Those memorable contacts with our prime ministers

By HG HELPS Editor-at-Large

Monday, August 06, 2012    

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A look back at the impact that prime ministers had on my life over the last 50 years would eliminate two candidates.

I never met Sir Alexander Bustamante nor Sir Donald Sangster, who both presided over Jamaica's political affairs for the major part of the 1960s. I, like many Jamaicans, have heard several after-dinner stories about the things that Sir Alexander did while he ran the country's affairs.

Bustamante, registered William Alexander Clarke at birth on February 24, 1884, of course was Jamaica's first prime minister, the man who along with Norman Manley led the struggle for the island's Independence from Great Britain.

Apart from seeing him from a distance while he was being driven to a function in the early 1970s while I attended Kingston College (KC), contact between us.

Ill-health forced Bustamante to step away from active politics in 1967, aged 83, and make way for Donald Sangster to rule the roost, albeit for a mere two months.

Busta, as he was known all over, died 10 years later and I well remember the commotion as a now more senior boy at KC, especially his burial at National Heroes Park — one of the first events where I had seen so many people gathered.

Sangster served from February 23, 1967 to April 11 that same year, less than seven weeks on the job. He died in Montreal, Canada at age 51. He was not only the shortest-serving prime minister, but the youngest to have died.

Sangster's demise meant that Hugh Lawson Shearer would take over the Jamaica Labour Party and ultimately the Government as prime minister, a task that he performed until 1972 when the People's National Party's (PNP's) Michael Manley uprooted him from power.

I never met Shearer while he served as prime minister, but did so many years later while he clung to the office of member of parliament for Clarendon South East (up to 1993), and president general of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU).

It took me several months to come to terms with the fact that Shearer was once prime minister of Jamaica. How could a prime minister be so down-to-earth? I often asked myself and those who were closer to him.

While he served as MP, Vere Technical High School was in its heyday as far as girls' athletics was concerned.

Vere would not only win the Girls Athletics Championship at the National Stadium, but would also cream the opposition at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, consistently.

Every time that Vere's athletes excelled, Shearer was right there ready to reward the achievements with accolades of his own craft and design.

He would invite select members of the media from Kingston down to Hayes in Clarendon for a structured presentation of goodies to the athletes, and then it was on to a location at Rocky Point for us to consume endless amounts of food and liquor.

It was at Rocky Point that I saw the biggest snapper fish being served to us, at Shearer's request, and he would even dare some of us to show how much we could consume in a single sitting.

While he ran the BITU, Shearer behaved like an ordinary man.

He would normally lead the negotiations on behalf of mainly production workers at the Gleaner Company at the time, and the company's management dared not drag out a matter that could be solved by simple communication and understanding.

If there were to be a strike, it would be an absolute last resort, something that the Gleaner's managing director Oliver Clarke was not keen on. Clarke was reasonable and had a solid relationship with Shearer, which many workers felt would have jeopardised negotiations, but never did.

The kind of language used by Shearer raised eyebrows in some quarters, but he never allowed the prim and proper to cramp his style.

"Wha' happen, Sah? Is whey you did dey when me a call yu?" Shearer greeted me while I served as The Gleaner's news editor one afternoon.

Apparently he had been calling before and could not get through. Telephone connection was made this time in no uncertain term.

"A bet you a tell you wha you did a do," he said before proceeding with a below-the-belt remark.

"Who is this?" I asked, almost in shock, having not recognised the voice.

"This is Hugh Shearer, man, how you mean is who this. Is a good thing I wasn't doing what you were doing or else none a we coulda find each other," he quipped before spontaneous laughter erupted on both sides.

Shearer was always someone who you could tease and he would hit back at you and laugh it off.

His famous "Built by Labour" speech made in 1989 during the campaign for the 1980 general elections pushed him on the backfoot on one occasion when, after listing Ocho Rios Secondary as being "built by Labour", he mistakenly said "Oracabessa Secretary (instead of Secondary) built by Labour", in reference to the Western St Mary institution.

You could only find him by telephone at the BITU, because the home number that he gave out would ring non-stop, even at times when you felt that he would be there.

When Shearer died on July 5, 2004 at age 81, it was a monumental loss to those who had a good relationship with him.

The effervescent Michael Manley, Jamaica's fourth prime minister, was the character of all characters.

Michael was suave, elegant, charismatic, the ultimate charmer. He had the ability to whip a crowd into a frenzy by doing simple antics on a platform, like snapping the fingers, or doing a few kneelifts to show how fit he was, especially when rumours started to circulate about his health.

He was one man who some people loved to hate ... if he offended you, you just could not hold it against him, worse if he got a chance to explain his situation to you. You would be lyrically mesmerised, and ultimately forgiveness would follow.

Manley was the man who several boys emulated while I was at KC, although he attended our great rival at the time, Jamaica College.

He came to KC during the 1970s, as he was MP for the area, but it was shortly after he retired as prime minister in 1992 that we became close.

He was passionate about West Indies cricket and wrote extensively on the subject, including a book — The History of West Indies Cricket.

He would also often write articles in the press to support a particular position — one such which he penned in 1994 remains quite vivid to me.

I received a call from the receptionist at the Jamaica Observer while I served as the newspaper's Associate Editor for Sport, that Manley was on the line to me and insisted that he needed to speak to me, although I was in a meeting at the time.

That supposed brief discussion lasted 45 minutes, during which time the elder statesman convinced me that he had written the best article possible on cricket and had sent it to me at Fagan Avenue with his bearer.

He went one step further:

"This is an article that is exclusive to you. I have always been fond of you and your style of writing, that I thought that you were not just the best, but the only person to send it to."

Mission accomplished! Manley had convinced me that I could move the Blue Mountains and place them in Westmoreland if I wanted to.

The article was run in the following day's edition of the Daily Observer. But wait! ...that same article was also carried by The Gleaner and the Jamaica Record newspapers.

In obvious shock and believing now that I had been conned by the man whom I admired second to Shearer, I contemplated calling the Fire Department, because I was burning up on the inside.

Minutes after, I put in a call to Manley at his Drumblair townhouse.

"Mr Manley," I said, "how could you have done that to me, sir? You told me that this article would be exclusive to the Observer, yet I see it published in The Gleaner and the Record. What's that all about?"

The verbal explanation that followed was smoother than Michael Holding's run up to the wicket.

"Oh my goodness, you have a right to feel peeved, because I should have called you back from yesterday. I bet you never tell me what happened. In fact, let me tell you what happened. Somehow my good friends at The Gleaner, Tony Becca and Raymond Sharpe at the Record, got wind of the fact that I had sent this article to you and they cornered me and said that they had to be part of it too. So I had no choice but to comply. I am so sorry about that,"... and he went on and on until forgiveness came his way.

Edward Seaga, who succeeded Manley at the end of his second term as prime minister in 1980, had built a reputation as a man who was unapproachable and lacking in warmth.

My first contact with him in 1988 at the annual trade expo at the National Arena had me thinking that there was truth to that.

"Mr Seaga, I'd like you to comment on what you think are Jamaica's football team's chances in beating the United States," I said in reference to a World Cup football match in St Louis, Missouri scheduled for a week later.

"I'm not into any football now, sir," was his terse response.

"No, but I am just seeking your thoughts on the team's chances," I said again while he browsed an item.

"No, sir, I am not commenting on any football," Seaga responded.

The following year after seeing Seaga again at a nomination day activity at KC's North Street campus, he was more open.

Gunshots rang out as rival factions turned up at the same time to nominate their candidates, and Seaga was as cool as a cucumber as security forces fired high-powered weapons to keep the activists apart.

Seaga gave his views to me then on how he felt the seat (Central Kingston) could go.

"It's a lot of hard work, but 'Babsy' has a good chance of winning it," he said of his protégé Olivia 'Babsy"' Grange who was running against then Kingston mayor, the PNP's Ralph Brown.

One of my most memorable moments with Seaga was watching the results of the 2007 general election from his Paddington Terrace home. I sat there with him from 7:40 pm until 1:45 the following morning and during that period learned some things about Jamaican politics, culture, the economy, and sport that I had never known before, which led me to regard him as the brightest man that I had met up to that point.

Seaga would open up more and grew mellow as the years went on. Those who have been around him for the last 50 years suggest that he is far more receptive to people on a whole. His admirable leadership of the Premier League Clubs Association and his continued link with sport in Tivoli Gardens have made his stock grow.

PJ Patterson, who ruled as prime minister for 14 unbroken years, the longest in the country's history, is to me the smartest of all the leaders that I have met.

His demeanour was not as spiffy as some others before him, but he had a sense of purpose and was unique in how he executed his duties.

History will recall Patterson as the man who presided over the highway and telecommunications revolution, among other things.

His style was not quite like Shearer or Manley, but like the others he, too, shared a passion for West Indies cricket. My 55-minute meeting with him in the lobby at the Sandals Antigua resort in 1999, while he prepared to address the annual congress of the Antigua Labour Party, left me in awe.

I had no idea that his knowledge of West Indies cricket was so deep. He went far in arguing why a particular individual should not be named captain of the West Indies team, how the administrative structures should be changed to reflect a new paradigm in West Indies cricket, among other things.

Maybe I was the only person not surprised that he spearheaded the production of a document, dubbed 'The Patterson Governance Report', that would have revolutionised West Indies cricket and make it seem far more professional, had the antiquated board members accepted it six years ago.

Patterson has been kind to me in agreeing to my several requests over the years, particularly when interviews are sought — something that I will always respect about him.

Interestingly, while the names of other people are often called in respect of National Hero status, his seems to be ignored, although he could claim to have achieved more than all the others in Jamaica's history.

Patterson's manner of speaking slowly is deliberate. He does not like to be misquoted, so he slows down the verbal presentation down for even the most tough-headed to hear him clearly and understand. He has a more free-flowing style when he addresses the court in his capacity as a lawyer.

Present Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and I share a birthday (December 12), although I must point out quickly that she is much older.

Like true Sagittarians, we know how each other think and can accept the various mood swings that often prevail.

Portia is a well-crafted combination of Shearer, Manley, Seaga and Patterson.

She is the populist a la Shearer and Manley — one who can whip any dour crowd into uncontrollable excitement.

When it comes to taking firm decisions, she can be like Seaga, doing what is necessary and hugging up the blows for it later. And like PJ, she has this way of cutting a piece of cloth without people being readily able to see the adjustment.

I am always amazed by her energy, her ability to be glued to the children and elderly, and her capacity to continue to defy the odds and stay right up there with those who have sat at Jamaica House and be able to achieve some things, which she never usually gets credit for.

Many doubted Shearer when as prime minister he achieved 12 per cent Gross Domestic Product growth in 1971, a record performance for the Jamaican economy.

There was even greater scepticism under Portia's watch in 2006 when the Jamaica economy recorded its lowest inflation in several years — 5.6 per cent.

"A no Portia achieve dat, a Omar (Davies)," said one of Portia's critics of the feat.

"But Omar was there more than 10 years before that as finance minister and nothing never happen," another more sympathetic critic said.

"No sah, a couldn't Portia do that all by herself," the former insisted.

Such is the daily challenge that Simpson Miller faces in trying to convince sections of the populace of her capability to manage Jamaica's economic affairs.

Andrew Holness will have to wheel and come again if he is to regain State power, having just nosed out Sangster as the shortest-serving prime minister — nine weeks on the job.

We first met during the 1990s while he worked for Seaga. It was one of those Friday night discussions called 'High Blair' held at Hibiscus Drive in Barbican, Delano Franklyn's home at the time.

From that moment he brought a freshness to the discussion which involved some of Jamaica's cutting-edge journalists — Winston Witter, Cliff Hughes, Paget deFreitas, among others; as well as upcoming lawyers.

They have all contributed in their own styles. For those who have seen all our prime ministers in full flight, it would be interesting to decide which one of them had the greatest impact on the society.

Sangster and Holness would be automatically ruled out for not serving long enough, but all the others have their own unique techniques of convincing the masses that they did well for Jamaica.





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