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Tom Hawthorn

Wacky Bennett, 'full-time politician and part-time prophet,' ripe for political cartoons Add to ...

His friends called him Cece, shorthand for the formal William Andrew Cecil. From his initials, he was known by all as Wacky.

W.A.C. Bennett ruled this province for 20 years. He nationalized the hydroelectric industry and amassed a ferry fleet mockingly dubbed Bennett's Navy. He wanted to annex Yukon and took part in publicity stunts that would have shamed a more sophisticated man.

He trolled for votes by paving roads and building bridges, winning seven provincial elections in a row. When he finally lost, a tired man at the helm of a tired government, he waited only three years before his defeat was avenged by his son, continuing the Social Credit dynasty.

A teetotal hardware merchant from Kelowna, he was a small-town businessman with grandiose dreams. He was ripe for parody.

British Columbia has been blessed by some of the sharpest pens in the land. In turn, our gift to them has been to elect outlandish politicians.

Political cartoonists had a field day with Wacky. Though the images were rarely flattering, Mr. Bennett often clipped cartoons from the editorial page. On occasion, he requested the original artwork.

Thirty-three cartoons from the late premier's private collection are now on display at the Legacy Art Gallery and Cafe in downtown Victoria, the city in which he was long a part-time resident.

The show is called "Now here's the Deal," which are words written by Len Norris in one of his best known cartoons for the Vancouver Sun. Set on the day of a 1964 border ceremony for the Columbia River Treaty, it depicts lead-footed highways minister Phil Gaglardi at the wheel of a speeding convertible. Cowering in the back seat are prime minister Lester (Mike) Pearson and U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, who flank a premier, a thumb crooked behind each lapel, in full rhetorical flourish.

"Now here's the deal," Mr. Bennett pronounces. "Phil blacktops the road from California to the Aleutians. Mike gives up the Yukon and Lyndon gives us Washington and Oregon."

So horrified are the senior politicians you'd think they're prepared to cede territory just to get out of the car.

In other cartoons, Mr. Bennett is depicted as a sphinx, a totem pole, swashbuckler, a gunslinger, a grinning Cheshire cat, and, famously, a snake-oil salesman, a caricature brought to brilliant fruition by the peerless Roy Peterson. In an illustration for Maclean's magazine, Mr. Peterson shows the premier before a map of Canada labelled "Bennett Country" - Hawaii is a protectorate, while Alaska and Greenland are shown with signs indicating an option to buy. The cartoon is labelled, "Federated Empire of B.C. and Multiple Listings."

Other cartoons on display are by Al Beaton of the Vancouver Daily Province, James Reidford of The Globe, Les Callan of the Toronto Daily Star, and Bob Bierman and Sid Barron of the Victoria Daily Times.

In an image published during the 1960 campaign, Mr. Barron draws the premier in country-club regalia addressing an audience of farmers and trappers, as well as two bemused moose: "Don't think your government has forgotten you up here in Fort St. Cecil. … You have a right to bridges just like all the rest of the province. … We're going to GIVE you a bridge, my friends … and a wee river to put under it … "

Also on display is a framed cover of Time magazine. Dated Sept. 30, 1966, it is a rare gatefold cover for the newsweekly, the two pages featuring an oil painting of the premier by Henry Koerner. The Vienna-born artist often graced the magazine's cover with portraits of such celebrities as Maria Callas and John Kennedy, so it was a coup for Mr. Bennett to be depicted.

The premier is depicted pointing over his left shoulder where can be seen in the background smokestacks from pulp mills and other industries. One wag at the magazine suggested the painting be captioned, "This way to the bank." Instead, the cover article is titled, "Canada Today: The Boom No One Noticed."

Time described the 66-year-old premier as a "full-time politician and part-time prophet."

The Bennett family donated the collection to the Kelowna Museum in 1993, 14 years after the premier's death.

In the coming weeks, the provincial Liberals and New Democrats will pick new leaders. We don't always do politics well in this province, but the editorial cartoonists aren't complaining.

"Now Here's the Deal" is showing at the Legacy Art Gallery and Cafe, 630 Yates St. in Victoria, until Jan. 23. The gallery is open from noon to 4 p.m Wednesday to Friday this week. Free admission.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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