The presidential debates: I’m sorry they’re over. Thankfully they weren’t “real” debates. Formal debates are constricted by rules that display debating skills rather than highlight issues and disagreements. I even liked the bland sole moderators, rather than panels of hotshot journalists tempted to draw attention to themselves.

What I think ordinary citizens want to hear from a candidate, is not: What does he think? Candidates can always make what they think sound reasonable. People want to know what he would say in reply to specific criticisms, as in: Yeah, what is the answer to that? Nor do citizens merely want to pose questions. Candidates always have ready replies to questions raised in town halls and press conferences. People want to hear the defence against someone else’s smart-sounding attack.

For what it’s worth, I try to write my columns that way: What challenge would a well-meaning, undecided reader like to hear confronted? I don’t think publishing columnists with differing views answers that need, since the columnists choose what to write on and ignore. You’d need the ability to challenge Margaret Wente, Marcus Gee etc. — good sports all — on the same page and at that moment, to best serve readers.

Now, alas, the debates are done. For almost three weeks, it will be ads, charges and claims — with no chance to immediately hear “the answer to that.” The debates may be an anemic glimpse of what democratic discussion could be, but they’re the best we get. It’s the dialogue we now will lose.

John (not Ralston) Saul: My dear friend of three decades, John Saul, is being honoured with a conference at York University tomorrow, marking his retirement as a prof of political science and African studies. All his work has been about Africa, but he is in a deeply Canadian tradition.

John is a local boy, north-Toronto born and bred (to paraphrase ex-Canadian Saul Bellow). On visits home from Africa, he often headed straight to Swiss Chalet from the airport. He was at Blue Jays opening games and Leafs tickets are passed down in his family. In the late 1960s, he went to Africa to do his PhD, and struck roots there, too. He wrote prolifically; he is in the Northrop Frye-Marshall McLuhan league for citations by a Canadian author.

But he also committed himself to Africa morally and politically. He allied with Frelimo, the revolutionary Mozambican liberation movement, while its members were exiled in Tanzania. He worked with them, travelled secretly in the then-Portuguese colony, and was Canada’s official unofficial presence at independence in 1975. He taught there, and saw the defeat of those early hopes under the auspices of South Africa’s apartheid regime next door. His writings, you might say, are all about instilling hope and learning from failure.

I visited Mozambique in 1978, during those years of liberation and radical change — at John’s urging and because I knew many Frelimo leaders were also poets. In remote villages in the province of Cabo Delgado, people would ask with wonder, “Do you really know John Saul?” He is in a sort of underground, alternate Canadian tradition to the internationalism of Lester Pearson. It includes Dr. Norman Bethune, who worked in Spain and China in the 1930s, and Dr. Chris Giannou today.

One of Mozambique’s revolutionaries/poets, Jorge Rebelo, recently wrote to John: “You reminded us that we should base our ideology on the concrete realities of our country and our people, not on ready-made manuals imported from the Soviet Union . . . because of these positions you were labelled by the pro-Soviet hard-liners among us as a ‘renegade.’” I can’t imagine a finer tribute. It’s like a Marxist way of saying, You Did It Your Way.

John also possesses the best, quickest wit of anyone I know, and a bottomless appetite for jazz, spy thrillers and baseball. He went into a coma last December after a fall and seemed lost to us, but has now largely recovered. Like some others with a fine record of public service, his greatest legacy is probably his family, his relationships with them and his friends. But that’s another, not public, story.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.