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Michael Healey is a Toronto playwright. His latest play, 1979, about the last days of Joe Clark’s prime ministership, opens in Toronto on Jan. 10.

Then ambassador Ken Taylor and Prime Minister Joe Clark meet for a private chat in Mr. Clark's office in Ottawa Feb. 1, 1980.

Drew Gragg/CP

With Parliament Hill’s Centre Block shutting down for a decade to undergo renovations, a lot of journalists and politicians have been taking a (nostalgic, possibly final) trip through its sandstone halls. On Maureen McTeer’s Twitter feed, there’s a photo of her, her husband, Joe Clark, and their grandchildren in front of Joe’s prime ministerial portrait.

Joe Clark was Canada’s prime minister for nine months, 39 years ago. He was 39 years old when he won the job. The portrait, by Patrick Douglass Cox, excellently captures the essence of Mr. Clark at that age: He’s forthright, sincere, slightly goofy and not entirely comfortable in his own skin. That unemphatic hand betraying whatever argument he’s making to the House of Commons.

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Mr. Clark is regarded, when he’s regarded at all, as a failure. He led a government that didn’t survive its first budget. He handed the country back to Pierre Trudeau, a figure mistrusted and loathed by many. Then he handed control of his own party to Brian Mulroney.

How do you square this with the fact that, when he finally retired in 2004, several polls had Mr. Clark as one of the most respected politicians in the country?

To dispense with the obvious: Mr. Clark’s personal liabilities were real. He was astoundingly uncharismatic (especially beside Pierre Trudeau, arguably the coolest guy on the planet at the time), had a speaking style reminiscent of a shoe in a dryer and presented physically in a way that suggested adolescence wasn’t quite done with him yet.

But he had more than enough political intelligence, personal integrity and determination to get him to the highest office in the country. And once there, he made mistakes borne of trying to do the right thing.

He won the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives in 1976, defeating Mr. Mulroney, among others. The party was trying hard not to cleave into right- and left-wing factions, and Mr. Clark was the consensus choice. A provisional success, and no one ever let him forget it.

He beat Mr. Trudeau in the general election of 1979, convincing the country to take a chance on him. His government very nearly made it to a majority, ending up six seats shy. Another provisional success.

Once in office, Mr. Clark struggled on many fronts. He had made an outrageous number of campaign promises, some of which he had to abandon immediately (moving the Canadian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem), some of which he kicked down the road (the denationalization of Petro-Canada), some of which he struggled with relentlessly (moving the price of domestic oil closer to the world price).

It was the creation of so many policy committees while in Opposition, each of which had recommended campaign promises, that led to the postelection headaches. Mr. Clark formed the committees to force his party’s various factions to work together.

Energy policy proved to be his bête noire. A process had been started in 1974 to move the (controlled) price of domestic oil closer to the world price. Negotiations with provinces on how to raise that price had finally concluded with the decision in 1979 to add an 18-cents-a-gallon excise tax to the cost of gasoline. News of this new tax, when not a word about it was breathed during the election, was received with something less than warmth among the electorate. Critically, the premiers of Ontario and Alberta also turned on Mr. Clark over this, despite being Progressive Conservatives themselves.

Energy policy has, of course, bedevilled every modern prime minister, so at least Mr. Clark is in good company. His determination to get all provinces on board with moving the price of oil into realistic territory was a Herculean effort of consensus-building. Because politics isn’t fair, it also had the effect of making him look weak.

Quebec had one foot out the door in 1979. There was to be a referendum on sovereignty in 1980, and Premier René Lévesque was doing all he could to antagonize whoever was in the PM’s chair. When Mr. Clark had to fill a seat on the Supreme Court, he called Mr. Lévesque, in the spirit of co-operation, with a list of five names (the vacancy had to be filled with a Quebecker per the Constitution). When Mr. Clark asked him to pick one of the five, Mr. Lévesque thought it was some sort of trick. The idea that Canada’s prime minister might want to collaborate was incomprehensible.

Which brings us to the night of Dec. 13, the failed budget vote, the fall of the Clark government. I’ve always been fascinated by the events of the preceding 48 hours, after the budget’s presentation on Dec. 11. What pressures were on Mr. Clark to get his unpopular budget passed through a House his party did not fully control? What deals were offered, or contemplated? With everything hanging in the balance, was Mr. Clark tempted to compromise, back off the things he believed were in the country’s interests, or to subvert Parliament by delaying the vote though any number of procedural tricks?

In the end, he made a principled choice that ended up losing him everything, which, depending on your point of view, is either a very provisional success, or a very real failure.

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The single unequivocal success he managed, in his nine months in power, was this: He brought 60,000 South Asian refugees, fleeing chaos in Vietnam and Cambodia, to the country. He did it in record time, and he had to invent the private-sponsorship model to do it.

Sure, that was an initiative created by the previous (Liberal) government, but Mr. Clark didn’t care where a good idea came from.

He went on, of course, to have a great career as Mr. Mulroney’s minister of foreign affairs. He also managed something incredible – as minister responsible for constitutional affairs, he got two territorial leaders and 10 provincial premiers to agree to constitutional reform through the Charlottetown Accord. This act makes Chrystia Freeland’s recent, successful NAFTA renegotiation look like a checkers victory by comparison.

Sure, the Accord failed in a national referendum. But that had everything to do with Mr. Mulroney’s permeating unpopularity. Few people recognize the immensity of Mr. Clark’s feat because of how things turned out.

He quit in 1993, then came back in 1998 to take over as leader of a severely diminished PC Party for the second time. He was bent on resisting a merger with the Alliance Party. He lost that principled fight, too. By 2004, even though his party no longer existed, he still referred to himself as a Progressive Conservative.

These qualities: stubbornness, idealism, a willingness to subsume his ego to get things done, made him an effective statesman. Hence the strong poll numbers at the end of his career.

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Mr. Clark’s wasn’t the only prime ministerial debut in 1979. Margaret Thatcher was first elected in May of that year. She, famously, referred to some of Britain’s own citizens, the people she was elected to serve, as “the enemy within." She invented tribalism as politics, and it flourishes today. If Joe Clark looks like a goofy anachronism, it’s because things have gotten immeasurably worse.

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