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  • Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner by Paul Litt
  • Christopher Pennington
Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner. Paul Litt. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. Pp. 494, $39.95

Canadians tend to remember John Turner from what they saw of him on television in the 1980s, and that hasn’t been good for his legacy. “I had no option” (276), he stammered during the 1984 leaders’ debate, after being pressed by Brian Mulroney about making unseemly patronage appointments. “I’m a hugger” (274), he protested, trying to explain why the cameras had caught him patting the bums of two female colleagues. Those gaffes, made worse by Turner’s wooden television persona, contributed to the crushing defeat of his Liberals in the 1984 election. There was a brief moment of redemption four years later when Turner, battling against the free trade agreement, stunned Mulroney with the charge, “I happen to believe you’ve sold us out” (378). But that moment was fleeting. He lost the election of 1988, and with it his last chance to be remembered for something other than being the shortest-serving prime minister of the twentieth century.

This image of Turner as “yesterday’s man” (279), a rusty and out-of-touch politician who blew it in 1984 and lost again, if with greater dignity, in 1988, is an enduring one. But Paul Litt makes a convincing argument in Elusive Destiny that his subject deserves better. Turner was the leading English-Canadian Liberal of his generation, and his positive impact as a Cabinet minister under Pierre Trudeau – thoroughly documented by Litt in what is easily the most engaging and revelatory part of the book – makes for inspiring reading (well, it will [End Page 636] surely inspire Liberal readers, anyway). After he was raised by a widowed mother who became a leading Ottawa civil servant, Turner’s copious physical and intellectual gifts were offset, Litt argues, by terrible timing: first in 1968, when his square “company man” image was out of step with the Canadian public, which preferred the anti-hero Pierre Trudeau; and then in 1984, when he took the reins of a deeply unpopular Liberal government that had become disorganized and internally divided. The implication is that Turner might have been a fine prime minister of Canada, but the stars never aligned, and his tenure was so short that he never held the job in any real sense. This is not a new view of his career in politics, but it has never been told in this kind of depth, and Elusive Destiny will be the authoritative work on the subject for a long time to come.

Litt makes a persuasive case that Turner did his most important work for Canada not in the 1980s, when he was prime minister and then opposition leader, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he was the indispensable anglophone in the governments of Pierre Trudeau. No political task was too treacherous for him to undertake, and Trudeau never hesitated to saddle him with daunting challenges. It was not Trudeau who persuaded the Catholic Church of the benefits of a liberalized criminal code, nor did the prime minister personally pitch official bilingualism to western Canadians. Turner did those things, using a pragmatic, conciliatory style and relying on personal relationships across every region of the country, much in the same mould as Liberal giants like Sir Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and Lester Pearson. In this respect he contrasted with Trudeau, his greatest rival. As Turner saw it, Litt argues, “Canada was not the logical construct that Trudeau seemed to expect, but rather, a jury-rigged contraption best coaxed along by a sensitive operator with an ear for any change of pitch in its internal workings” (148). That, it seems, gets it exactly right.

Litt is fair-minded in his assessment of the rivalry between Turner and Trudeau while both were still in government, acknowledging that their situation was a difficult one and crediting both men for keeping their relationship professional until Turner resigned from Cabinet in 1975. But the book later comes down very hard on Trudeau, accusing him of deliberately...


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pp. 636-638
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