Jack Layton’s last act on the public stage

Andrew Coyne on how Layton inspired the public even in the shadow of death

Jack layton’s last act on the public stage

Andrew Vaughan/CP

In ancient Athens, attendance at the theatre was compulsory. The theatre was where the politics of the polis were acted out—not in the everyday sense of how to collect the garbage, but of what it was to be a man: social being, plaything of the gods, contested ground of character. It was the duty of the citizen legislator to watch, and reflect.

If the theatre is no longer where we conduct our politics, politics remains a kind of theatre: not only the arena for deciding who should have power, but a stage on which we see acted out great questions of character and judgment, some of which might find some echo in our own lives. We watch the players struggle—against each other, against their fates, against themselves—and we reflect.

So it was as we watched Jack Layton dying. It is his death, of course, that the last week was about. Had we been marking merely his retirement from politics, and not his passing from the Earth, there would not have been anything like the same reaction. That he was a fine man, dedicated to important causes, decent with others; that he had a successful career, a loving family, in all a full life: all of these would explain why so many people were fond of him. They do not explain why thousands filled the streets.

Much has been made of how remarkable this was, how unusual such scenes are in our public life. I do not find it remarkable at all, precisely because they are so unusual. It is extremely unusual for a political leader in Canada to die in office: the last was Laurier, in 1919. Add to that Layton’s relative youth—at 61, he was nearly 20 years Laurier’s junior, and a fit 61 at that. And add to that the poignant irony of his death arriving at the hour of his maximum triumph, having led his party from the edge of extinction to official Opposition in just eight years. Of course people were going to react.

Even then, however, it does not quite explain the scale of the response. It is the way he died that is crucial—not the physical particulars, but how he bore himself in the 18 months since his cancer was discovered. Had he fallen under a bus and been killed instantly, his death would be tragic and inexplicable, but I doubt it would have occasioned the same popular feeling. What bonded the public to him was prolonged observation of his conduct in the shadow of death, and the character it revealed.

It is true that after his death many have been tempted to make out of him more than he was, a secular saint in place of a good man. But his death does not distort our judgment of him nearly so much as it informs it. Each of us must choose how to live his life; a smaller number choose how they are to die. Layton’s choice was to carry on, and to do so with such uncommon grace and good humour that it moved us, perhaps more than we were aware. We did not know for a fact that he was doomed through that last gallant campaign, but I think somewhere at the back of our minds we knew.

Did he? I take his people at their word that he did not. Perhaps an element of wishful thinking was involved, but one man’s wishful thinking is another man’s positive attitude. But he must certainly have known the odds were against him. The knowledge that death lurked somewhere nearby not only changed our view of him. It surely must have changed him.

He was not always the example of civility and optimism that he appeared in his last months. When he first came upon the national scene, he brought much of the table-banging style familiar to observers of municipal politics. Recall his outburst, during the 2004 election, that he held Paul Martin “personally responsible” for the deaths of homeless people. He was regarded as a grandstander, a preener, even—a phrase heard often—a used car salesman.

But he grew in the job. By the 2008 election, after four dispiriting years of infighting and intrigue that had brought much of the political class into disrepute, his own standing had only grown. He was regarded, if not yet as a statesman, then certainly as a good guy, the kind you’d like, as in the pollsters’ question, to have a beer with. And then cancer struck, and that popular affection hardened into admiration.

I have to think that intimation of death expressed itself, not only in the courage and dignity with which he went about his own business, but in his considerate treatment of others, even his adversaries. How could it not? Much of the preposterousness of politics stems from the participants’ lunatic enlargement of the stakes, the “this is war” mentality with which they justify to themselves each appalling act. How childish these games must seem, when you are fighting for your life.

In his last campaign, it all seemed to merge: the message of concern for the less fortunate, his personal bravery in the face of his own misfortune, the courtly, happy-warrior tone—in some ways a traditional protest campaign, but without a hint of anger. The whole was combined in the image of that cane: symbol of frailty, brandished in cheerful defiance.

Well, is that so unusual? All over this country there are thousands of people confronting cancer in their own lives, with no less courage or dignity. Layton was an admirable but not extraordinary man in life: is his death any more extraordinary? Only in this respect: that he was required to act it out on the public stage. We watched, like the ancients, and learned what it is to be a man.

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