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JOHN DeMONT: John Buchanan and the art of campaigning

John Buchanan with former prime minister Brian Mulroney. - Herald file
John Buchanan with former prime minister Brian Mulroney. - Herald file

The first time I met John Buchanan, of course, happened in a hotel room in New Orleans. 

The premier of Nova Scotia was making a speech about his province’s immense offshore potential to the World Petroleum Congress. 

As the recent graduate of an oil-patch orientation course in Abilene, Texas, I’d been dispatched, by this paper, to cover it. 

It was the early 1980s so I have no idea if, the night before his big speech, I was interviewing Buchanan for a story, or just making a courtesy call, as a fellow Nova Scotian loose in the Big Easy. 

What I do remember, besides his courtliness, is how he seemed to know my whole family’s voting history. My dad and Uncle Earl, whom he knew back in Cape Breton, were good Conservatives, he said, I recall, with an approving nod. 

But he wanted to know what in God’s name had happened to my uncle Eric, who at one point had misguidedly run for some long-forgotten Liberal nomination in the Annapolis Valley.

Everybody, it seems, has a story about John Buchanan, whom the word avuncular was perhaps created to describe.

Often they involve him as a boots-on-the-ground politician, because as Jim Vibert wrote in these pages recently, “no politician in these parts or farther afield, before or since, has been more skilled at making a person-to-person connection with virtually everyone he met than was the former premier and senator, who died Thursday at the age of 88.”

Making a person-to-person connection matters for a politician, particularly when they are on the campaign trail as they are now, because, as former speaker of the United States House of Representatives Tip O'Neill famously said, “all politics is personal.”

This is as true in Nova Scotia as it is anywhere, Don Downe, the former MLA for Lunenburg West, and mayor of the municipality of the district of Lunenburg, and a veteran of six different electoral campaigns, said when I called him Monday. 

Most of the province is rural. It’s the kind of place where “everybody knows you, or of you.”

Consequently, when a politician shows up at someone’s doorstep they dearly need to forge some quick and immediate affinity with the person on the other side of the door, as Buchanan was so able to do.

You have to love meeting and spending time with people, said Downe, who calls campaigning the thing he enjoyed most about his years in politics. 

“You can’t fake it,” said Gloria McCluskey, the last mayor of Dartmouth and long-time alderman and councillor, who, during her final campaign, knocked on 9,000 doors despite being 81. 

Scott Brison, the seven-time member of Parliament from Kings-Hants, who also ran for the leadership of both the federal Progressive Conservative and Liberal parties, added, “if you’re unauthentic people see right through that.”

So, be yourself, I heard Monday when I asked around for some tricks of the campaign trail. Don’t play the big man or woman at the doorstep. 

“I think it helped,” said Downe, a farmer before become an MLA, “that I had shovelled a lot of shit before politics.”

He never forgot, while campaigning, that he was showing up at someone’s door “begging for a job.” 

So when Downe met a voter he looked them in the eyes. He smiled because that was his nature. He maintains that he was always prepared to listen because sometimes people just need to vent, and hearing them vent always let him learn something. 

McCluskey told me that she was careful to never rip her opponents down on the campaign trail because negativity just doesn’t go over with voters. She also never promised the “sun, moon and stars,” just that she would work hard, and be fiscally responsible. 

Brison said that you have to keep your sense of humour. If someone gave him a real ear-full, telling him that he would never, ever get his vote, the politician would turn to his campaign aide and say, “Let’s put him down as a maybe.”

Campaigners can’t be scared of going where they might not be welcome. Over the years campaigning in his rural riding, Brison learned that if you stand your ground, bark and growl at a dog with bad intentions it will sometimes not attack. 

Courage alone doesn’t guarantee success on the campaign trail. In 2002 while campaigning with Joe Clark, a former prime minister, Brison was kicked out of a Tim Hortons in his riding. 

After that, whenever Brison went into a store, coffee shop or canteen while on the hunt for votes, he always bought something — a box of Tim Bits, a packet of gum or a bag of chips — to be sure of being able to work the room, at least for a few precious minutes. 

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