Ron Graham’s book One-Eyed Kings is the oldest book on the list, (published in 1986) and was described with affection by many fellow nominees and many of our prominent nominators. Here’s Ron Graham talking about One-Eyed Kings: Promise & Illusion in Canadian Politics.
Describe the genesis of One-Eyed Kings. How did you come to write about the succession of four prime ministerships in the 1980s?
As a freelance journalist in the early 1980s, I was commissioned by Saturday Night magazine to write lengthy profiles of several Canadian politicians, including Jean Chrétien, John Turner, and Joe Clark. As a result, a publisher approached me to try my hand at a book on Canadian politics.
That was a particularly exciting and volatile period in the country’s history, what with the first Quebec referendum, the rise of Western Canada, and a vigorous national assertiveness. It encompassed Pierre Trudeau’s dramatic last term, the brief reigns of Clark and Turner, and the advent of Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives.
The rapid turnover of prime ministers, rare in those days, each with their different personalities and agendas, offered me a chance to look into the historical, social, and economic realities that all of them faced, no matter what their party affiliation or ideological orientation.
How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?
My rule of thumb is a year of research, a year of writing, though of course I had been following events for much longer. Besides the usual challenges of getting the facts right and telling a good story, I had to find a way to sustain a strong, almost novelistic narrative thrust that would connect the historical approach to Trudeau (past), the on-the-road reportage of Clark and Turner (present), and the more speculative section on Mulroney (future).
My solution was to test all four leaders against an overriding thesis, i.e., that Canada has a left-of-centre political culture, based on its history and economy, which can only be ignored at a politician’s peril. I wish I could say it was an original thesis, but scholars such as Frank Underhill, Gad Horowitz, and Louis Hartz had advanced it long before I did. My contribution was to present it in an up-to-date package with contemporary details and certain modifications to a new generation.
Were there any books that influenced you in your approach?
Many, both non-fiction and fiction. My Canadian models included Donald Creighton’s biography of Macdonald, Peter Newman on the Diefenbaker years, Christina McCall’s Grits, Trudeau’s Cité Libre essays, and the wit and intelligence of Dalton Camp. Like many of my generation, I was influenced by the New Journalism of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe in the United States, as well as by the solid reporting of Theodore White and David Halberstam.
Tell us a little about how you chose the title One-Eyed Kings: Promise & Illusion in Canadian Politics.
I can’t remember where I first read the expression, “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” but I thought it well described the four prime ministers. It takes very special skills, perfect timing, incredible dedication, and lots of luck to become the leader of a nation. At the same time, every leader remains a mere mortal, handicapped by ego, ambition, partisanship, folly or avarice like all the rest of us. He may be able to see something we miss, but it’s far from perfect vision.
It also worked as a pun on one-eyed jacks, a poker expression that became the title of a Marlon Brando western, though that wasn’t always an advantage: the ebullient Canadian publisher Jack McClelland, for one, always used to greet me with the (mixed) compliment, “Hey, Ron, just loved One-Eyed Jacks!”
The subtitle was a bit of a problem, if I remember correctly. It needed to describe what the book was about, but my publisher, a cranky right-wing Brit who seemed to think that all politicians were lying, thieving bastards, kept insisting that “lies” or “deceit” or betrayal” or some such word should appear in the subtitle. We compromised with “promise and illusion,” though I was never quite sure what that meant.
What was the response to the book upon publication?
More a succès d’estime than a runaway hit, but gratifying nevertheless. It made the best-seller lists for a few weeks, garnered generally positive reviews, won a couple of secondary prizes, and generated a lot of buzz within political circles.
While much of the initial attention focused on my descriptions of the personalities of the period, a more interesting and longer lasting debate involved the rightness or wrongness of the thesis. But nothing was more gratifying than the students – some of whom went on to seek public office - who told me that they had never before realized how compelling Canadian politics could be.
Did anyone get upset about what you had written? Did you hear from any of the main players in your book?
Not everyone liked the portraits I painted. (Turner used a salty adjective that implied graphic sexual intercourse. Mulroney was said to have pounded the dinner table and vowed, ominously, that my time would come. Trudeau merely put a hand over one of his eyes and laughed when I encountered him at a reception.) Not everyone cared for the argument. But I never met anyone who said that the facts were wrong or the thesis bone-headed. On the contrary.
Did One-Eyed Kings change the trajectory of your career? In what way?
Yes, but in an unorthodox way. Its success should have been a sign for me to follow my star to Ottawa and continue writing about politics. Instead, I felt I had only been able to write it because I had had the distance of an outsider, someone who could see the woods because he wasn’t standing among the trees. If I knew more, strange to say, I couldn’t write with as much conviction or sweep. Worse, I felt I had said everything I wanted to say about the subject; the rest, I feared, would be either repetition or trivia. So my next book was about religion in Canada, and the one after that a history of Quebec.
What do you think of the state of Canadian political writing these days? Are there any trends you admire or disapprove of? What areas should be written about more?
There are probably more political writers in Canada with more ideas, commitment, and education that ever before. The problem is, there are fewer newspapers and magazines willing to give them the length and time to turn their talents to major pieces. Books and the Internet fill some of the gap, but publishers seem to go hot and cold about the Canadian market for political books, while the Internet has yet to find a way to package and sell its material.
The trends I dislike are the trends that pull political writers away from the ideas and issues underlying true politics. Politics is about power and who shall hold it, but it’s been reduced too often to parliamentary theatrics, campaign gossip, and scandal-mongering. As a result, it tends to dwell on the surface of things rather than reveal what’s really going on down deep. Weirdly, while everyone is chasing this news or that quote, the real story often lies with what wasn’t done or said.
Of all the books on our shortlist, besides your own of course, what is your favorite book and why? Are there any other books written in the last 25 years that you would suggest people read?
My bias, as I’ve suggested, is toward big ideas. The internal machinations of Parliament and political parties interest me, particularly in the hands of the many excellent reporters on your shortlist, but I’m usually left feeling that I’ve been reading the sports pages: they’re fun and diverting, but do they really change the world? On the other hand, “think” books, such as the truly first-rate ones by John Ralston Saul (A Fair Country) and Andrew Cohen (While Canada Slept), strike me as more in the realm of philosophy than of politics: I miss the nitty-gritty realities of ideas applied by pragmatic human beings.
I’m not sure where politics becomes history, but I sense that the fine books by Christopher Moore and Richard Gwyn cross the line. And while I enjoyed Terry Fallis’s novel, I didn’t find it as insightful or even as funny as Robert Mason Lee’s non-fiction book, One Hundred Monkeys, which missed the cut.
That’s why, if forced to choose a favourite, I’d have to go with McCall and Clarkson’s Trudeau and Our Times: The Magnificent Obsession. Overall it’s a masterful blend of ideas, personalities, national history, in-depth reporting, and clear prose.
As for gaps on the shortlist, I miss the many terrific memoirs, biographies, and essays written in French. (Indeed, the most important issue of the past 25 years, the rise of Quebec separatism, is hardly represented, not least by Graham Fraser’s magisterial account of the Parti Québécois.) And since I’m a sucker for first-person memoirs (even the self-serving ones are important and revealing primary documents), I miss them too.
What are you working on now?
Coincidentally my latest book – The Last Act – revisits the early 1980s, this time as history rather than as current events, to tell the true story of the great battle between Pierre Trudeau and the Gang of Eight premiers over the patriation of the Constitution and the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I finally got the frank interviews, confidential documents, and historical perspective I could only have dreamed of with One-Eyed Kings.
In a land where prime ministerships are measured by the decade, the first half of the 1980s witnessed a succession of four prime ministers. In One-Eyed Kings, Ron Graham profiles Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, John Turner and Brian Mulroney and explores their roles in one of the country’s most dramatic periods. Whether it be the constitution, energy debate, role of government in the economy, or search for free trade with the Americans, Graham reveals a political culture with a pattern of inadequate, one-eyed approaches to the long-term challenges confronting Canada. Published in 1986, One-Eyed Kings is a classic of Canadian political writing.