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Elusive Destiny: The Political Vocation of John Napier Turner

by Paul Litt

To put it in modern terms, John Turner’s stint as prime minister lasted only a week longer than the sham marriage of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries. But by reminding readers of Turner’s truly remarkable accomplishments as the most effective cabinet minister in the early years of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s reign, Paul Litt’s exhaustive new biography makes the case that Turner’s influence extends far beyond the heady summer of 1984 when he occupied 24 Sussex Drive.

Even though it clocks in at more than 500 pages, the book seldom feels like a slog. Litt, a Carleton University history professor, writes with a light touch and has crafted a well-rounded portrait of the man who led the Liberal party in the last half of the 1980s. At times, though, he may be a bit too generous to Turner and fails to offer insight on some of the allegations – particularly his propensity to drink to excess – that dogged Turner throughout his career.

The book’s greatest strengths are its depictions of two major changes in Canadian politics that feature Turner as a secondary player. Even though Turner’s fiercest rival within the Liberal party, Jean Chrétien, went on to spend more than a decade as prime minister, the party’s incessant internal bickering, which began in part when Turner quit the cabinet in 1975, has contributed to its current diminution. There may be no more ironic or, for Liberals, disheartening passage than the one that quotes David Herle, then president of the Young Liberals and later Paul Martin’s leadership campaign manager, calling senator and Liberal organizer Keith Davey a “‘son of a bitch’ who was doing ‘very serious damage to the party’” for undermining Turner’s leadership after the 1984 election loss to Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives.

The second change depicted by Litt, which is more wide-ranging, is his account of media coverage of the 1988 election. The author argues, largely convincingly, that despite the obvious significance of the free trade debate that dominated the campaign, news media were increasingly focused on less substantive matters, including the leadership intrigue in the Liberal party and even Turner’s health. With the advantage of time and the depth of Litt’s book, the accusations that Turner was yesterday’s man by the late 1980s seem more accurate than ever, especially given a media environment closer in time and tone to the Kardashian-Humphries wedding than the Kennedy-Nixon debate.