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Allen J. MacEachen: Remember Him And Heed His Words

Don't stay longer than two years. Don't become what you came to Ottawa to change.

09/20/2017 11:13 EDT | Updated 09/20/2017 11:15 EDT

The only reason sane people get involved in politics — or create a work of art, or write a book, or build a bridge, or climb mountains — is because they want to be immortal. We're all going to die, sooner or later, and we want to be remembered for something.

In my limited experience, that's mostly why people get involved in politics. How else to explain giving up stable family life, decent incomes and the ability to say what you actually think? The next time you are at an airport somewhere, and you see some unhinged lunatic screaming at an MP waiting at the luggage carousel — and the MP has to grin and bear it, and take it — remember this: precious few politicians ever get their name appended to the side of an airport.

They are there because they want to do something memorable, something momentous. And then they die.

Mike Slaughter via Getty Images
Allen J. MacEachen.

Allen J. MacEachen died last week. He was 96.

There were the requisite number of news stories about his sad passing, most of which were likely written far in advance (he was 96, after all).

The stories, as such stories do, recalled his achievements. There were many. MacEachen was a Cape Bretoner — and, like all Cape Bretoners I have met, had an ability to get very close to rich and powerful people, and get them to do what he wanted them to do.

The son of a coal miner (and who from Cape Breton isn't?), MacEachen alighted in the House of Commons in 1953. He lost his seat once, in the 1958 Dief sweep, but then was re-elected eight more times. Not bad.

He was close to Pearson (the one whose name is on an airport) and Trudeau (the non-selfie one). As such, he was entrusted with shepherding into law things like the Canada Health Act and reforming Medicare. He reformed labour law, to make things better for workers, and was widely considered to be the social conscience of the Liberal Party of Canada.

He wasn't perfect, naturally. As an Albertan, I can testify to the fact that MacEachen's 1980 budget — the one that ushered in the National Energy Program — was a suicide note, not a budget. It destroyed the Liberal Party of Canada in the West for a generation, and its very name still stirs up waves of heat and hatred.

"Don't stay longer than two years. You will grow cynical, and that will hurt you and it will hurt the ones you serve."Allen J. MacEachen

I didn't know the man. But when my boss Jean Chretien won the 1993 election, and the PMO told me I would be a chief of staff in a ministry, someone smart (OK, it was another Cape Bretoner, David C. Dingwall) suggested I go see "Allen J." as they called him. "He'll tell you how to be a chief of staff, and how government works," Dingwall said.

Thereafter, I entered MacEachen's Centre Block office. The great man sat behind his desk, the window looking out onto the lawn behind him. He was a silhouette. I felt like I was meeting with Colonel Kurtz in Heart of Darkness.

Preliminaries done, MacEachen rendered his advice. I didn't take notes, but I never forgot what he said.

"Two things," he said. "Don't stay longer than two years. You will grow cynical, and that will hurt you and it will hurt the ones you serve."

He paused.

"The ones who stay longer than two years ultimately become glorified bag-carriers."

Will Allen J. MacEachen be remembered? Will schoolchildren speak his name? I doubt it. Few of us will be remembered for anything by anyone. Our kids and grandkids, maybe, but that's it.

But I remembered Allen J's words, and I religiously followed his advice. Before two years were out, I was nurturing a deep and visceral loathing for governing. I despised the Martinites for what they were doing to undermine Chretien, and I despised three senior people around Chretien who were looking the other way. If I ever came back to government in Ottawa, I promised himself, it would be as my own boss, as an MP. (Didn't work out, but I tried.)

If any of you Hill staffers have gotten this far, two things. One, check out the achievements of Allen J. MacEachen. Read up on him. He was a giant, a colossus. He deserves to be remembered.

Two, heed his words. This government is now at the two-year mark. The indications of entitlement and arrogance — and cynicism — are everywhere to be seen.

Don't stay longer than two years. Don't become what you came to Ottawa to change.

Not immortal words, perhaps, but words worth remembering.

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