Stanfield, Robert (Obituary)

All things seemed possible when Robert STANFIELD won the nation's first made-for-TV leadership convention in 1967. His victory - orchestrated by backroom strategist Dalton Camp - laid the foundation for the modern Progressive Conservatives. But the closest he came to becoming prime minister was when the PCs fell two seats shy of defeating Pierre Trudeau in 1972.

Many Canadians remember a Canadian Press photo showing Stanfield dropping a football during a break with reporters in the 1974 federal election campaign. In fact, he caught more tosses than he dropped that day, but the image seared his prospects.

His many admirers insist Stanfield was "the best prime minister we never had." And when he died last week in Ottawa at 89, he was eulogized for his decency in public life, his commitment to Quebec's role in Confederation and a Burkean view of social policies that defies the prevailing neo-conservatism. "Increasing the size of the GNP is important," he told Maclean's in a 1976 interview, "but it is not in itself a sufficient goal for a civilized society."

His top priority was Canadian unity and appealing to Quebecers to participate in the national enterprise. After losing the 1968 election to Trudeau, Stanfield vacationed in Quebec for French-immersion sessions and strongly defended the Liberals' Official Languages Act. "This bill," he told the Commons, "is placed before the House to strengthen rather than weaken Canadian unity." To his chagrin, 17 of his 72-member caucus, including former leader John Diefenbaker, voted against the measure. Stanfield eventually stepped down as party leader in 1976 and became an elder statesman.

Stanfield, who was not averse to a belt of good rum or a tall tale, was effective in small groups and at private occasions. He was better company than Trudeau and even seemed to enjoy journalists. He would take us to lunch at Ottawa's Rideau Club, in part, we suspected, because this otherwise frugal man had a mandatory quarterly minimum to work off, but he was always gracious and convincing. And at the off-the-record annual national press gallery dinner, Stanfield invariably stole the show with a speech that brimmed with barbs and self-deprecation.

He was born into politics and privilege. His family's wealth was based on the Truro family knitting and underwear business. His father was a member of the provincial legislature and later lieutenant-governor. After graduating from Halifax's Dalhousie University in economics and political science with highest honours, he got his law degree at Harvard. Bored by the law, he went into provincial politics and served as Nova Scotia premier for 11 years.

His wife, Joyce, mother of his four children, died in a car accident in 1954. Three years later, he married Mary Hall, who died of cancer in 1977. In 1978, Stanfield wed Anne Austin and they lived quietly in Ottawa's exclusive Rockcliffe Park. In retirement, he continued his interest in public policy and was often called upon by government officials for advice. Stanfield, wrote legendary Vancouver Sun editor Bruce Hutchison, "had the qualities of an excellent prime minister - above all, the human, healing qualities." And to those of us who knew him, he was, in the words of his 1967 campaign slogan, "the man with the winning way."

Maclean's December 29, 2003