Steve Clark, the Progressive Conservative MPP for Leeds-Grenville, plays hockey, so we know he may like to get his elbows up every now and then.
That’s certainly the way he’s done his job as an opposition critic in the legislature: he’s been making a name for himself lately as the government’s chief tormentor when it comes to the issue of whether the energy minister should resign.
Last week in a scrum with reporters, the federal Crown prosecutor in the Sudbury byelection bribery case, Vern Brewer, alleged Minister of Energy Glenn Thibeault “sought certain benefits, offers, jobs, or employment as part of his condition to run as an MPP.”
(Oddly enough, it’s apparently not against the law to seek such benefits, only to offer them, which is why only the premier’s former deputy chief of staff, Pat Sorbara, and Sudbury Liberal operative Gerry Lougheed, Jr. have been charged.)
The Crown’s allegation has turned the byelection scandal up to 11. In fact, it got so tense last week that Thibeault, in a scrum of his own at Queen’s Park, choked up as he described the difficulty of explaining to his nine-year-old child that he’s “not a bad man.”
Clark responded the next day in question period by accusing Thibeault of shedding “crocodile tears.” The suggestion was that Thibeault was somehow trying to garner sympathy.
Ever since that exchange, I’ve been thinking about crying and politics.
As we learned from Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, “there’s no crying in baseball.” But there is and always has been in politics. And in 30 years of following politics, I don't think I've ever seen anyone fake it.
I’ve also been asking other political veterans and, to a person, none of them has said they’ve seen anyone fake tears to gain sympathy.
Both presidents Bush were inveterate criers. George H. W. Bush lost a daughter to leukemia when the child was just three years old, and when Bush visited a children’s leukemia ward in Krakow, Poland, he had to turn his back to the cameras recording the moment, so forcefully did the tears begin to stream down his face.
His son, George W. Bush, would frequently tear up when discussing 9/11 families. The current president, Barack Obama, had to wipe his eyes when giving a speech about the children massacred at a school in Connecticut.
There are plenty of examples in our own province’s affairs. As far back as 1971, Premier Bill Davis choked up during a news conference in which he explained why he was declining to extend further public funding to the Catholic school system. “It’s always easier to say yes,” he said at the time. “It’s so hard to say no.”
Bob Rae, then leader of the NDP at Queen’s Park, broke down at a news conference in 1984 when talking about the death of one of his MPPs, Jim Renwick.
Even Mike Harris, not considered a particularly empathetic man by his critics, struggled to keep his emotions under control after the sudden death of MPP Al Palladini in 2001. “I have lost one of my best friends,” he told reporters, his voice breaking.
In 2009, then-PC party leader John Tory failed in his bid to win a byelection after losing his previous seat to Kathleen Wynne, and held a news conference the following day to step down from provincial politics entirely. He managed to answer all the questions until I posed one about his hero, Bill Davis, for whom Tory once worked as chief of staff. Tory couldn’t hold back his emotions any longer. He said his biggest concern was not losing the seat for himself or his party, but rather, he felt terrible that he had disappointed his mentor. Tory required several seconds to compose himself as his tears began to flow.
Cynics won’t believe this, but politics is a very human, emotional business. The cut and thrust of question period conveys an impression that everyone is tested and ready for battle, but it’s just not always the case.
All of which is to say, Steve Clark was wrong when he accused Glenn Thibeault of crying “crocodile tears.” And since Clark has been in politics almost non-stop since he was 22 years old (he’s now 56), he ought to know better than to level such a nasty accusation at a political opponent, no matter what he thinks that opponent has done.
My hunch is, he knows it, given that he declined to repeat his comments outside the legislature when prompted by reporters.
Yes, politics is a tough business, populated mostly by tough people with very thick skin. But emotions are never far from the surface and we shouldn’t be surprised — or so skeptical — when they bubble over.
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