Review: Portrait Of An Underdog

Forty summers ago John Turner lost an election no Liberal leader could have won. Years later he told a friend, “I need your help rehabilitating my reputation.” To his death in 2020 Turner was a caricature who spent a pointless few weeks as prime minister.

“He felt enormous pressure to make something of himself, to be of service to his fellow man in some regard, and at the same time he doubted his ability to do it,” writes biographer Steve Paikin. “It was a contradiction that went to the core of his being. He enjoyed success and privilege, yet he was wracked with insecurity and a certain fragility.”

Paikin’s biography is poignant and funny, affectionate and candid. Hear Turner speaking to his wife in the 1970 October Crisis: “If I ever get kidnapped don’t let anyone pay the ransom.” See Turner giving an inspirational talk to ladies in the office: “You’re a f—king all star!” This is gold.

Paikin is a longtime journalist and tireless researcher. His subject emerges as human and needy. Turner “radiated a confident exterior” yet “frequently battled insecurity,” he writes. Running for the Liberal leadership in 1984 Turner whispered to his sister on the campaign bus: “Do you think I can do this?”

Electors like a scrappy underdog. Turner hit all the wrong marks. His stepfather was lieutenant-governor of British Columbia. Turner was a Rhodes Scholar who attended private school. His favourite lunch was sirloin steak. His favourite drink was Johnny Walker with Perrier. It was all cigars and tennis clubs.

“You are shallow,” one aide cautioned Turner. “You are glib,” said another. Paikin quotes a source: “You need a lot of steel to be prime minister. Did he have it? I’m not sure.”

Turner was the kind of man who wore a jacket and tie to have supper with his children. “If he asked his kids whether they had all washed their hands before dinner and he suspected someone was fibbing, he was all over that,” writes Paikin. “‘Which washroom did you go to?’ he’d ask, before marching down the hall to check to see whether the soap or sink were still dry.”

How could Turner know his moment of glory would appear the one and only time he played the role of scrappy underdog? Paikin suspects he might have appreciated the irony. “God’s will,” he quotes Turner. “That’s what happens in life. Sometimes you’re lucky and you win, sometimes you’re unlucky and you lose.”

His glory was as the articulate opponent of free trade who fought the tide of globalism in the 1980s. Turner did not stand alone – 57 percent of voters opposed free trade in a 1988 general election – but he gave eloquence and dignity to Canadians’ unease. “We built a country east and west and north,” he said. “We built it on an infrastructure that deliberately resisted the continental pressure of the United States. For 120 years we’ve done that.”

The postscript: Canada lost 495,000 manufacturing jobs. The Department of Employment in a 2013 memo warned “the Canadian dream is a myth” for “a middle class that isn’t growing.” And Turner became a caricature. John Turner is an engaging tribute.

By Tom Korski

John Turner, by Steve Paikin; Sutherland House; 300 pages; ISBN 9781-9895-55835; $36.95

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