From Reputation to Celebrity in Half a Century

Exactly fifty years ago, in June of 1965, two men now almost unremembered each had a moment of ‘stellar’ importance, in two very different senses of that adjective. One was a former federal Canadian MP named Hector Dupuis, the other an American astronaut named Edward White.

Dupuis had started his federal political career in 1935 in in the now-forgotten Reconstruction Party, more arch-conservative than the R. B. Bennett Tories, which briefly drew a fairly substantial popular vote, but which soon faded. He was afterwards an undistinguished backbench Liberal MP , for the now extinct east-end Montreal riding of Sainte-Marie, An insurance broker and businessman, his main form of loyal service was probably as a writer of cheques to his party. He had been awarded an O.B.E., but his moment of fame came when he sent it back. He was outraged because the Queen, advised by Harold Wilson, had awarded M.B.E. decorations to the Beatles, whose astronomical overseas record sales were substantially improving the British balance of payments. Dupuis commented bitterly that “British royalty has put me on the same level as a bunch of vulgar numbskulls.” A few other British public figures joined in outraged returns.

Nine days earlier, Edward Higgins White, a USAF Lieutenant-Colonel and aeronautical engineer, had stepped from a Gemini space rocket to become the first American to walk in space, just three months after a Soviet cosmonaut had achieved this. Two years later, White and two of his fellow astronauts were killed in a test of the projected Apollo mission. Only 37, he was one of 17 astronauts who had died in such accidents, all posthumouly awarded a Congressional Medal.

The complaint of Dupuis today looks snobbish and comic, but in its time, many people were at least greatly surprised at the idea of giving a royal honour to a pop singing group. It was only beginning to dawn on them that the great sea change of 1965-1975 was not only going to be about baby boomer arrival, Vietnam War opposition, and cultural revolution; it was changing the public conceptions of fame, devaluing traditional concepts of hard-won reputation and exalting instant celebrity. The shift brought the end of military achievement in the two World Wars in establishing long-familiar hierarchies of prestige and respect for public figures.

In Britain, the newly-arrived Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, a civil service statistician in World War II, was a symbol of the new era. Labour’s most fondly-remembered leader, Clement Attlee, had fought at Gallipoli in World War I. Wilson’s Conservative predecessor, Harold Macmillan, had fought in that war on the Somme, and been badly wounded. Before him, Anthony Eden had been another decorated veteran of that war. He had been preceded by Winston Churchill, greatest of warriors, who died earlier in 1965.

In the U. S., Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Military Commander in WW II, had been succeeded as President by John Kennedy until his 1963 assassination; he had been a young torpedo boat commander in the Pacific theatre. In Canada, Lester Pearson had been a medical orderly and then pilot in World War I. John Diefenbaker had not had distinguished service in that war, but his Ministers of National Defence, a key Cabinet position in the 1960s, included George Pearkes, who had won the Victoria Cross in the First War, Doug Harkness, who had won the George Cross in the Second, and Gordon Churchill, who had fought in both wars.

The war veterans did not dominate politics purely out of respect for their past achievements, but because of the intensity of the post-1945 Cold War between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. Not just the U. S., but all the powers of the NATO alliance, including Canada, maintained large land, sea, and air forces. Men of military experience looked best-suited to direct these; most were far from bellicose, but cautiously determined to avoid any actions that might end in nuclear apocalypse. However, both the West and the Soviets engaged in constant exercises in threat and counter-threat, constantly modified by advancing war technology. Even the space programs, despite some gestures toward international co-operation, were inseparable from this overall militarization. Rocketry, after all, had started with the German World War II V-2s that had rained on London, and the later still larger space rockets fired from Cape Canaveral made the same advances that made possible nuclear-armed ICBMs.

But there was another aspect of the two decades of warrior political dominance, which overlapped with the dangerous adventures of the astronauts. Men as different as ageing English aristocrats like Eden and Macmillan and young USAF space pioneers like Neil Armstrong and Ed White had not only, like millions of others of their respective generations served in some branch of the military; they had done so with outstanding courage.

When James Boswell once asked Samuel Johnson if there was a virtue that should be given a highest standing, Johnson had immediately replied, “Courage – because it is the security of all the other virtues.” This principle can still be grasped intuitively, and it had its claims in peaceful politics. It applied to both the recognition of leaders in democratic societies and to individual dissenters in oppressive states. While some of the young always fail to understand this, it does not apply to the brazen but largely safe bellicosity of street or campus mobs Granted, even serious democratic politics is seldom a very brave affair; at worst it can be submission to various kinds of mass cowardice and childishness. But men tested in the fire at least inspire a ready initial confidence. Decorated veterans did not always make great or even good political leaders, but even those recalled for postwar failures, like Anthony Eden, could not be written off for easily-assumed failures of character; more for deficiencies in the skill with which they met political crises calling for different talents.

Today, Hector Dupuis still appears snobbish and ridiculous, although anyone who imagines that John Lennon, as well as being a gifted musician, was all that astute a critic of war and international relations merely indulges in a different kind of inverted snobbishness and superficiality. On the other hand, the relative faded fame of Ed White is more depressing to contemplate. It must especially be so for Marc Garneau, a sort of Canadian Coriolanus. The first Canadian to do a space walk, over thirty years ago, Garneau, like Ed White, combined distinguished military service with a scholarly background in engineering physics. Had the federal Liberals under Ste’phan Dion let him contest Outremont in 2006, he might have won it, and denied it as a federal launching pad for Tom Mulcair. Had Justin Trudeau not successfully exploited a FaceBook Nation of pop celebrity to gain the leadership of the Liberal Party, that party might now be able to confront Mulcair and Stephen Harper with a leader with reputation in the old sense. As it is, Mulcair is a capable man leading a party of eternal adolescence, while Justin Trudeau looks more like an eternal adolescent leading a once-impressive party that has lost its way. Stephen Harper may be no hero of war or space, but at least looks good in this company.

PAH Sixth 2015 Article. Submitted to PAH May 29, 2015.

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