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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Peter Lougheed, poetically

My sense of humor is acting up again as I read the Edmonton Sun obit-editorial: "Lougheed left lasting legacy."

Okay, this might be Semantics 101, but "lasting legacy" is a redundancy, right? If it doesn't last, you can hardly call it a legacy, right? A short-lived legacy would be ridiculous, right?

To put it plainly, the headline (like many a headline) is pure poetics, as much as would be, say, "Peter packed a pipeline of high-priced petroleum." Moreover, let me suggest that any enduring Lougheed imprint, including the 41 years of solid Tory majorities in Alberta, has proved somewhat thin and evaporative so far.

On the radio yesterday, they played a clip where Lougheed himself stated he thought his biggest bequeathal was the Canadian Constitution. But even if Lougheed was the sole architect of its ultimate-fudge, Great Canadian Compromise "notwithstanding clause" (largely a sop to Quebec, which largely snubbed it; the exuberant Sun editorialist says "Lougheed was a driving force behind the formula"--okay, how MANY driving-forces exactly conjured up that cute legalism??) you could hardly call our vaunted uberlaw a shining monument upon the planet (although I've encountered at least one rhapsodic attempt in that direction, citing the world's rookie democrats, who allegedly prefer it to the stale-dated U.S. Constitution. Amid such hosannas, dare I suggest that our constitution is just a blob of plasticine to be shaped by over-eager judges?)

Both the Sun and the radio station also mentioned Lougheed's heroic attempts to diversify Alberta's economy. Alas, neither source bothered to support the assertion with statistics, which probably show our economy growing more oil-centred than ever during his 1971 to 1985 reign and subsequently, as various attempts to "green" our energy hit the cost-wall (e.g. ethanol and the current drought in the U.S.) Alas, fossil fuels remain the cheapest way to power humanity's somewhat comic hurrying and scurrying, and this massive economic fact steam-rollered Alberta as much as anybody, Lougheed or no Lougheed.

By happenstance I know a large corporate furniture-maker of the Lougheed era, who along with other Alberta manufacturers met with the Premier back in the day, to talk about some sort of support for secondary industry, and who came away notably bitter at getting nothing worth mentioning (the furniture corporation eventually went under). Admittedly this is anecdotal evidence, and maybe we should all be harumphing about bootstraps, but really, if you are going to say Lougheed did anything about diversifying the economy aside from uttering platitudes, please provide some evidence in that direction. Or get a speechwriter to pump up the iconography with Lougheed's role in our triumphant agricultural switch from wheat to canola or something.

To tell the truth, it is difficult to find ANYTHING to say about Lougheed beyond his personal charm (although I suspect a certain Mr. Sindlinger may chip away at even that). There was plenty of evidence of that charisma yesterday--Albertans phoning in to the radio shows to hymn Lougheed's photographic memory of them and their kids, etc. By coincidence I even snagged a broadcast-media guy in my taxi, with a story of himself and his cameraman attending some political event back in the Lougheed era, and the cameraman getting into the long receiving-line twice to shake hands with Lougheed. The second time the cameraman arrived, Lougheed said "Hey, I already shook your hand!" or something like that. Quite funny, but my passenger was clearly won over by the encounter.

Heck, I could probably add my own story: the 100th-anniversary dinner for alumni of the University of Alberta student newspaper the Gateway, less than two years ago. Lougheed was Sports Editor on the Gateway circa 1950, and was arguably the most illustrious graduate of our esteemed rag (even ahead of blink-and-miss-him Prime Minister Joe Clark) and had plenty of excuses for not going to the soiree, starting with the triviality of our student publication and finishing with age and infirmity (he and an accompanying ex-cabinet minister rather shocked me with their appearance, but I'm getting rather worn around the edges myself, so maybe I shouldn't talk).

But there amid all us freaks and non-entities (hey!--there's the shaggy cartoonist who draws Bob the Angry Flower!)  Lougheed gamely appeared, and made a passable speech about the importance of education, and ways of financing upgrades to Highway 63, and a few other things. Our late-70s/early-80s contingent (one of whom was even then helping compile a potted-obituary for Lougheed for a major daily) sat very close to the ex-Premier's head-table, and I furtively watched him, hoping he didn't recognize me, nor recall that I once wrote a slashing column in the Gateway on his lousy English, and then compounded the offense by reducing it to a joke later when he was being touted for the federal Conservative leadership (check also my dismantling of Barbara Amiel in the latter column. Ah, the fun times of yore). I had to restrain the urge to go over and apologize, muttering something like ""Hey, all politicians have lousy English, it was nothing personal, guy." He would undoubtedly have accepted that with his usual patrician grace and aplomb, no?

Even Don Iveson, current member of Edmonton City Council, who introduced Lougheed to the assembled alumni, intimating gingerly that he (Iveson) had some differences of ideological nicety, seemed rather abashed by Lougheed's presence--matching the across-the-board tributes that have poured forth since Thursday, which clearly transcend mere speaking-well-of-the-dead. Just what Lougheed represented, however, remains a bit of an enigma. Maybe it was primarily the banal fights over Alberta's oil wealth, which, although Lougheed probably lost (cue: indignation over NEP) he at least fought the good fight. Or maybe he earned a stalemate: maybe some of Alberta's natural-resources "lottery ticket" is still Alberta's thanks to him; maybe the Trans-Canada Gimmes didn't get it all.

And he had a tall-in-the-saddle yet modest style (much ballyhooed by the effusive Rex Murphy in today's National Post) which not only impressed people like my father (also born in 1928) but got him plastered onto the cover of Saturday Night as the iconic face on our Rockies. What more could a legend want? Actual notable accomplishments maybe? I recall my razor-sharp journalism teacher shrugging off Lougheed as "a Mannix man" (a comment that baffled me at the time; what did the TV show have to do with Lougheed, I naively wondered) but this was 1973, very early in Lougheed's career.

The implication, I now suppose, was that Lougheed was just a corporate lubricant, a mere business tool--criticisms common enough from leftward. Perhaps his eminence was even a mere optical illusion produced by high oil prices, as our Gateway editorial cartoonist Gerard Kennedy ("Pasken") later suggested. Aside from building Alberta's economy to some degree (I'd argue other business leaders deserve as much or more credit, as do OPEC gougers) what did Lougheed REALLY DO? Racking my brain for anything, I find... not much.

I recall from somewhere that his first act as premier in 1971 was to repeal the Socreds' eugenics/sterilization legislation, which shows some intelligence and gumption, but I'd be hard-pressed to find a second instance as admirable. Today's Globe and Mail obituary cites 20 pieces of legislation that Lougheed's PCs introduced even in opposition, but neglects to state whether they were passed, or even what the 20 bills specifically or generally dealt with. Nor was Lougheed very leaderly when the Keegstra affair erupted (although commenting on a case before the courts is rarely a good idea). Nor did he tamp down western separatists with any special alacrity. But maybe he was just coolly and passively acknowledging the deep Zen truth that all things must pass. Who knows...

Aside from that? Well, I have an excuse for resuscting "Kubla Pete"--a poem named after him and published in the Gateway. Actually, despite the title it was more about certain high-octane leftists in the Students Union than about Lougheed.

But, punchline: in the dirty business of politics Lougheed maybe did emerge (thrusting!) (sorry) a bit cleaner than most. Maybe his relative cleanliness was due to nothing more than a certain cool, lawyerly dignity of his. Still, having that quality of character reminds us how scarce a commodity it is in politics anywhere.

As to the gang of professors who named him the best Canadian Premier of the last 40 years--ha ha! But really--what (besides unintentional comedy) did you expect from professors?