Reading: John English, The Worldly Years: The Life of Lester Pearson 1949-1972, Toronto: Knopf Canada, 1992: a Review

Lester B. Pearson, 1957
Lester B. Pearson, 1957 | Source

'Mike' the ambiguous

Reading: John English, The Worldly Years: The Life of Lester Pearson 1949-1972, Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1992, p.p. 473

...

This magisterial work is the second of John English's two volume biography of Canadian Prime Minister the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson ('Mike') (1897-1972).

Prime Minister indeed; but is the fact that Mike (as John English calls him throughout the book) was 14th Prime Minister of Canada almost a footnote to the distinguished part of his career as a Nobel-prizewinning Canadian diplomat?

John English meticulously traces through the many elements involved in building up his seemingly effortless rise to international prominence, as Liberal leader and then as Prime Minister from 1963 until 1968.

Interestingly, the biographer suggests that his path to succeed Louis Saint-Laurent as Liberal leader in 1957 was not as reluctant as has sometimes been suggested.

The bitterness of his relationship with Conservative leader and predecessor as Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, is well described, and the writer points out the the difference of their approaches to politics explains much: Diefenbaker, the firey campaigner and populist, and Pearson the veteran conciliator and diplomat.

John English highlights the deep-seated ambiguity which characterized the public career of this Canadian statesman, and seems to suggest that the elusive essence of what he stood for may indicate that he was stronger on process than principle.

An irony of his Prime Ministerial period of office was the emphasis he placed on English Canada's relations with Quebec, when his own command of the French language was poor. Another irony was that ministerial colleagues from Quebec regularly felt he treated them poorly, while other ministerial colleagues seemed to think he capitulated too often before demands coming from French Canadian sources.

His seeming acquiescence in the clumsy ways and even antics of Walter Gordon is an enduring mystery, unless this veils an unhealthy dependence on Gordon for personal, financial reasons: there are some indications that John English surmises that this may have been the case.

The regular, verbal eruptions of ministerial colleague Judy LaMarsh would probably have not been endured by a leader less skilled in patient diplomacy.

The writer also draws attention to Lester Pearson's complex assessment of Pierre Trudeau, his apparently preferred successor (after Jean Marchand placed himself out of the leadership race) but also to him a somewhat impenetrable character. (Mr Ambiguous from English Canada succeeded by a namesake from Quebec?)

His contrasting relations with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson avoid much speculation about how relations with JFK would have developed if he had lived to become more deeply engrossed in the US intervention in Vietnam: but John English certainly does not merely reduce Lester Pearson's difficulties dealing with Lyndon Johnson as supposedly hinging on the latter's somewhat crude personal habits.

Pearson seems to have been genuinely surprised by his Nobel Prize, following his promotion of peacekeepers after the Suez Crisis, but this accolade also appeared to give many Canadians unrealistic expectations of what he could subsequently achieve in domestic politics.

The writer's depiction of Pearson's endearingly acerbic wife Maryon adds a certain immediacy to the work.

In some ways this is a very sympathetic portrayal of Lester Pearson, but it is most definitely and commendably not hagiography.

February 6, 2013

MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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