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Why I voted for Jim Coutts in 1984 and probably would again, a lesson in retail politics

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Image: University of Lethbridge

I only met Jim Coutts once, almost 30 years ago, and only for about 30 minutes, but he left an impression that has proven indelible and taught me a couple of worthwhile lessons about retail politics in the process.

So I was very sorry to hear from all the usual news sources the night before last that the influential aide to Liberal prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau -- another link to a happier and more positive time for Canadians -- had passed on.

Coutts was a native of High River, Alberta, which was also the hometown of Conservative PM Joe Clark. He grew up next door in the dusty little town of Nanton -- which if you're from these parts, you'll know is the place where the Lancaster Bomber sat for years at the side of the highway. So those two political figures are clear proof to the proposition there is, in fact, intelligent life on the Great Plains!

It wasn't in Nanton that I met Coutts, however, although it was because of Nanton that we chanced to have an engaging conversation in the late summer of 1984.

Rather, Coutts came knocking at my door in Toronto's Spadina riding during the 1984 general election campaign.

He'd run in Spadina once before, in a by-election in August 1981, when his then boss Trudeau had bumped the Liberal incumbent up to the Senate to make a place for Coutts in the House of Commons. It should have worked. It was a safe Liberal seat, after all, and should have been safer yet for a good Liberal with ties so close to the Prime Minister. He certainly would have found his way into cabinet.

But maybe by then the times were already a-changin' -- at any rate, Coutts lost to the New Democratic candidate, Dan Heap, by 214 votes.

In 1984 -- with John Turner at the head of the Liberal Party, Trudeau out of the picture and Brian Mulroney's so-called Progressive Conservatives on the march -- he was taking one more kick at the electoral can in Spadina.

Now, in truth, being a Knee-Dipper and all, I had no intention of voting for Coutts and viewed his role in the former Prime Minister's Office with a certain amount of healthy oppositional skepticism.

But I just can't say no to door-knocking politician of any stripe, or for that matter a door-knocking Jehovah's Witness, because I know they're usually doing what they do out of sincere belief in something, and because I know it's not an easy row to hoe.

So the first words out of my mouth were, "I know you! You're Jim Coutts!" -- to which Coutts responded with the honest confession that most people in Spadina didn't recognize him or know who he was, and with, I think, an inkling about the way his second Spadina campaign might be going.

He was canvassing the neighbourhood alone that evening, unassisted by a watch-tapping assistant (a role he would surely have played at times for Trudeau, to whom he was principal secretary, a post important enough to make some people say he had been the second most powerful person in the country) to move him along when the traditional 30 seconds on the doorstep had expired.

I said: "You’re from Nanton, right?"

And he said, absolutely delighted: "Yes! How did you know that?"

And I said: "Well, my uncle ran the hardware store in Nanton for years. I know all about Nanton."

And he said: "Fred Garratt?"

And I said, as absolutely delighted as he had been: "Right!"

And then we both laughed out loud at the absurdity of a conversation about Nanton, Alberta, on a doorstep on Palmerston Boulevard in Toronto in the midst of a tough-fought election campaign.

And then we were off to the races, talking about Nanton's silly old Lancaster bomber -- Fred had been part of a group of local businessmen who bought it in 1960 for $500 in the hopes of turning it into a roadside café, or so he said. This turned out to be a job for which the surplus Second World War heavy bomber was spectacularly unsuitable -- if you want the definition of cramped, consider the fuselage of that particular plane.

We talked about Trudeau. Coutts loved him, naturally. I don't think Turner came close for him or anyone else in the country, it turned out.

We talked about Nanton Water -- known in local legend as Canada's finest drinking water, although I believe the sign that proclaimed it so is long gone from the highway now. Later, Coutts bought into the Nanton water bottling plant, employed lots of locals, and somehow cooked up a clear cola that tasted pretty darned good too.

I can't recall if we talked about Nanton's own magnetic hill, but in case we didn't, I'll tell readers it's a heck of lot spookier and more exciting than the lame but famous one in Moncton, New Brunswick -- although I'll leave it up to the locals to tell you how to find it.

And of course we talked about politics in the Spadina riding and throughout the land. I finally bade him farewell disappointed, but cheerful enough for all that, telling him I still intended to vote for Heap.

The next night at home, however, I received a long-distance call from my mother, Fred's little sister, in Victoria, B.C.

Now, my late mom rarely came at a matter directly, which she would have considered rude, so she started by telling me she'd had a call from Aunt Katherine in Nanton.

"Mmmmm-hmmm," I said, having a pretty good idea at that point where this was going.

"Well, Auntie Katherine had a call today from Mrs. Coutts. Jim's mother …" (Meaningful pause.) "And Mrs. Coutts said Jim met you last night in Toronto…"

Mr. Coutts, according to Mrs. Coutts, according to Auntie Katherine, according to mom, had enjoyed our conversation about Nanton as much as I had.

Well, I threw up my hands! Mom never came right out and said: "Vote for Jim Coutts." But she didn't have to, did she?

How could  a good son say no, even to the mere suggestion? After all, this was a woman who not only knew her son was a New Democrat, but who herself had learned to be a Conservative at my grandpappy's knee -- although, in the old man's defence, that's when it was still the Conservative Party of John Macdonald and John Diefenbaker, not the creepy neoliberal ReFarm Party of Preston Manning and Stephen Harper.

At any rate, come election night, I cast a ballot for Coutts.

So that's the first lesson in retail politics: a personal connection, skillfully exploited, can get you a vote, even when you're a Liberal of all things, and you've been talking to a die-hard Knee-Dip.

But as events would show, a good connection on one doorstep, even when someone’s mom gets involved in the sales pitch, can only go so far.

Which goes to the second lesson about retail politics. To wit: a candidate should never spend half an hour on one doorstep, no matter how pleasant the conversation, when there are more doors to be knocked upon nearby.

From which we could extrapolate another lesson or two, I guess. First, that an engaging candidate should never be allowed to go out door-knocking alone. But then, maybe Turner didn't really care about that particular Liberal candidate, and maybe Coutts by then sensed which way the wind was blowing. His political radar was pretty finely tuned, after all.

The Globe described Coutts during his six years working with Trudeau as "an accomplished tactician" and left the impression he could also be a pretty tough cookie. So maybe we can spin yet another lesson out of this: that someone who is a tough aide to one politician can be as helpless as a babe when aspiring to the political life himself, at least when enough doors have been unanswered or slammed to get anyone down.

In the event, even without my help, the voters of Spadina gave Heap an even bigger margin -- 1,361 votes -- on Sept. 4, 1984. Maybe they were offended by the manoeuvre that had brought Coutts to their attention in the first place.

Coutts, who had also run some years before in Alberta, then recognized that sometimes three times is not a charm, and retired from the field with dignity -- as you sometimes have to do when the voters just say no.

So, farewell to Jim Coutts, who died on New Year's Eve at 75.

He played a big role in Canadian history, never forgot his hometown, which to most of us is just a blip on a lonely highway, was generous to institutions in his corner of the country, and certainly made a big impression on this blogger the only time he ever set eyes on him.

As for the Lancaster bomber, it's still in Nanton, considerably spruced up. You might want to drop down and see it some time -- even an old Prairie Grit like Jim Coutts, I'm pretty sure, would approve of your venturing deep into Reform country on such a mission.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

Image: University of Lethbridge

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