Not only is it sad to learn of the death of John Carnell Crosbie, it sure serves to offer reflection on how politicians – and indeed, politics itself – changed since this dynamic character kept everyone on their toes. As Rex Murphy has written, "Within Newfoundland he was emperor, pharaoh, sultan and premier."
Stories about John are legend. He didn't start well in Newfoundland's political arena. Yet, he was the kind of man who simply dedicated himself to upgrading his public personality, putting in the long hours to learn the art of public speaking and to use his innate sense of humour to create an oratorical style that captivated the proletariat and won the hearts of many.
Quick recollection that I always loved about the man: back in the 1980s, when John was running for the federal Conservative leadership, people began to realize his command of the French language was nearly AWOL. The press ragged him about this until one day he turned to a reporter and stated, "When I’m in China, I don’t have to speak Mandarin Chinese.” Yeah, I get it: in today's ultra-sensitive, politically correct world, he'd be hung, drawn and quartered for such a blunder. But this was 1983, and it was just another Crosbieism! Not as grand as his taunt to Sheila Copps who was bugging him about something: “So pass me another tequila, Shelia, and lie down and love me again,” he sang. Right there in Parliament!
And, of course, who, other than the late, great John Crosbie, would drop an F-bomb on Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood while quitting his cabinet? T'was back in 1968 when John and Clyde Wells had had enough of Canada's self-styled "only living father of Confederation." Armed with resignation letters, they strode uninvited into into the premier's office. But Joey had them beat: "I'm dismissing you," he stated quickly before they could grab the upper hand. "Like f--k you are," came back John, throwing his letter at the premier, "here's my letter of resignation!"
What I always liked – and respected – about Mr. Crosbie was that he called 'em as he saw 'em. Never afraid of offending anyone, he'd get in trouble a lot, but for the most part, back then folks seemed OK with the off-colour jokes and insulting language. It was a simpler time. A time I, for one, miss.
And when I say I respected the man, it wasn't so much for the irreverence but for standing up and doing what needed doing. Where others would hide behind press releases, John Crosbie – then the minister of fisheries in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet – had to take the sad news to his fellow Newfoundlanders: the cod fishery was going to have to close. Avoiding offering a proclamation in the Legislature, instead, John headed out alone to the Southern Shore, walked into a crowd of disillusioned fishermen, and shared the news with them in person, mano a mano. Talk about political courage!
It was because of having guts like that, and having no sense of affectation, that John Crosbie was one the most revered people on The Rock. I mean, we're talking a Finance Minister who actually wore mukluks rather than the traditional superstition of a new pair of shoes when delivering the budget!
Listen to Rex again...
"He dispersed such joy and cheer among so many, just by virtue of being him, that even today it is impossible to think of him without a smile, and to be cheerfully grateful this lively, brave, smart, funny and lovely man walked and talked, as only he could walk and especially talk, among us."
Now, let's see... who can we imagine saying such adoring words about today in political circles? Justin Trudeau? Doug Ford? Donald Trump?
You get my point.
Fare the well, John Carnell Crosbie. We'll miss you and the stamp you placed upon a calling for politics that once shone brightly, but now lacks fervour at all.