William Watson: The good news about aging—seeing the past more clearly
My optometrist recently informed me my vision was getting better. A wearer of glasses since the age of 11, I now have close to 20/20 vision in my left eye. It seems improvement of this sort is common as people age. I asked him if anything else would be getting better and he said “No, unfortunately.”
I don’t know. It seems to me not just our literal but our figurative perspective improves, too, especially about the past. Or maybe it’s just that memory loss kicks in and scrubs the past of the small imperfections that seemed so important and off-putting as we lived them. Shakespeare said, through the voice of Mark Antony speaking about Julius Caesar, that “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” With many of our politicians, by contrast, we forget the irritations that were so annoying at the time and remember mainly the achievements.
At McGill this week we gave honorary degrees to former prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin. You can see the Mulroney ceremony (with yours truly sitting to the former PM’s right) here, with the award and his convocation speech—a model of the genre—beginning at the 53rd minute. The Martin ceremony starts in the 58th minute here.
Only after their time in politics is done do we see many of our leaders for the substantial and accomplished personalities they were and still are. Or at least, only then do we acknowledge them as such. At McGill we don’t give honorary degrees to serving politicians. It’s a good rule. The possibilities for corruption—genteel corruption, but corruption nonetheless—would be too great if we could honour or not honour those who have even indirect control over our budgets.
But it does help perpetuate the Canadian habit of recognizing political contributions only well after the fact. The warm, good-natured joshing of parliamentarians as one or another of them retires always comes as a shock to a public accustomed to seeing its MPs only in partisan outrage, dudgeon and attack. Retirement speeches tilt too far in the other direction but a more balanced, i.e. realistic, appreciation of our politicians as they were serving would be better for them, for us and for the conduct of the country’s business.
The distorted present-ist perspective most of us carry with us is that today’s politicians are pygmies skittering where giants once strode. When I was a boy, Pearson and Diefenbaker were thought to be bumblers compared to St. Laurent and King. I assume when King first took over people thought him a pygmy, too, certainly compared to Laurier, whom he succeeded, and Macdonald. When Mulroney was in office, and later Martin, people looked back wistfully to the era of (Pierre) Trudeau and Stanfield.
Maybe there really has been a continuous descent from the fathers of Confederation downward. If you compare their skillfully-argued speeches with what passes for political argument these days, that does at least seem possible. But if you consider the scale of modern government and the panoply of issues that come before a prime minister every week, anyone who can do the job at all, let alone accomplish real and important change, as both Mulroney and Martin did, deserves credit in the moment—even if (respectfully, I hope) you end up voting against them.
Cleaning out my office recently—something I do every 20 years whether I need to or not—I came across a Financial Post column I wrote in August 1986. “Tories are better than they seem,” it said of the Mulroney government, which was down in the polls and building a reputation for being “slick, shallow and image-oriented,” I said. Despite that reputation, I argued, they were building a substantial record of policy achievement. They had reformed competition law and deregulated transport. They were preparing for free-trade talks with the United States. “In fact,” I wrote, “about all that’s missing in the way of major initiatives is comprehensive tax reform.” But that came a year later, inspired by and, in response to, U.S. tax reform. If the government was able to pull off its agenda, I wrote, “then, to most people’s surprise, the Tories will go down as one of the great reform governments in Canadian history.”
Which is pretty much what has happened. The Mulroney government obviously had its problems on the constitutional file, with the failure of Meech Lake and then the Charlottetown Accord. But economists regard free trade and the GST as major reforms. And, like most Canadians, we’ve largely forgotten the day-to-day Gotcha! and shenanigans of that era’s partisan follies.
Time is strange. I don’t expect to be around to see it but there may even come a day when, 30 years from now, after McGill has given honorary degrees to Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer, the pundits of the mid-21st century wonder aloud why Canadian politics no longer produces giants the likes of these two men.