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One of the greats? A bust as prime minister? But globally the top Canadian?
I drifted toward such questions while reading the first volume of the biography of Lester (Mike) Pearson, Shadow of Heaven, published by Lester & Orpen Dennys.

My reaction would have made sense to our one-time prime minister (1963-1968). Of course, he would have grimaced at it with his typical fuss of modesty.

Only a few of the odd chats I had with the late Liberal leader (all on Parliament Hill) were not about baseball and hockey. Our rambling sports gossip diddled about the usual stuff such as placing in baseball’s pantheon the pitchers, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, and in hockey the forwards, Cyclone Taylor, Howie Morenz and Rocket Richard. For one big game Mike liked Mathewson, for the long haul, Johnson. As I recall, Taylor was his model sportsman but Gordie Howe was coming on.

Pearson’s interest in big-time sport was wider and deeper than intellectualizing. Some all-round athletes become life-long fans. After this book I better realize the consistent involvement of Pearson as a very talented player in baseball, hockey and football from adolescence to his mid-20s when he got into coaching. Nor did I know Pearson had chosen joining our budding foreign service over becoming athletic director and football coach of the University of Toronto.

It may seem insignificant that Pearson seemed to have read every book on baseball I knew about and that he was always thoroughly analyzing the skills and mentalities of players, coaches and managers. It has relevance, I think, to the search for the real Pearson which winds through this story of his first 50 years – unto his entry in 1948 into electoral politics as MP for Algoma and minister for external affairs.

Pearson was a jock, far more than he was a scholar. Pearson was a seemingly amiable, self-deprecating, good fellow. Pearson seemed too gregarious, approachable and chatty to be ambitious, brainy or Machiavellian. Yet his careers unfolded in: (a) A mandarinate rich in talent and push; (b) a cabinet well-endowed with able, pushy ministers like C.D. Howe, Jimmy Gardiner and Paul Martin; (c) as Opposition leader facing the Chief; and (d) as a prime minister who both legislated much and survived more scandals, relatively, than Brian Mulroney.

Biographer John English cannot end the mystery of the real Pearson beyond showing that no one, not even his wife and family, seemed sure about the quintessential man. We seem to see a master dissembler whose steely ambition and wiliness was masked by an easy manner and an evident candor.

At this volume’s close English is still assaying the Pearson paradox. He admits he may not succeed. He explores the religious factors more than the sporting ones. He shows the contradictions. Bonhomie and charm ally with ruthlessness. Aims rise ever higher. People are read, captivated, and used. In a sporting analogy, Pearson was a cross between Sam Pollock and Connie Mack.

Now that English has portrayed the glory years which explain the Nobel prize and a real role in shaping the world’s postwar institutions, he will get on to the more furious, still debatable years that closed with a successor as PM whom Pearson wanted but who at once jettisoned his dual legacies of co-operative federalism and international leadership.
Turning back to sports, Pearson was a quite superior athlete who loved and played well in his prime at a very competitive level in four tough team games – hockey, lacrosse, baseball and football. He didn’t renounce this world and its appraisals and contests as he headed into diplomacy and then into politics.

While he took with him a sense of fair play which made him choke on much of John Diefenbaker, he was as tough-minded as Dief or Howe and much more astute at fitting into, shaping and keeping a political team together. He’d take a messy victory over a noble loss. And he left a good team behind.

You can take it that I have enjoyed Shadow of Heaven (its allusion goes to the Methodism and the manses of Pearson’s father and grandfather). In particular I appreciate how English doesn’t duck sorrier and possibly derogatory episodes in Pearson’s life such as his unusual military service in World War I or how he came to be seen as at least pro-USSR, if not an agent, in the eyes of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover.

To this day some among us clamor for documents on Pearson’s relations with Herbert Norman, the diplomat who killed himself when a U.S. committee alleged he was a communist. English details why doubts arose about Pearson’s loyalties and how unfounded they seem. There will be more on this subject in the next book.

It’s ironic rather than funny that both Dief and Mike were the right age for World War I; each sought and got a commission and went overseas; neither man reached the front; both were invalided home to safety, the Chief with a bad back aggravated by hemorrhoids, Pearson with neurasthenia (what one might call “the shakes”) after illness and being (literally) hit by a London bus. Each was embarrassed and never clear later on these sad denouements.

After discharge the Chief tried hard to return to Europe, failed, and fixed on law and politics. Pearson stayed in the services until 1919, resuming sports and university, then trying law, business, and the academe before finding the niche in diplomacy which led to fame.