The Gray Fog rolls out

Paul Wells remembers Herb Gray, the veteran MP who has passed away

In 1999 I was in Toronto at the National Post’s old newsroom. I usually attended Question Period in person in those days, but on this day I was watching on television and needed to produce a column quickly. Herb Gray was pinch-hitting for Jean Chrétien, as he often did on a Friday, and I was struck by his skill at turning hard opposition questions into… well, nothing. I decided to write a whole column calling him The Gray Fog. “Chuck Strahl took only a few minutes to vanish without a trace yesterday,” I wrote. “The Gray Fog swallowed him, snappy new haircut and all.” And so on. 

The name stuck, a little, and I’m told that even though it was mildly critical Gray got a kick out of it. I used the nickname for him a few times in succeeding columns. It’s obvious today’s Conservative government watched him closely, and learned from his Question-Period example. 

I don’t know whether I’m allowed to reprint my own columns, more than a decade old, from the National Post, but let’s find out. This one appeared on March 14, 2002 —  the day after Gray’s last day in the House of Commons, a room he had first entered almost 40 years earlier, a room he dearly loved. I saw Gray as recently as last December, enjoyed a few minutes’ chat with him and his wonderful family, and will miss him. — pw

Odd weather we’ve been having lately. Yesterday just after Question Period a Gray Fog rolled into the House of Commons. MPs, dimly visible through the billows, seemed delighted.

Jean Chretien is not burdened with an excess of sentimentality, so when the departure of Brian Tobin blew a great big hole in the federal Cabinet two months ago, Mr. Chretien did not hesitate to cut a few other colleagues loose in what became an enormous Cabinet shuffle. Herb Gray’s retirement was pushed forward, to before his 40th anniversary as an MP. (A hint, incidentally, about how seriously Mr. Chretien is likely to take his own anniversaries in deciding his own political future.)

Mr. Gray was given the rare honour of designation as a “Right Honourable” citizen by the Governor-General, but in the fuss and bother surrounding the shuffle, nobody seemed to have thought of a more elaborate tribute.

Joe Clark embarrassed the government weeks later by rising on his own to say kind words about Mr. Gray. Mr. Chretien took the hint, and yesterday MPs paused after their regular business to say goodbye to the man who had served longest among them.

The tribute took a novel form. The Rt. Hon. Mr. Gray was “called to the bar of the House.” This means roughly what it says: a big fancy chair was installed in the House’s centre aisle, just inches in front of the brass bar that separates those who are permitted on the Commons floor from those who aren’t. It was Parliament’s way of welcoming back a former colleague one last time. Then he listened while his former colleagues sang his praises.

Many of those tributes took the form of awe at his sheer longevity: nearly 40 years, nine Cabinet posts, while eight prime ministers led the governments from two parties. In turn, members of each party added variations.

Mr. Chretien’s tribute was warmest, because it is fundamental to the role Mr. Gray played here for so long that only a Liberal could really love him. He has been a fiercely, maddeningly partisan player. But Mr. Chretien also talked about the way Mr. Gray welcomed rookie Quebec MPs in French in the early 1960s, when few anglophone MPs bothered; and how he fought to make the auto industry “a pillar of Canadian prosperity.”

Gilles Duceppe was as elegant as he always is when events declare a ceasefire. He acknowledged that Mr. Gray had been “a difficult adversary,” but applauded him “in all friendship.”

John Reynolds was gently funny, speaking for the Canadian Alliance. Mr. Reynolds reminded us that he was first elected in 1972 –as a Tory — and paid tribute to two other old-timers, Eugene Whelan and Mitchell Sharp, watching from the gallery.

Alexa McDonough had the grace and imagination to cede her speaking role to Lorne Nystrom, her party’s longest-serving MP. Mr. Nystrom called Mr. Gray “the comeback kid,” for his political longevity and his ability to survive serious illness. The Rt. Hon. gentleman is a fan of rock and roll; Mr. Nystrom invited him, in Neil Young’s words, to “Keep on rockin’ in the free world.”

Joe Clark is so good at batting cleanup in these ceremonies that a wicked observer might wish he could forever keep the last-place slot. Casting a glance at the tenaciously dull Mr. Gray, the Tory leader said, “I regard him as sort of a colleague in charisma.”

For much of the last decade, Mr. Gray’s job consisted of ensuring that a government in trouble on Friday would not be in more trouble on Saturday, but Mr. Clark put that work in the larger context of devotion to Parliament. “We will continue his work to ensure that the House of Commons remains the institution that preserves and enhances the liberties and well-being of Canadians.”

Finally it was Mr. Gray’s turn. I named him The Gray Fog two years ago for his fantastic ability to say nothing comprehensible, so it was surprising to be reminded of his eloquence when relieved of his duty to play the defensive game. He spoke at length in long, elegant sentences, barely referring to his notes.

He reminded everyone he has not retired. He is president of the International Joint Commission. But he clearly misses Parliament already and was clearly touched by the belated ceremony. “Something absolutely unique: Allowing me to be in the House while it is in session. And to speak even though I am no longer a member.”

He spoke movingly of his devotion to the Jewish faith, to the prophets’ teachings, and to the blessings of a country that could make so much possible to an immigrant’s son.

He seemed to want to explain why he continues to work even after such a rich political career. So he closed by quoting Tennyson:

 “How dull it is to pause,

To make an end, to rust unburnished,

Not to shine in use.

Some work of noble note may yet be done.”

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