In the category of messiahs I have known: the first time I actually witnessed up close and personal the miracle of a political messiah descending upon Newfoundland to drag thousands of poor, useless, ignorant, insecure unfortunates to the promised land was in the
election year of 1979 when Don Jamieson arrived in St. John’s to take over the reins of a wobbly Liberal party buggy.
Big Don literally descended out of the skies like a celestial poppa, emerging from an airplane at St. John’s Airport to be greeted by the disciples of the Liberal caucus, their friends and wannabe friends, all of whom traipsed onto the tarmac — security was not a priority back then — to embrace in exultation the Man Who Would Be King.
I remember thinking at the time that all that was missing from the over-the-top, orchestrated scene were palm branches spread out in front of the dulcet-toned former broadcaster, because there was no doubt the Liberal throng at the airport and many in the province thought of him as a Buddha-shaped saviour for Newfoundland. Indeed, this is a place, sad to say, where messiahs have emerged with disquieting regularity over the years, reflecting the disturbing and odd affliction of Newfoundlanders to put all their hopes and aspirations in the hands of one man.
As history tells us, it didn’t work out for Jamieson, as it has for other Newfoundland messiahs. The long-time MP and cabinet minister deserted an eminently successful career in Ottawa to take over the provincial Liberal party from Bill Rowe — who had been forced to quit after lying about his role in the leaking of a police report on a fire in a cabinet minister’s apartment (it wasn’t the leaking of the document, a laudable move in the estimation of many at the time, but the fib that destroyed any chance Rowe had of becoming premier). In any case, the hoopla that surrounded Jamieson’s arrival boosted Liberal hopes briefly, but he and the party ultimately went down to defeat to the Brian Peckford-led Tories.
I obviously thought about the love affair that way too many Newfoundlanders seem to have for messiahs upon hearing that Dean MacDonald — the businessman who teased Liberals for a year with the notion that he might take over their impotent party and give it a boost of political Viagra — had decided the “timing” wasn’t right for his move to save the poor old Grits, and, of course, the rest of us as well.
It was obviously MacDonald’s decision to make, to not seek
the leadership, but last week’s announcement confirmed just how disingenuous (and ego-boosting) the year-long exercise actually was. And disconcerting was the inordinate amount of attention the province, and we, the media, paid to his aspirations. Will he or won’t he? As if he was God’s gift to Newfoundland politics, as opposed to what he actually was: an unknown, untried, politically inexperienced man in a suit.
But, as I say, it’s far from Newfoundland’s first trip down Messiah Lane.
Some might argue that Joey himself was a saviour. That’s certainly how he saw himself. I’m sure J.R.S. felt that when he died, he would move the dirt and rocks away from his grave and ascend into the clouds. More accurately, though, he was not so much a saviour as he was a lackey for Canada and Great Britain in their dishonourable and ultimately successful effort to take away Newfoundland’s independence in perpetuity.
Frank Moores was stroked by anti-Smallwoodian types to leave federal politics to become premier, but Frankie baby was a reluctant saviour, and had to be dragged kicking and screaming into a job he knew might put a damper on his wild colonial boy lifestyle. Frank was much more the sinner than the saint.
And there was Clyde Wells, a man who supplied us with plenty of ingredients to cook up a messiah. We heard his name being bandied about for years: will he head east from his lucrative law practice in Corner Brook to save us? Please, Clyde, deliver us all. And eventually the one-time rebel in the Smallwood cabinet agreed to don the blessed robe of the anointed.
Then there was Brian Tobin. The cry went out: would Tobin, the consummate political animal, grace us all with his provincial leadership presence and leave federal politics behind?
Tobin answered the heavenly bells, as we all know, did his thing down here, learned French in his spare time and went back to Ottawa when he saw the possibility of a higher calling in the prime minister’s residence. End of story.
And there were a couple of non-messiahs in the mix: Brian Peckford and Roger Grimes both came up through the ministerial ranks and, unlike the saviours of our time, they had to contest nasty and highly competitive leadership races to become the head of government, the kind of conventions a healthy democracy should encourage.
I’ve saved the ultimate messiah for last, and that is, of course — drum roll, please — Danny Williams. He was begged, cajoled, cried over, drooled over, sucked up to. For God’s sake, or Danny’s sake, Newfoundland was in danger of sinking into the Atlantic if the rich townie didn’t push head-long into the fog and save us all from extinction.
Williams’ ego, already substantial, kicked in, and the multitudes shouted: hallelujah! Our Lord is here.
And it was the launch of a one-man show. For the better, his disciples would argue. Not so much, would respond those in favour of a society marked by free-wielding debate and open government, with all points of view readily tolerated and pursued.
Praise the legislative lord.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.