Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 2011
524 pp., $36.95 hardcover
He was strange and complex. William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, a man of many faces and names — Willie, Rex, Mackenzie, Billy King — still elicits strong contrary reactions from scholars, observers, and even poets.
Allan Levine has written a King biography for our times, a personality profile aimed explicitly at “the general reader.” Levine makes extensive use of King’s lifelong record of diaries, which, he argues, are essential to understanding King’s relationships. He also draws on works by other historians, whom he cites frequently.
While King projected the image of a solitary person committed only to politics, Levine’s portrait is altogether more rounded. Friendships and social activities, particularly with Joan and Godfroy Patteson, were a regular part of his days. He loved his country home in the Gatineau Hills and lived a carefully paced life, with time for walking and replying to correspondence.
King was religious but was also an avid follower of spiritualism. Church attendance, reading scripture, and hymn singing were routine. Most important, he spent hours communicating with family members and long-dead notables in the “Great Beyond.” These communions — which took place in private or in small gatherings (such as with Arthur Doughty, the Dominion archivist who introduced him to table rapping) — gave him psychological assurance and companionship.
Contradictory elements in his personality were expressed in his political style. King was, says Levine, “intelligent, politically astute, strategic, compassionate, insightful, deferential, and respectful.” On the other hand, he was also “self-righteous, egotistical, petty, vain, moralistic, paranoid, selfish, self-centred, and vindictive.” Levine shows how these complex traits guided King’s actions while his diaries recorded his justifications.
Throughout the 1925–26 constitutional crisis with Lord Byng, for example, King saw himself as a warm friend of the same Governor General he was confronting. He manoeuvred to isolate Byng from political support, portraying him as an enemy of Canadian democracy, and eventually won a major election on the issue.
King envisioned himself as a social reformer, but when the opportunity arose in 1930 to support a national unemployment insurance scheme he chose to oppose the proposals that did not originate with himself and his Liberals.
While he was a well-travelled and liberal-minded person, King’s treatment of some religious and racial minorities was unspeakable. His government interned Japanese-Canadians in 1942, responding to wartime fears. It then took the extra step of selling the properties of internees, reducing their financial worth and laying the basis for their dispersal from British Columbia.
His actions towards Jews are still surprising today. His government refused to accept additional refugees displaced by the early Nazi horrors; Canada’s record on this was significantly worse than those of many other countries. Levine shows that King’s diaries express his personal unhappiness with the tragedy in Europe. But the same diaries also record his fear that Jews might buy land close to his Kingsmere estate.
Mackenzie King was an expert at delay and obfuscation, avoiding firm decisions that could anger opposing political groups. That was his genius. It played out brilliantly in the late 1930s and the 1940s as he consciously prevented a repeat of the confrontations that threatened Canadian unity during the First World War.
Levine looks at aspects of King’s personality that were exasperating — King was not beloved, even by his closest colleagues. But Levine also stresses his achievements in modernizing constitutional practice, fiscal policies, and welfare programs, as well as his leadership in wartime.
Levine’s book expands both our understanding of Mackenzie King and our awareness of the political culture of this country. Prime Minister King was the people’s choice during so many elections and difficult periods. His methods, priorities, and prejudices suited the Canada of that era. To some degree, his style and subterfuge still suit us today.
— Victor Rabinovitch (Read bio)
Victor Rabinovitch is an adjunct professor in the Queen’s University School for Policy Studies and the emeritus president of the Canadian Museum of Civilization.