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William Lyon MacKenzie King, 1922. (Library of Congress/Library of Congress)
William Lyon MacKenzie King, 1922. (Library of Congress/Library of Congress)

Lawrence Martin

The weirdo PM who showed the way Add to ...

So, one time in 1935, Mackenzie King was driving home along Daly Avenue in Ottawa when he came across a house that was being torn down. A bay window was still standing. King had his driver stop the car, then got out and examined the sheet of glass. He became so transfixed by the window pane that he purchased it and had it transported to his country estate. After communing with his dead mother on where to situate it, he settled on an appropriate spot on a nearby hill.

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The story, one from a multitude of King’s eccentricities, is from a new biography by Allan Levine. It’s one of four biographies of prime ministers appearing this fall in what is a great season for political books, although you wouldn’t know it from the lack of publicity.

If anyone doubted that King spent a lot of time in la-la land, they need only read Mr. Levine’s intriguing account, one that fleshes out new material from his voluminous diaries. It’s a safe bet, though, that not many will read it. Such is the way of the Twitter era, the ever-declining space devoted to books in our media, and the country’s lack of passion for its history that these books won’t get the attention or sales they deserve. Most Canadian youths have barely even heard of Mackenzie King, prime minister for a mere 22 years, much less have an interest in reading about him.

King had an achingly dull public image. Few knew that seances, table-rapping sessions and communing with the likes of William Gladstone, Wilfrid Laurier and other stiffs occupied big stretches of King’s time. In contemplating affairs of state, he ascribed great significance to the formations of his shaving cream. At breakfast, it was the configuration of tea leaves that arrested him. Before heading off to work, he would shoot the breeze with his dog, Pat.

But the paradox is that the weirdo PM governed in a most pragmatic, sane and effective manner. His decision-making wasn’t off the wall at all. Benefiting from a background as a labour negotiator – his mother called him the Official Harmonizer – King was the ultimate compromiser. He defined the centrist politics that shaped the Liberal Party for decades to follow.

We sometimes forget how fascinating and rich in character the leaders who charted our allegedly dull history were. King was by no means the only one.

Also out this fall is Nation Maker, Richard Gwyn’s splendid second half of a two-volume biography of John A. Macdonald. Like King, Macdonald spent much of his time in communication with the spirits. But they were of a terrestrial kind.

In the stores as well is Elusive Destiny, Paul Litt’s biography of John Turner. It’s overly sympathetic but expertly crafted and revealing in its portrayal of Mr. Turner as being too tightly wound for the television age. Then there’s Trudeau Transformed, by Max and Monique Nemni, authors of the groundbreaking study Young Trudeau. Also of note is David A. Wilson’s second volume on Thomas D’Arcy McGee, another captivating character from our history. And soon out is another big work from the eternal Peter C. Newman; it’s called When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada. How timely is that?

As the title implies, King’s Liberal edifice couldn’t last forever. His exemplary displays of centrist brokerage politics, his placing of national unity at the forefront and his securing of Quebec were pillars that endured for decades. But the fracturing began under Mr. Trudeau and was accelerated by Mr. Turner, who clashed with both Mr. Trudeau and Jean Chrétien. The party took sides, dividing into long-lasting Trudeau/Chrétien and Turner/Paul Martin blocs.

Among the lessons King could have given the others was not to allow themselves to be challenged from within. That and much more. King, of course, had a special way of divining the threats. Too bad that, like him, the others couldn’t speak to the dead.

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