Tom Van Dusen, master of politics, beloved family man

Was senior adviser to Mulroney, Dief

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tom Van Dusen, who has died at 90, was a senior adviser to two Conservative prime ministers, John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney.

"There aren't many people alive who can say that," Mulroney was saying upon Van Dusen's death last weekend in Ottawa.

He was also the patriarch of a remarkable and prominent family, married for 64 years to Shirley Hogan, an Ottawa landscape and portrait artist whose paintings of Parliament Hill adorn many offices and boardrooms in the capital. At 85, she is still painting.

He was the father of seven accomplished children, many of them in the news media. And he had 14 grandchildren, including my daughter, Grace MacDonald, whose mother, Lisa Van Dusen, is the youngest of that talented brood.

If you went to their house in Russell, Ont., east of Ottawa, on a Sunday afternoon, they would all be there, shouting to be heard in the kitchen, while assorted grandchildren added to the din.

Tom enjoyed every moment of it. He loved nothing better than goading his own children into a family argument. He was also a gifted and very funny raconteur, with great stories to tell of his half-century in journalism and politics on Parliament Hill.

More than an adviser to Dief, he was also one of his biographers, and his book, The Chief, is on display in a glass case at the Diefenbaker Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

Tom was one of the honorary pallbearers at the Chief 's funeral in 1979, and rode the famous Diefentrain all the way to his final resting place in Saskatoon. And oh, the stories he told about that.

When Mulroney became Conservative leader in 1983, he brought Tom back to the leader's office, first in opposition and then at the Prime Minister's Office, as head of caucus relations.

It may not sound like a very important position, but in Mulroney's world, nothing was more important than the caucus.

"Anyone who didn't think it was an important role wouldn't have known me or the party very well," Mulroney says. "Nothing is more important than the caucus. You can't lead without the caucus."

Adds the former prime minister: "This is the Conservative Party we're talking about here. The Conservative caucus destroyed Dief 's leadership, it destroyed Bob Stanfield's leadership, and it destroyed Joe Clark's leadership."

Van Dusen had a hideaway office down the hall from the PM's office and the cabinet room on the third floor of the Centre Block. Many Tory MPs who needed something done in their ridings, or wanted to convey a message to the boss, would find their way to Tom's office. Many things got done that way, occasionally over a glass of something.

"Tommy didn't just advise me on the caucus," Mulroney says. "He would send me notes; he would write speeches." And he represented institutional memory, something nowadays in short supply in Ottawa.

"He had wisdom," says Charley McMillan, who as Mulroney's senior policy adviser worked across the hall from Tom in the Langevin Block. "And he had class."

On May 1, 1987, the morning after the surprise negotiation of the Meech Lake accord, Van Dusen was one of five advisers in the PM's Centre Block office, the others being press secretary Marc Lortie, chief of staff Derek Burney, secretary to the cabinet for federal-provincial relations Norman Spector, and me, the speechwriter.

"Congratulations, prime minister," Tom told him. "It's a remarkable achievement." From all his years in politics and government, he knew that getting such a deal was an odds-against proposition.

At times Tom could be unsparing in his advice. "A prime minister doesn't have friends," he told Mulroney. "He can't afford friends. He has to be able to fire anyone."

Van Dusen would be among the very last advisers Mulroney would have fired. But as he turned 70, he took his leave and retired. Mulroney took him to a farewell lunch at the National Press Club, then the most public place in town.

For the next decade, until he grew increasingly frail, he went on being the muchbeloved patriarch of his remarkable clan. His grandchildren adored him. He told them stories of pet monkeys and assorted animals that once had the run of the family's earlier home in Wychwood, near Aylmer.

In such a large family it was always somebody's birthday. At our cottage at Lac St. Pierre de Wakefield in the Gatineau Hills, he essentially presided over Gracie's annual July birthday barbecue, featuring her many cousins. His relationship with her, and all his grandchildren, was magical to behold.

I couldn't have loved my father-in-law more if he'd been my own father.

As his second prime minister says: "He was a wonderful man."

 
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