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A predictable choice and an easy name for journalists to spell

The Globe and Mail, Thursday, Sept. 9, 1999

For Jean Chrétien, the biggest impediment to naming Adrienne Clarkson governor-general is that the choice was so predictable, depriving the Prime Minister of one of his impish pleasures in making appointments, the surprise of doing the unconventional.

Even four years after the fact, for instance, the Chrétien penchant for occasionally doing the unconventional remains the best explanation for his appointment of former Tory cabinet minister Perrin Beatty as the president of CBC.

In the case of Ms. Clarkson, however, her name as a candidate for the next governor-general was around well before the incumbent, Roméo LeBlanc, indicated he wanted to step down. Indeed, one might say she has spent her adult life preparing for the viceregal role.

Naturally, there was a lot of speculation about successors -- the most ridiculous was probably a suggestion in the National Post that Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy would give up a job he loves to take on a largely ceremonial role -- but Ms. Clarkson was certainly not surprised when she received Mr. Chrétien's first call in early summer.

As she said yesterday, her name is easy for journalists to spell and has cropped up for years in speculation about almost every federal cultural job. The Tories first offered her the presidency of the CBC and the Liberals dangled several other posts before making her the chairwoman of the board for the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull.

The reason Ms. Clarkson's name kept coming up is that the logic is so compelling. It was time for a non-politician as governor-general, but the post requires someone who understands and is comfortable in the political milieu. (Mr. Chretien was still defensive yesterday about his choice of Mr. LeBlanc, an intensely partisan Liberal politician who had headed up a quick response team in the Liberals' election war room in 1993.)

Ms. Clarkson scored A-plus on this criterion.

It was time for a woman and it was time for someone from Ontario. And it goes without saying that anyone appointed governor-general in 1999 -- with the likelihood of another Quebec referendum looming and a minority government possible after the next federal election -- must be able to speak both official languages and participate in both cultures and both societies, defending a plural Canada in the process.

Again, Ms. Clarkson scored A-plus in all of these criteria.

Then we come to the extras. The first bonus, but not the sine qua non, is her Chinese ancestry. Born in Hong Kong in 1939, she escaped with her family after the Japanese overran the colony and came to Canada in 1942. The rest of her life has been a star-studded success story, which will be capped when she becomes the first immigrant member of a visible minority to become governor-general.

An academic high achiever at the University of Toronto, she was never the shy bookworm. I first met her when she was a no-nonsense vice-president of the school's students administrative council. Later, she became one of the first women to make it big in Canadian television. She has penned three novels, received five honorary doctorates and is an officer of the Order of Canada, over which she will preside.

Certainly, this should be enough to qualify for a job that is a bit like flying a plane; long hours of tedium interspersed with the occasional dicey cross-wind landing, while always maintaining the decorum and spiffiness of an airline captain.

But there is a more profound message in the appointment. At a time when all of our institutions are under siege, Mr. Chrétien needed someone with enough public stature to take the office out of the realm of another patronage appointment. He also wanted someone able to deal with ideas and the grand sweep of history, yet savvy enough to walk the line between politics and policy.

It is also clear that Mr. Chrétien considers Ms. Clarkson's long-time partner (and recently minted husband), John Ralston Saul, as a plus and not a minus in the process of making Rideau Hall a more relevant, less stuffy place. Although Mr. Saul is an acclaimed writer with a reputation as a trenchant social critic, Mr. Chrétien cited Mr. Saul's brief government experience (with Maurice Strong at the Canadian International Development Agency) as another plus, sending the message that he was part of the viceregal team. No muzzle here.

Ms. Clarkson obviously has the intelligence, background and bearing for the job. But as they used to say around the CBC, she never carried the sticks. That's a reference to the tradition in television crews that the "talent" -- the reporter host or interviewer -- assists the technicians burdened with equipment by carrying the camera tripod, or the "sticks."

In other words, the future Rideau Hall will have lots of élan, but may come up a bit short on the common touch.

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