as prime minister, John Diefenbaker always kept the red norad hotline telephone on prominent display in his East Block office. “Why, I can get the American president at any time!” he would boast to visitors. After Lester Bowles “Mike” Pearson took office in the spring of 1963, he removed the emergency instrument from its prominent location and hid it carelessly behind a curtain. When it suddenly began to ring one winter morning during Cold War tensions, he couldn’t find it. He had been interrupted in mid-conversation with his External Affairs minister Paul Martin, and the two men began chasing each other around the room like a pair of Keystone Kops. “My God, Mike,” gasped Martin, as they failed to locate the source of the sound. “Do you realize this could mean war?”
“They can’t start a war,” puffed the optimistic Pearson, “if we don’t answer the phone.” As it turned out, the caller was a confused Bell subscriber who wanted to speak to “Charlie” and had mistakenly dialled the most highly classified number in the country.
That little vignette summed up the stewardship of Mike Pearson, Canada’s ace diplomat, who wore a dented political crown uneasily from April 1963 to April 1968. To this day, he is revered as having been unfailingly civil, engagingly friendly, and likeably unpretentious. Up close, however, his government had a different hue. Despite being groomed by a long career in the elite foreign service, Pearson was chronically ill prepared for power and despite its many accomplishments, the daily record of his government was a series of mishaps that threatened to blunder into farce.
Speaking of farce, I was the first to publish the norad hotline incident. I approached Pearson later, who confirmed my account’s veracity, so I asked him whether he had ever actually used the emergency telephone. “Certainly,” he replied, and even remembered the date. “On April 21, 1967, I was being driven to my summer residence on Harrington Lake when the car struck a rock and broke its transmission. I used the phone to call for a tow truck. I had to go through the American military, at a time they were urging us to spend more on national defence. They weren’t impressed, but did forward my message to a garage in Aylmer.”1
“Our Mike” had a deserved reputation for unassuming sincerity. The problem, as the impish Tory senator Grattan O’Leary liked to point out, was that “no one can be sure from day to day what he’s going to be sincere about.” Instead of offering leadership, Pearson presided over Canada as if he were still president of the General Assembly of the United Nations, with the provinces sitting in as member states. In 1965 alone, he staged 125 federal-provincial conferences. His motto was the avoidance of catastrophe through the negotiation of a last-minute compromise. “We’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it,” he would reassure his nervous aides, while studiously leading from the rear.
His Cabinet, initially hailed as an assembly of the country’s brightest talents, was soon racked by scandal. Half a dozen of his ministers and their aides were forced to resign — instead of peace, order, and good government, Pearson’s time in office was characterized by blitzkrieg, bedlam, and bad government. Obviously, it was a fabulous time to be an Ottawa journalist.
Excerpted from Here Be Dragons by Peter C. Newman. Copyright © 2004 by Peter C. Newman. Excerpted by permission of Douglas Gibson Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.