Because it invariably means someone I knew or respected has passed away, I don’t like doing “remembering” columns. And here I am doing two in a row, both involving politicians for whom I had the utmost respect.
I mentioned last week that I’d never had the pleasure of meeting Jim Flaherty, but I did meet Herb Gray, who passed away this week.
Much like my experience with Joey Smallwood, which I chronicled last week, I met Mr. Gray about thirty years ago when we both spoke at a business conference in Windsor, Ontario, We were members of a panel of speakers and we sat together, both at the speakers’ table and at the luncheon head table later. We also shared a ride to and from the local TV station that afternoon, where we did live interviews. So, we chatted a lot.
Before meeting Herb Gray, I knew him as an effectively cold, tough, partisan Liberal MP and cabinet minister. But the man I spent all those hours with turned out to be a very warm, witty, engaging individual. For example, although he played classical piano his musical preference was rock and roll, and from all accounts he kept up with contemporary rock throughout his life.
Although he was the first Jewish federal cabinet minister in this country, his attitude seemed to be that it was just an accident of timing that happened to involve him. But, there’s no denying his monumental parliamentary record.
He was an MP for just five months short of forty years. He served during the tenure of eight prime ministers: Diefenbaker, Pearson, Trudeau, Clark, Turner, Mulroney, Campbell and Chretien. You will note the tally is four Conservatives and four Liberals.
As a senior cabinet minister, most notably in portfolios dealing with economics, industry, trade and commerce, he was instrumental in the development of the auto pact; and while bailing out Chrysler Canada in the early 80s he made sure that their incredibly popular mini-van was manufactured in Windsor, thereby arguably saving both the company and the city’s main economic base. He also served as deputy prime minister and, for a short time, as opposition leader.
In my memory, only John Diefenbaker was as adept as Herb Gray during question period in the House of Commons. Today people talk about Thomas Mulcair’s performance during QP, but Mulcair is basically just an angry ranter. Diefenbaker and Gray were oral surgeons (pun intended) who effectively eviscerated opponents by using words as if they were scalpels. Gray’s performances when defending the Liberal government earned him the nickname “the Gray fog.”
His credentials included a bachelor of commerce degree from McGill and a law degree from Osgoode Hall. He entered politics at age thirty-two and won thirteen consecutive elections, defeating over thirty challengers in the process.
A great man, and outstanding citizen, has left us.