Tuesday, February 02, 2016

John Harvard and the Public Good

John Harvard’s voice permeated the home where I grew up, even though he never set foot in it. When he was at CJOB, my mother listened to his open-line show; when he was at CBC, my father watched him on 24 Hours. I was on hand for both. As a youngster, he struck me as confrontational – and I suppose he was, but not like the melodramatic posturing that we see on the cable news these days. As a journalist, he asked hard questions and he expected straight answers from the people he interviewed. He was well-informed, insightful, unflappable, and direct. And he had an intuitive sense that helped him discern when people were bluffing, which generally triggered him to push them a little harder.

I didn’t meet him in person until 1988, when he ran for Parliament the first time. He called me at home to ask for my support, tossing off a few words in Icelandic – perhaps the only ones he could come up with – before introducing himself and saying that he was seeking the Liberal nomination in my part of the city. In those days, I was “between parties” and I was happy to support his candidacy after he convinced me that he was the progressive with the best chance of winning that year. In time, I continued to gravitate leftward, but I still admired John’s devoted public service, his willingness to work hard for his constituents, and his progressive viewpoints.

I was pleased when he was named Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba in 2004, although I briefly wondered about how easy he would find it to move from the rough and tumble of partisan politics in the nation’s capital to the ceremonial responsibilities of the viceregal office back home in Manitoba. He flourished in the new role, which focused more on celebrating the values that bind us together as a society. The ritual and ceremony suited him. And his relationship to the province’s Icelandic community deepened.

John Harvard and Stefan Jonasson in 2014.
During his years in Government House, we had a few opportunities to discuss religion and, once he was free of the constraints of office, we had occasion to speak again about politics and public policy in a more robust manner. John was remarkably stoic about his own disappointments, sufferings, and personal tragedies; he once remarked in conversation, “Why not me? Why should I be spared life’s inevitable misfortune?” Yet he savoured life and he was genuinely concerned about the needs of others and desirous of building the kind of society in which human misery is minimized, while human freedom is enhanced. He held his political views passionately.

Although I hold politicians in higher regard than most people do these days, I have always been critical of those public figures (a distinct minority, I believe) who seem incapable of distinguishing between private interests and the public good. As a journalist, as an elected official, as lieutenant governor, and as a private citizen, John Harvard had a clear understanding of the public good and a deep commitment to serving it, even at the expense of his personal interests. When he did something in public life, he did it because he believed it was truly in the public interest. We can ask no more from those who hold public office.

As Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, he received a personal coat of arms along with the office. It features the Golden Boy as its crest, one of the iconic symbols of the province, and a seemingly abstract shield, supported by two sandhill cranes standing on a field of wheat. On the shield, according to the Public Register of Arms, “the alternately coloured segments meeting in the centre refer to diversity and multiculturalism. They can be seen as coming together, but also as reaching out, thus alluding to His Honour’s commitment … to helping those otherwise forgotten. The circle can refer to a round table, indicative of equality and involvement of all. The twelve segments are those of the hours of a clock, showing that watching time was vital in His Honour’s original career as a radio journalist. The symbolism of time also connects to His Honour’s interest in studying history.” Beneath the coat of arms is the motto that was granted to John Harvard: “Support the Public Good.”

The John Harvard I saw from afar, and of whom I occasionally caught a closer glimpse, lived by that motto. We didn’t always agree, but I never once had occasion to wonder whether his efforts were guided by his sincere estimate of the public good. They were. And we are all the better for it.

This post originally appeared as an editorial in Lögberg-Heimskringla, the Icelandic community newspaper, on February 1, 2016.

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