Monday, August 22, 2011

The Man, The Mustache: Jack Layton, 1950-2011

When I called my sister this morning to tell her of Jack Layton's death, I unexpectedly started to cry. I always thought the only public figure whose death would inspire tears would be Paul Simon (what? You listen to Graceland on every childhood roadtrip and see if it doesn't do something to you), but apparently, Mr. Layton was also on that list.

Even if the NDP isn't your cup of tea, Layton was an interesting figure on the Canadian political landscape. He was deeply committed to his lefty roots, but managed to translate that into a populist platform that converted suspicious Quebecois voters into people who could support a national party. He had a bad-ass mustache. He was confident. He spoke well. He led.

Charmingly, Layton never really struck me as desperate. The current crop of Canadian "leaders" always seem to have election day on their mind - it's a very American way to lead, because the focus isn't on what's right or what's needed, but what is going to keep a person or a party in power when the polls open. Layton, maybe because, until recently, his party maintained a third-place standing, was free to focus on what he considered big issues. Personal finances, health care, climate change, and multi-party solidarity: all considerations he weighed in trying to do right by Canadians. On his website, he tells us that he "won't stop until the job's done," a sentiment that now brings tears to my eyes.

I met Jack Layton once, when a guy I was seeing took me to his Christmas party. I was a little star-struck, but when he started singing "Bohemian Rhapsody" in an off-key voice, I had to laugh. The guy had very little vanity, which is appealing in a politician. He was also charming and was able to able to switch seamlessly from talking shop with his work buddies - city hall gossip was rampant at this shindig - to horsing around with his daughter's friends. He looked comfortable in his own skin, the way Obama did when he was campaigning, the way Trudeau looked when he dared the nation to "just watch me."

Whatever your politics, I hope we can agree that Layton's grace and energy in the face of cancer was enormously inspiring. It's a damned shame that someone so young, with so many recent victories, couldn't be around to celebrate them as fully as he lived the rest of his life.

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