No Canadian prime minister experienced a more grotesque transformation of his public image while in office than Richard Bedford Bennett. In 1930, the voters saw him as a self-made millionaire whose financial know-how and can-do spirit could pull the country from the mire of the Great Depression, and they awarded him a Conservative majority government. After five years in power he had become an almost cartoonish villain, an overweight and arrogant rich man who behaved like a dictator, lived in luxury while the homeless slept on park benches and pledged to put the “iron heel of ruthlessness” to those who protested against his government. The Tories used
the slogan “Stand by Canada” in the election of 1935, but the voters refused to stand by them, and Bennett was dealt a humiliating defeat. Three years later he would leave Canada forever to live in England and become a second-rate member of the British nobility. When he died in 1947, alone in his bathtub, he was still among the most unloved of all Canadian prime ministers.
Rehabilitating a reputation like that is a daunting task, and for decades Bennett was one of the few prime ministers who had never been afforded the dignity of a serious scholarly biography, let alone one that tried to cast him in a positive light. In truth, however, there has been a quiet movement afoot in Canadian historiography over the last 20 years to move beyond the plutocratic caricature of Bennett and draw a fuller, fairer portrait of what our eleventh prime minister was really like. In 1992, Larry Glassford produced Reaction and Reform: The Politics of the Conservative Party under R.B. Bennett, 1927–1938, a fine analysis of his leadership that gave him credit for taking heroic measures to end the Depression, some of which—the Bank of Canada, for example—would endure far longer than his own tenure in office. Two years later Michael Bliss was very hard on Bennett in his masterful Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney (he did not even give Bennett a separate chapter, instead lumping him with Arthur Meighen), but he acknowledged that few prime ministers ever gave more, tried harder or approached the job with more selfless sincerity. Finally, in 2010, John Boyko wrote the first full-length study, Bennett: The Rebel Who Challenged and Changed a Nation, a worthy book in many respects that unfortunately overreaches with its thesis that he was not just a capitalist titan, but also a genuine rebel.
Boyko ought not to have the last word on Bennett, because one of Canada’s greatest political historians, P.B. Waite, has been researching and reflecting on his career for over two decades. In Search of R.B. Bennett is the fruit of his long contemplation. This is not Waite’s first stab at the subject; in 1991, he published The Loner: Three Sketches of the Personal Life and Ideas of R.B. Bennett, actually a trio of lectures that mused largely about Bennett’s private life, and in the 2000s he penned the Dictionary of Canadian Biography’s online entry on Bennett. In that brief but elegant depiction, Waite observes that his subject crafted institutions and social policies that Canadians still cherish, and sadly concludes “despite his failings, perhaps he should be cherished too.”
This book is the full expression of that same theme, a deeply sympathetic portrayal of one of the country’s most misunderstood prime ministers. Waite knows how to write a biography—his 1985 The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister is a marvellous read—and here he explores familiar themes in greater depth than he has in his previous writings. One of Waite’s great strengths is his ability to recreate the atmosphere of the times, and he is especially good in this book because Waite, who was born in 1922, can remember Canada as it was in the bleakest years of the Great Depression. He properly emphasizes the immense role of religion in the lives of Canadians, and considers often the place of Methodism in the staunch belief system that guided Bennett throughout his life. He notes how modest things such as singing hymns and quoting poetry, the latter something Bennett loved to do and did often, were part of the make-up of most respectable men of the age. In political life, Waite recalls an era that was sometimes bitterly partisan, but in which statesmen such as Bennett and Mackenzie King, his great Liberal rival, could still have amiable private chats, each with a mutual understanding that they were shepherds of an institution greater than themselves, the Canadian Parliament.
But for all that, this is really a book about Bennett himself. The cover is a portrait of the man with everything around him in blackness, and that is a telling indication of the intensely personal, even intimate, nature of the biography. Throughout the book Bennett is called “RB,” the affectionate name used by his family and friends. Waite acknowledges his great generosity of spirit and his habit of responding to desperate letters from Canadians who wrote him personally during the Depression, begging the prime minister for a few dollars to help them get by. He ponders whether an uncomfortable medical condition made intimacy awkward and difficult for Bennett and contributed to his lifelong bachelorhood. He discusses at length RB’s late-in-life romance with Hazel Colville, a socialite whom he loved dearly, but who gradually tired of his priggish nature and burden of crushing, constant political responsibility. She distanced herself from him during his term as prime minister, a loss that affected him deeply as the Depression got worse and he simply could not find the answers to make things better. Waite recounts how hard Bennett tried to fix things, and views as sincere his startling conversion to the idea of a New Deal–style social welfare state in January 1935, a move that historians have often dismissed as mere cynical electioneering. The book also gives welcome attention to Bennett’s life after politics, especially to the significant role that he played during the Second World War as an official in Great Britain’s Ministry of Aircraft Production.
As one might expect of any author who refers to his biographical subject by his first name, there is occasionally an issue of balance here. Waite does not ignore Bennett’s failings, but neither does he dwell upon them. The prime minister’s famously bad temper is, for example, duly reported on, but not with the same emphasis, or at as much length, as his more appealing traits. It is all a matter of degree, and at all times the book maintains its scholarly quality. But to borrow from a little ditty popular in Bennett’s later years, Waite does tend to “accentuate the positive.”
In his last years, R.B. Bennett found peace, and some happiness, living in England as an imperial elder statesman and country squire. Few Canadians will begrudge him that after reading In Search of R.B. Bennett, which perhaps treads too lightly on the negative aspects of his personality and political career, but nevertheless produces the most compelling and convincing portrait of the man that has yet been written. P.B. Waite might regret that his subject will never be much loved or appreciated, and the occasionally melancholy tone of the text suggests that he does. Perhaps he can take comfort in the fact that he has written the most sensitive portrayal of RB that Canadians are likely to read in their lifetimes.