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.


Jack Layton’s last act on the public stage

  1. Mr Coyne, you are OTT and trite.  Please, please, find a new topic for your ruminations.

    • Actually, this comment is a much better example of trite.

    • Even after reading many articles like this excellent one, many folks still are at a loss to explain or even accept the huge public outpouring of emotion over the loss of Jack Layton.  I think this article fails to see the huge elephant in the room; the same one that many conservatives are loath to even acknowledge.  The elephant in the room is the simple fact that everyone knows there would be no such outpouring of positive emotion if the current Prime Minister were to pass away; there is more likely to be some very negative emotion.  Layton was a visionary who understood how to connect with Canadians in a lasting way while Mr Harper is just a political tactician who makes little connection with anyone.  It is becoming obvious that Layton’s vision will last long enough to have a significant impact during the next election and probably beyond.  Mr Harper’s lack of similar vision clearly means any impact he has will evaporate when he leaves office, however he leaves it.

  2. This is enough to require medical treatment for excess sugar intake.

    • What’s the treatment for poor, off-hand, hyperbolic analogies?

  3. Well said, as usual.

  4. It’s hypocrites like Jack Layton who are collectively responsible for elevating Canada’s “universal” health care system into an obscene sacred cow that inflicts delayed treatment and premature death on faceless, nameless, uncelebrated Canadians each and every year.

    And may he and his pal Tommy rot in hell for it.

    • Anything stopping you from going to the States to get the immediate treatment you demand and expect?

      You really are a piece of werk.

    • “The discoveries of healing science must be the inheritance of all. That is clear. Disease must be attacked, whether it occurs in the poorest or the richest man or woman simply on the ground that it is the enemy; and it must be attacked just in the same way as the fire brigade will give its full assistance to the humblest cottage as readily as to the most important mansion… Our policy is to create a national health service in order to ensure that everybody in the country, irrespective of means, age, sex, or occupation, shall have equal opportunities to benefit from the best and most up-to-date medical and allied services available.”
      Winston Churchill, in a speech to the Royal College of Physicians, March 2, 1944

      I like to remind the likes of you Kate, that your hero Churchill, was actually quite the socialist

      • A brilliant quotation from a brilliant man and leader. Thank you Michael – Churchill’s speech really speaks to one’s heart and sense of justice; it sums up the sensible reasons for universal healthcare wonderfully. Well, it does for all but the witless ones who are remarkable only for their stubbornly-rigid, anti-social stances.

    • hogwash to you and may your 31 likers get chicken pox

    • I guess you’re forgetting about the “faceless, nameless, uncelebrated Canadians” who aren’t forced to spend their life savings on health care or who don’t lose their lives because they can’t afford medical treatment.  Our health care system is by no means perfect, but it’s sure as hell better than the alternative.  If you are so concerned about treatment delays why not do something constructive to help fix the system instead of taking cheap shots at dead men.

    • Really…what a treat…another full-time fool rises up with a ‘rot in hell’ comment! Why don’t you and your gaggle of fellow morons just move to the US or some other place where healthcare is a business and all about the bottom line…profit…not your health. Seriously! Otherwise, don’t be such an ostrich! Without universal health care, in those jurisdictions, you either go bankrupt trying to save your sorry life…or…your for-profit healthcare provider decides the life-saving treatment is more than they’re willing to spend, pats you on your head and sends you home…to wait around for the reaper to come a-knocking. Yes, our system is not perfect, but it is certainly better than one where one’s personal wealth is what guarantees the best health care…whereas, the less affluent?…well…good luck, eh. Yes, why cant Canada be as rotten and uncaring as that!? Indeed, what a great system that is. Get out there…go now and shout it from the rooftops all ye morons with big mouths and empty heads!

  5. “It is true that after his death many have been tempted to make out of him more than he was,”

    CBC and most our MSM was tempted,  they attempted to make him into Saint Layton Or Progressiveland.

    And quite the show it was.  Most entertaining in a Dsyneyesque syrupy sort of way.

  6. He was asked repeatedly during the campaign about his health.  And he always replied that the Drs. had given him a clean bill of health, that his PSA was zero.  Was he pulling the wool over our eyes, or was he really of that mind?  He said his 2nd cancer was unrelated to the first.  Some have wondered if it was AIDS.  Is there truth to that rumour.

  7. I see the Blogging Tories have arrived.

  8. I do not believe for one minute that Jack Layton did not know his fate when his hip was fractured and there was need to operate immediately. The diagnosis probably came when that issue was identified.
    I do not take issue with any of the points made by Coyne. Layton was a man who understood how to be a politician 24 hours a day and was very good at his job.
    However, Layton refused to reveal the nature of the cancer that ultimately caused his demise. If he knew his days were numbered when he elected to force a campaign it certainly wasn’t in the best interest of the country.
    Think about it. If Layton had won a minority government the country would be in political chaos. We would have an interim Prime MInister who is an avowed Separatist and the other two opposition parties would also be led by interim leaders. This is not a time for the country to just float along. The economy and indeed the world economy is tittering on the abyss.  We need decisive leadership. Thank God Stephen Harper won a majority government.

    • Harper must be forced to release his medical records. Just how bad is his asthma? What other conditions does he have besides that seriously engorged ego?

      • You must be living on another planet. Has Harper missed work from his asthma? Is it a life threatening condition? You are grasping at straws.

        However, I do agree the PM of the country should have his/her medical records made public. I believe Jack did a great disservice to the country by not really giving the public the information about the seriousness of his disease.

    • as Trudeau said: “just watch me”
      Spending billions on military equipment and automobiles is just buying toys for boys, who consider themselves fiscal conservatives
      reminds me of my father buying a new Buick while giving little to my mother for food and clothing for us kids

  9. What it is to be a man, indeed. When was the last time you went to a funeral of a friend, relative, loved one when the words “love” and “generosity” were so often used? I am thrilled to live in such a world where this is possible.

    • Kool-aid drinker. It was an infomercial for the NDP. When was the last time you went to a funeral and it turned into a pep rally.

  10. Actually, I think Mr. Coyne would find the explanation to the outbursts of last week in the title to his previous entry: “Everyone’s gone mad.”

    I have read and admired his writing for years, and this vague, emotional piece does not sound like him at all. Perhaps Brian Topps helped him write it?

  11. I’ve never met the man, but I don’t doubt that Jack Layton was a likeable guy – especially for a politician.  But, first of all, I must say I found “the letter” –  ostensibly from a voice at that point beyond the great divide – to be somewhat manipulative, and over the top.

    Yes, he demonstrated grace and strength in the face of serious and life-threatening illness – but far less than the late Barbara Frum or Peter Gzowski, both of whom – far more directly (and far less politically) – did far more to touch the lives of many more ordinary Canadians.

    I don’t mean to seem callous or heartless – indeed, I extend my condolences to Layton’s family and friends (and may they all live long lives). But as one who has lost a dear younger sister and a mother at far too young an age for both of them – and a number of good friends to cancer, again, at far too young an age – I have to say that I find the very public (social network generated?!) outpouring of grief somewhat too close to the “trendy” line for comfort.

    Maybe this outpouring is a consequence of the escalation of what I’m inclined to call the Premature Death of Celebrity Syndrome (PDoCS).  Not sure when PDoCS began … perhaps it was the death of Elvis, followed by Lennon – although, considering the extensiveness of the “symptoms”, more likely Diana, followed by Jackson.

    But then, I’m somewhat old-fashioned.  I’ve always believed that mourning – and grief – is that which one shares (if one so chooses) with one’s close circle of family and longtime friends.

    • Jack Layton was a public political figure who represented to probably about 70% of Canadians values they cherish,and we were not finding them in other leaders
      he represented ho[e and that a better world is possible, with less greed and selfishness and a caring approach for our environment and habitats

  12. Some of the comments here were distressing. Some people cannot leave partisanship behind them even for something like this. Personally, I am an old fashioned Tory, never met Mr Layton, never voted for him or his party, never really agreed with him on anything. Having said that he struck me as a gentleman, the highest accolade I can pay anyone.

  13. This comment was deleted.

    • can we quote you at your funeral?

    • The degree of nastiness in your comment speaks volumes about you and your character.  It’s not a pretty picture.

    •  You didn’t even mean a word of that did you? I’m truly fascinated by trolls. What is it that gives such a cheap thrill?

    • Hatred as intense as yours is appalling to see. What a sad, empty life of ignorance and pain you must be living. Curious how you speak of rot…while your own withering soul’s decay is bared for all to witness. Jack Layton was a good man and an inspiring leader. What constitutes a good man is certainly not something the heartless are qualified to judge.

  14. Even as someone who was somewhat sympathetic to Layton’s politics, I found the public reaction to Layton’s passing bizarre. Over the top. In the midst of it, I was wondering where the heck this emotion was coming from. You’ve presented as good an explanation of it as any I’ve read.

  15. “We watched, like the ancients, and learned what it is to be a man” – I believe.this line was lifted from a Spinal Tap song

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