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Sir John, the Mayor and the Biebs

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By John Boyko

Justin Bieber was arrested for drunk driving and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was filmed drunk dining. Meanwhile, a debate has erupted regarding how or even whether to commemorate Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday next year. Their antics and legacy suggest three important questions.

Can a bad person be a good leader? John F. Kennedy scared the FBI and his brother the Attorney General. They were terrified that the president’s sexual behaviour threatened national security. Further, to address and conceal his appalling health, doctors prescribed a host of medications and he was also regularly visited by a gentleman known as Dr. Feelgood who injected him with cocktails of pain killers and amphetamines. Should Kennedy’s libido, health and duplicity in hiding it all lead us to dismiss all he accomplished and inspired?

The Ford Nation would say no. Poll numbers continue to show that many people don’t care about Mayor Rob Ford’s personal behaviour – they are more concerned with results. Unlike Kennedy, who had the good fortune to live before YouTube, Twitter and a post-Watergate media, Ford’s personal weaknesses are on full display. Could Kennedy have survived Ford-like scrutiny? In October the people of Toronto will decide, to paraphrase what Sir John once quipped about rival George Brown, whether they prefer Mayor Ford drunk to somebody else sober.

Can we separate art from artists? Jerry Lee Lewis found himself back singing for pennies in dirty honky tonks when it was revealed that he had married a 13 year-old girl. But Elvis Presley’s fame and fortune continued despite the widely-known fact that 13 year-old Priscilla was living at his Graceland mansion. It wasn’t fair.

Perhaps equally unfair is our tsk-tsking the antics of the egg-throwing, drag racing, monkey-loving, paparazzi-hating Justin Bieber. He is certainly behaving like a young man who desperately needs some caring friends and serious counsel. However, in the final analysis, Mr. Bieber is just another artist presenting his songs in the marketplace and asking for our attention, interest and dollars. Do we have a right to do anything more than decide whether we like his music and then buy or ignore it? What would those wanting to ban Neil Young’s records due to his protestations regarding the oil sands say? Do the old man’s views make “Old Man” a bad song? Do Bieber’s droopy drawers make him a bad singer?

Can we celebrate a leader while condemning some of his views? Sir Robert Borden led Canada admirably through the First World War but his party ran for election in British Columbia under the slogan “White Canada.” William Lyon Mackenzie King led Canada skillfully through the Second World War but he also approved the internment of Japanese Canadians. Should Borden and King continue to be celebrated or taken off our money?

Sir John A. Macdonald was Canada’s indispensable man. His skills and vision created Canada and then his railroad and National Policy built it. However, Macdonald also treated Native people in ways that now make us cringe. He exploited Chinese navies and then sought to expel them to avoid creating what he called a “mongrel race.” Further, the current Senate kerfuffle looks like a silly distraction compared to the Pacific Scandal where Macdonald was essentially selling lucrative contracts for political donations – it drove him from office.  Yet there he is, in bronze everywhere and on our money along with King and Borden.

Sir John’s 200th birthday celebrations are being planned. Should we commemorate only part of what he believed and just a portion of what he did? Should we reject moral relativism and declare that what is wrong now must be considered always wrong regardless of time, place and circumstance?

Justin Bieber, Rob Ford and Sir John share something beyond a proclivity to public drunkenness. They inspire us to ask serious questions about celebrity and leadership. They are demanding that we ask what should be admired, excused and ignored.


– John Boyko is the author of five books including Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation and Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation. Twitter @Johnwboyko.



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