I can’t recall the first time I heard his prep-school name or his helium voice, but I do know that during most of my teenage years, when all the other boys were discovering their bodies and chasing after girls, I was in love with Reform Party guru, Preston Manning. It was an innocent enough infatuation, I suppose — had his picture up in my locker, wore t-shirts emblazoned with his name, memorized passages from his book like it were a sacred text. All completely normal behaviour for a 13-year-old Canadian boy.
My crush on Preston, like many love affairs, began on the rebound. When I was eight or nine I met Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his son Ben, who had yet to become famous and annoying and more hated than his father. My love for the elder Mulroney soon waned, though — I think it was the Meech Lake Accord that did it. From what I had culled from television and been told by my Baptist minister father, this Meech Lake Accord thing had something to do with unfairness. Quebec, apparently, was going to get a better deal — special treatment or something. At 10 years old this concept was akin to bucking in line or receiving an unequal distribution of Halloween candy.
My affection for Mulroney continued to decline, and I vented my disgust in stick-figure political cartoons. I sketched big-chinned Mulroney and Finance Minister Michael Wilson in what I labeled the “Debt Room.” I drew Mulroney and Wilson in drag, as if they were trying to escape the responsibility of tending to the nation’s debt by dressing as women, a la Klinger from M*A*S*H. I also recall taking great pleasure in pointing out to my schoolyard chums that our prime minister’s initials were B.M., which was shorthand for shit. To me, Mulroney was like a brutish schoolyard bully. Preston Manning, on the other hand, was the lovely hall monitor.
My understanding of Manning’s Reform Party was rooted in my naïve proto-fascist conception of fairness. The Reform Party wanted no special treatment for any province or special interest group. They wanted no special treatment for the poor or marginalized. They wanted the West to have equal power in federal politics. They wanted young offenders to be treated as adults. They wanted referendums on everything. Reformotopia was going to be great: Quebec would separate, the capital would move to its rightful place in Calgary and, lord willing, Manning and his clan would transform Canada into a sort of giant Hutterite colony, except without the flower dresses and communism.
I celebrated what I was certain would be the upcoming success of Messiah Manning. Every year for my birthday, my customized Dairy Queen Ice Cream Cake reflected my changing childhood fancies. One year it was Calvin and Hobbes; the next it was the Winnipeg Blue Bombers; and finally, for my 13th birthday, my cake was decorated with a big green letter “R” — the Reform Party of Canada’s logo. I blew out twelve candles, leaving that last one lit for Mr. Manning.
That same birthday, I asked for and received a copy of Preston Manning’s tome, The New Canada. I opened the book carefully, not wanting to seem too eager, like a child opening a birthday card hoping a cheque would fall out. And, yes, there it was — his signature. Preston Manning had personally touched this very book. In nearly illegible writing, it read: “Best wishes to you, Andrew, on your thirteenth birthday. Love, Preston Manning.” The “love,” of course, I added in my mind. I ran my fingers across the signature as if it were Braille, and felt the impression of Preston’s ink, which I was sure contained trace amounts of his own blood. I treasured this book more than any other possession, including my 1985 Kirby Puckett rookie card and my lock of Deborah Grey’s hair. Even today, I’ve kept the book as a relic of my childhood; it’s still on my bookshelf almost two decades later, wedged alphabetically by author between Machiavelli and Marx.
In addition to birthday parties with Reform Party ice cream cakes, there were larger parties — from election rallies to “No” campaigns. I attended them all. I was a Reform Party groupie.
At one such rally, which I imagined was bound to have the same lasting cultural appeal as Woodstock, quirky Alberta author W.P. Kinsella was announced as the keynote speaker, but, unfortunately, had missed his flight. Sadly, neither Kinsella nor Shoeless Joe ascended from the cornfields into the Calgary Corral Centre that day. I did, however, see from afar many of my Reform Party heroes, such as Rahim Jaffer, a youngish Stephen Harper and the object of my affection, Preston Manning. I can’t recall precisely what he spoke about, but I do remember that everyone was clapping and cheering like hormonal teenagers at a pep rally, me above them all.
On the drive to another such Reform rally, it was the day of the infamous Donovan Bailey-Michael Johnson 150 metre-race to determine the fastest man on the planet. In the midst of that 1997 federal election campaign, I imagined Manning as Bailey and Jean Chretien as Johnson. As we drove, I listened intently to the race on the radio, “American Woman” playing in the background. When Johnson pulled up lame giving Bailey the victory, it only fueled my political zeal to make this country a better one — to “reform” it, if you will. Although I had Manning’s autograph, and had seen him from afar at countless rallies and Stampede breakfasts, I had never actually met the man. His elusiveness only added to his appeal.
At first, my involvement with the party was pretty informal. One day, I was disgusted to find out that a Reform candidate’s election sign had been defaced with the word “Fascist,” and so I recruited a friend to go down the block at night and kick over Liberal signs in retaliation. Our Christian guilt and fear of getting caught soon kicked us over, however, and only one such sign was toppled that night.
Sign-kicking was just a gateway drug — I had to do more. Before long, I was knocking on doors as an official Reform Party campaigner, even though I wasn’t old enough to vote myself. I felt a sense of Ned Flanders do-gooder-ism, and even felt righteously persecuted when the door was slammed in my face or some old man curtly informed me “I’m a PC,” which had nothing to do with computer wars back then. It was the exhilarating sort of rejection that I imagine is felt by Mormons on a mission’s trip.
We had a survey of leading questions we were supposed to ask: “Which of the following issues are most important to you? Education, Debt Reduction, Crime, Constitutional Reform, Triple-E Senate, Taxes,” etc. I knocked on one door and a shirtless guy with a beer belly stepped out, politely listened to my teenage question and then said, “legalize prostitution,” while some ladies giggled in the background. This incident only confirmed in my mind the need for Mr. Manning to take over the country and rid it of such debauchery.
I wore a Reform Party T-shirt to school on election day, hoping the older high school students would be inspired to vote, even though I couldn’t. But despite all my passion and vigour, Manning’s Reform Party never made great waves east of Manitoba, and I just couldn’t understand how voters failed to see the common sense of his policies. With every election defeat I grew in sympathy for Manning, and in disdain for “Easterners” and “liberals.”
The 1997 election was the last hurrah for Manning and the Reform Party. After that defeat, it was never the same between us. I was devastated, though not completely surprised, the day the Reform Party was disbanded and re-named the Canadian Alliance, and the day that Manning lost the Alliance leadership to that young, wet-suit clad upstart, Stockwell Day. The dream of PM for PM was over. My family moved back to Manitoba, and I moved on to girls.
Years passed, and I more or less forgot, like many Canadians, that Preston Manning even existed.
This all changed on a recent visit to Calgary. I was waiting in a downtown mall for a friend to get off work when Preston Manning, my Preston, walked right by me. He was older than I had remembered — greyer and a little slower, but it was him alright. Although my political views have evolved, unexpectedly seeing Manning again made me stop dead in my tracks. I said nothing, frozen, and let him walk on by — I was closer to the man than I ever had been at any of those mid-’90s rallies. I was tongue-tied and stunned. It’s the same feeling my mother had the day she nearly ran into Burton Cummings. But, you know, this shouldn’t seem so strange because, in his own way, Preston Manning had a sort of charisma. Or perhaps it was just me. After all, I was blinded by infatuation.
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Andrew Unger lives and writes in a dystopian Mennonite town, but feels no Orwellian sense of urgency to escape. He is the author of, among other things, the novel Inches from America. He promises that the next one will be better.
Photo credit: http://gilligan27.tripod.com/scrapbook/scrapbook.htm