On my desk and shelves, in my home office and in my office on Parliament Hill are some objects that have a certain amount of significance in my life but which are otherwise useless. It is not like I need more ornamentation or decorations after all. Each one though has a story attached to it, a memory and/or a person of significance. With your permission I would like to glance over my desk for the next few days and tell you some stories about what you can see there.
George Washington is a mythical figure who overshadows the American creation myth. He is their founding father, their first president, the man who led the Revolution and slept in every bed in the country while doing it. He chopped down cherry tree and never told a lie.
And if you believe all of that you probably think Donald Trump would make a good president.
Washington though does come across as a larger than life figure. Every American school child learns his story. It is so much a part of America that a good part of it has filtered across the border. I suspect the average Canadian schoolchild may know more about George Washington than about the leader of the Canadian Fathers of Confederation, Sir John A. MacDonald.
I have a bust of Sir John A. on my desk. I hesitated for a couple of years before deciding to buy one. Working on Parliament Hill I figured I should have something political in my office, and the bust was available at the Parliamentary boutique.
I hesitated because like many Canadians, perhaps most, I have mixed feelings about Sir John. There is no doubt about his brilliance, and he was the driving force in uniting the British colonies of North America. There would have been no Canada without him. He was someone who understood the need for broad political appeal – the party he led, known today as the Conservative Party, was in his day the Liberal-Conservative Party.
By 21st century standards though, there is a lot to dislike about Sir John A. MacDonald. On more than one occasion his government was touched by scandal. There is evidence of racial intolerance (that’s a big deal here, while in the US nobody seems to mind that George Washington owned slaves). And then there was his drinking….
Today we expect our politicians to use alcohol responsibly, if they use it at all. Sir John A. was by modern standards an alcoholic. Probably by 19th century standards too, though public drunkenness was perhaps more common then. MacDonald was frequently drunk in the House of Commons, which is not the sort of behavior we expect from our Prime Ministers today. And he wasn’t just slightly tipsy, the man was on more than one occasion so inebriated he had to be carried from the Chamber because he couldn’t make it under his own power. A colourful figure to be sure, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted a representation of a drunk on my desk.
In the end though, I purchased the bust. He was the father of our country after all, and recognizing that doesn’t mean I endorse his drinking. And he was far more interesting than George Washington, or at least that is how it looks to me.