I've known Jack Layton as a friend for 22 years, so I can't offer anything clear-headed at this time about a diagnosis of a second cancer in addition to the virulent form of prostate cancer he already is fighting. As they say, first, you cry.
I wish the speculation hadn't started so soon on the implications for the NDP. That can wait. But it is human nature to ponder what's next, and a necessary exercise. As an enterprise, the NDP now is the government-in-waiting, so it does matter what an alternative to the Tories not headed by Layton would look like.
Family and friends don't care about that now. Canadians have been impressed, through several Layton-led NDP general election campaigns, of Jack's obvious humanity and compassion. That he's not a knee-jerk socialist (or "ist" of any kind), has enough interest in making Parliament work to prop up minority governments of both the Grits and Conservatives that have served the Canadians in distress or victimized by injustice that have occupied most of his thoughts in public life, and that if he has "pet" issues there is a sufficient multitude of them to make him a genuinely holistic PM and his party a realistic alternative to that which now forms the government - for the first time in the 79-year-history of the CCF/NDP.
That Layton has an evident pattern over the years since he became NDP leader of coming to problems with well-thought-out solutions, and not a useless string of cheap shots, has made him a role model of problem-solvers. It's also how he took a party barely registering a pulse when he became NDP leader a short eight years ago to Official Opposition status today, with 103 seats. That caucus includes 57% of the ridings in Quebec, a province where previous CCF/NDP leaders had dreamed in vain of winning a "breakthrough" of perhaps half a dozen seats. Overall, the May 2 results shattered the NDP's previous, 1988, record of a total 43 seats.
Layton has his shortcomings, or rather, the things where we part company - on his initial misgivings about the Clarity Act, for instance. But that balance-sheet exercise is, as I say, for others. This, for me, is a day of remembering Layton e-mails on bridging various factions - labour and business, small business and Big Business, Far North aboriginals and reliably insensitive fed bureaucrats, Ottawa and the provinces, and municipalities - home to more than 80% of us - with senior levels of government.
He has sought widely for input, mastered the all-important, easily overlooked niceties. Helping get leadership rival Bill Blaikie, a party stalwart, the Commons deputy speakership was both politically astute and a personal kindness saluting Blaikie's long service to party and country - he would retire as the first CCF/NDP member to serve in that post, and his loyal Manitoba constituents would never forget the gesture. Demoting his wife and fellow MP to a junior shadow-cabinet post at the outset was a message about how Peronism would never emerge in this caucus - even if Olivia Chow is among the most capable of parliamentarians, as she has shown in her subsequent, earned promotions.
For now, I fret I will not get the chance to even our snooker record, currently 247:3 in Jack's favor. (Layton, in fairness to me, spent an hour or two most days during his ill-spent youth as junior commodore of his father's suburban Montreal yacht club becoming ever more acquainted with the felt.)
I will be praying of course, for Jack and Olivia, Jack's beloved mother-in-law, his children. From the moment of the first diagnosis, they have been invaluable in helping Jack adjust to a new fitness and dietary regime, and the drugs and the discomfort, each magnified by the rigors of the May 2 campaign. Political junkies that we all are - execpting perhaps Olivia's mom - public life is very much out of our minds for now and I expect that will be the case for months to come.
Much has been written of Monday's announcement. I believe my own Star colleague Tim Harper, a national affairs columnist who not long ago completed a lengthy bureau-chief assignment in Washington, best captured our feelings Jack at this difficult time:
[On the campaign trail there] was genuine concern over a man already battling prostate cancer, a man who didn’t look well, but a man who appeared unable to slow down. But we didn’t write about it. We didn’t know. He was doing his job and doing it well and there are some private matters that need not be poked at.
The worry remained, however. That’s what makes Monday’s news that a new cancer had infiltrated the 61-year-old’s frail body such a tragic personal story. You somehow knew you might hear that news one day, but you dreaded it...
At its historic pinnacle, it would be a tragedy for the party to be left leaderless, if that is ultimately the end of this story. It would be a greater tragedy if Layton could not reap the rewards of his hard work, facing off against Stephen Harper from across the benches of the House of Commons.
But for now, the political story must wait...
The transformation of Jack Layton from the man who won his party leadership in 2003 to the man who became opposition leader in 2011 was something to behold. [By] 2011, he had matured into a polished political leader with the longest coattails in the country, responsible for one of the great Canadian political stories in recent years...
When Layton and I last sat down to break bread, he was on the verge of making history, having just stunned the nation with his Quebec surge. He was frighteningly thin, dressed that day in track pants. But he was downright giddy.
Long after the tape recorder was turned off, we talked about his days on Toronto city council, his run for mayor, the days in the wilderness in Quebec for his party, even the days years ago when I was a journalism student and he was my political science professor at Ryerson. His enthusiasm was infectious.
He ended lunch suggesting we make this a semi-regular event, sitting down in Ottawa from time to time, to discuss the political waterfront.
Layton is bravely in the fight of his life. He has vowed to be back when the House returns Sept. 19.
Here’s hoping. That dinner would be nice.