Some politicians aren't cerebrally gifted. "I'm not bright," Nelson Rockefeller, former governor of New York, declared in a moment of candour. A new Rockefeller biography recounts how he once came across some thoughts from the theologian Thomas Aquinas that very much impressed him. Mr. Rockefeller asked an aide to try and set up a meeting with him.
Some politicians aren't too concerned about vision. When, in 1957, the Soviets were the first to launch a space satellite, some saw it as a failure of the West. U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower disagreed. "Any of you want to go to the moon?" he asked his inner council. "I don't. I'm happier right here."
Some politicians have oversized egos. John Diefenbaker's was as uncontainable as Mount Vesuvius. "In the process of making a god of our leader," Dalton Camp said of him, "we have made sheep of ourselves."
Fortunately none of the aforementioned afflictions was common to Sir John A. Macdonald, whose 200th birthday the country has been celebrating. The founder of Canada, it need hardly be said, had vision aplenty. His smarts were evident in his rapier wit. And he didn't act as if he were looking down from a mountaintop.
In an engaging essay to mark the anniversary, Prime Minister Stephen Harper writes that some historians have portrayed Macdonald as an unprincipled horse trader of average intellectual heft. The reality was far from that, says Mr. Harper. A union of such great land mass and diverse peoples couldn't be forged without extraordinary foresight and a deep understanding of constitutional and popular thought.
As an example, he cites the Macdonald formula for keeping the francophones of Quebec in the fold. "Treat them as a nation, and they will act as a free people generally do: generously. Call them a faction and they become factious."
In the runup to Confederation, Macdonald said that, "For 20 long years I've been dragging myself through the dreary waste of colonial politics. I thought there was no end, nothing worthy of ambition. But now I see something which is well worthy of all I have suffered in the cause of my little country."
He saw it then, and if Macdonald reappeared today to assess the project, he'd likely be pleased with what he sees. Canadian unity has seldom been stronger. Regional tensions have withered. The West wanted in. It's in. Quebec appears more content with its federalist status than it has in many decades.
Today's solidarity is evident in spite of the presence of a federal government frequently described as polarizing. The approach is more often confrontational than conciliatory. It's a government that steers way from national programs and national projects. Its leader won't bring together all the premiers. It is a government woefully short of support in the province of Quebec.
That more stresses haven't resulted speaks to the resiliency of the national bond.
Where Macdonald was badly flawed was in his dealings with minorities other than the French, particularly the native peoples. To them, Macdonald, not being able to rise above the prejudices of the day, evinced racist attitudes. Today, of course, aboriginal conditions are still a fault line in the fabric.
But John A's attributes outweighed the frailties. The former are amply are evident in his speeches, which have just been published in a volume by Sarah Gibson and Arthur Milnes. Mr. Milnes is doing much to keep Canadian history alive. He has published the collected speeches of a number of prime ministers as well as a volume of the addresses of American presidents on Canada.
He even arranged for former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Georgia, to pen a birthday tribute to Macdonald. Mr. Carter writes how in a world divided by race, religion, and culture, Canada's capacity to unite in 1867 was "a shining moment for the world."
The principles and precepts Macdonald put in place have been strong enough to endure. It's a legacy even someone from the state of Georgia can appreciate.