Jim Flaherty was a politician who stood out in what often appears to be a humourless, ideologically-obsessive pack on parliament hill. Even his opponents recognized this; news of his tragic, early death had them rushing to the mikes to pay tributes to a man whose policies they had been castigating for years: diverting budget money from crime prevention to retribution, omnibus budget bills that made meaningful debate on vital matters impossible, maximum efforts toward resource exploitation without credible attention to climate change, etc., etc.
Stephen Harper called him his partner, and whatever was announced as regards policy and subsequent legislation (Fair Elections Act, for instance) rose out of the collaboration of Harper, Flaherty and others in the cabinet and caucus, obviously.
But to harp on this when family and friends of a man tragically taken before his time are in mourning would be a callous act. Eulogizing people’s strengths and forgiving their weaknesses is what we do to honour the lives of the recently-departed, so much so that the adage—if your wish is that people should speak well of you, consider dying—has a ring of authenticity to it.
Watching Jim Flaherty do the public part of his job—the interviews, the scrums, all the stuff we normally see of politicians—led me to believe that the accolades regarding his demonstration of extraordinary humanity might not be misplaced. He tended to speak forthrightly and civilly to reporters and to questions in the House of Commons. The need to accuse and belittle opponents just wasn’t that well developed in Flaherty; he didn’t come to his job with a mouthful of razorblades as so many of his colleagues and opponents seem to have done. He smiled a lot, like a man who is constantly on guard against taking himself and the trials of the day too seriously.
The parallels to the death of Jack Layton are obvious; responses to their deaths were almost identical and may equally have demonstrated that what we look for in leadership is not hard-edged idealism or even extraordinary work and dedication, it’s the consistent practice of kindness and empathy, a humanity that nurtures people first, everything else second.
Many of the tributes sounded hollow, especially comments like “He was the best finance minister we ever had.” History will decide if his work in the cabinet was characterized by more missteps than feats of brilliance . . . or the other way ‘round. That’s how it will be for all of us when we've walked our last mile; fortunate for us if the choice of those left behind is to “forgive us our trespasses, [even as they will one day be forgiven].”
Simply put, there’s a time to place reflections on what a person was above analysis of what that person did. Many acquaintances and friends were interviewed and for me, comments like, “He was a really nice guy,” seem to sum up what will be his lasting legacy for those who really, actually knew and valued him.
As for the rest of us, who get to know only what the media choose to divulge, we will simply watch as our country pays its formal respects on Wednesday, and some of us will pontificate on its meaning as if we actually knew what that meaning was . . .
. . . over coffee, maybe.