Reading Andrew Cohen, Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson, Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008; a review

Lester B. Pearson addressing a United Nations committee
Lester B. Pearson addressing a United Nations committee | Source

Very readable, though begging questions

Reading: Andrew Cohen, Extraordinary Canadians: Lester B. Pearson, Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008; a review.

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On the one hand Lester B. Pearson is a curiously elusive figure. On the other, one gets the suspicion that there was less there than met the eye.

In the Introduction by John Ralston Saul (the series editor), Mr Saul pauses to reflect briefly on the meaning of failure. Andrew Cohen’s very readable attempt to portray Pearson does not seem to have considered such a perspective, however.

Because by any standards, ‘Mike’ Pearson was very successful in exercising his skills as a diplomat on Canada’s behalf. Even here, however, the story of his Nobel Prize for Peace is probably more nuanced than Andrew Cohen’s book relates. If J L Granatstein is to be believed (which is probably often) it was the emphasis of Pearson himself on peacekeeping which contributed to almost killing off the Canadian military, compared with a period when Canada’s armed forces were the fourth largest in the world (which the writer seems to gloss over). More than Andrew Cohen does, other writers (such as historian Michael Bliss) have discussed Lester Pearson’s own candid realization of the unreasonable expectations which Liberals put on him after he won the Nobel Prize. The very success of his role as a diplomat in helping to set up NATO, in what he was perceived to have done at the UN during the Suez crisis of 1956, etc., may actually have acted as a poisoned chalice on the domestic political front in terms of the unrealistic expectations which his party subsequently heaped upon him. A professorial conciliator and professional, linguistic fudger was expected thereafter to be a bold and decisive actor, knocking heads together in a far-flung Confederation which did not wish to be knocked.

As a domestic politician his is thus a different story. Entering Parliament, Lester Pearson scraped home by less than 2000 votes in a constituency which he at first couldn’t find on a map when his Liberal patrons arranged his candidacy. He was sometimes absent from his constituency for almost an entire year. Liberals often compare him favourably with his Prime Ministerial predecessor, John Diefenbaker, but not even his fervent admirers could claim that Pearson was an electoral asset: losing four out of the five Federal elections in which he led the Liberals.

Andrew Cohen’s attempt to talk up Lester Pearson’s domestic political record reads in places like a hagiography, but he is on stronger ground when he describes the very different world which ‘Mike’ inhabited in his youth and the transition to post-World War Two scene which he and others other his generation negotiated. Interestingly, while many contemporary writers are quick to discount the religious backgrounds of leaders, Andrew Cohen suggests that it was Pearson’s Methodist background as a son of the manse that gave him a consistent sense of duty throughout the various roles which he fulfilled.

Yes, the writer discusses Pearson’s responsibility for the Canada Pension Plan, ironically sometimes criticized today as too little, too late. And Andrew Cohen relates something of the flag debate, into which many of Pearson’s energies were engaged, sometimes to the bewilderment of his own government colleagues. It is hard to argue against the aesthetics of the Maple Leaf flag; it is equally hard to argue that Lester Pearson’s handing of such a symbolic issue, which really needed widespread, cross-party support, was not bungled.

Andrew Cohen points out that Lester Pearson was much better at managing relations with the United States than was his predecessor John Diefenbaker. However, one did not achieve greatness by merely being more tactful about bombs and trade than John Diefenbaker was. The greatness of Lester Pearson (wherever it supposedly lay) cannot be said to have depended only on his record of attempts to mollify the Lyndon Johnson Administration. The writer tries to portray Pearson’s preoccupation with the affairs of Quebec and its place in Confederation as having been an extraordinary part of his legacy (although he admits that Pearson could not speak French). Lester Pearson did, of course, talent-spot Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

The writer also tries to compare Lester Pearson favourably with various later Prime Ministers of Canada, although he does not say much about one of these, a Liberal leader whom I think he in some ways resembles: John Turner. Like Turner, Pearson’s main opponent was a larger-than-life Conservative whose spending profligacy (ironically for professed conservatives) and verbal grandiosity caused his leadership eventually to implode, making the Liberal leader of the day look reasonable in comparison. Like Turner, he spent years in plodding opposition, patiently rebuilding a party, following electoral misfortune. Rather than engaging in the sort of adulation in which this book seems in places to be pursuing, this in fact may be an aspect of the career of Lester Pearson to which thoughtful Liberals need to look. So I don’t quite see what both Andrew Cohen and John Ralston Saul mean by the word ‘Extraordinary’ in the book’s title, but nevertheless, in an age of sound-bites, the sheer tenacity of Pearson the Plodder is something which can be reflected upon profitably. (Though naming Toronto’s airport ‘John Turner International’ would probably be no less deserved.)

And if the truth is known, Lester Pearson’s international affairs seminars, given at Carleton University in his semi-retirement, were probably what he, with the mantle of elder statesman — and his spellbound students — enjoyed the most.

November 21, 2012

MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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