we were in the air after our final stop of the day. Jack invited me to the front of the plane to discuss life. He talked about his kids and his granddaughter Beatrice and how he was doing this all for her.
He said he was getting better and I believed him. So did the other reporters. He had traded the crutch for a cane. He had traded a third place party for a contender.
Every time we counted Jack Layton out, he fooled us.
So when I saw that awful news conference on July 25 where he announced he was stepping aside through a gravelly voice, his skin hanging from his bones, anything seemed possible.
But this time, it wasn’t.
Jack Layton made his share of mistakes. He could be corny and goofy – though always intelligent. He made his own brand of political theatre. But it seemed appropriate coming from someone of his strength of conviction.
It was not out of character for him to have crafted a letter to be read after his passing.
“My friends,” he wrote, “love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”