Wilhelmus Nicholaas Theodore Marie "Bill" Vander Zalm's Last LaughWednesday, April 21, 2010
Sometime around 1979 a funny man dressed in a funny costume and wearing Dutch wooden shoes came up to me while I was shopping at a nursery on Lougheed Highway in Burnaby. I was looking at a Boston Fern. With a beaming smile, showing lots of white teeth he told me, “If you feed it diluted milk your fern will prosper.”
As I waited out of the CP Rail train station on the foot of Granville I spied a Volvo parked across the street. A man in a neat black leather jacket and nicely polished shoes got out and put money in the parking meter. He had a companion. They crossed the street. When they saw me the man in the leather jacket said, “Hi, Alex.”
This had all begun sometime in 1991 when I received a phone call from Canadian Pacific Limited PR man, Morrie Zeitlin. “Alex, Premier Vander Zalm has a friend from Holland. He is a small time mayor and he is into trains. I want you to give Vander Zalm and his friend a tour of our rail yard.”
At the time the premier was going through a tough time fighting allegations of having mixed politics with personal business with the sale of his Fantasy Gardens to a member of the Philipino/Chinese family Roxas (of which I might add I am related to through my Filipino grandfather Tirso de Irureta Goyena Miranda y Roxas). The whistle blower on the affair was a mad hatted woman called Faye Leung. But Vander Zalm had made another political mistake, a mistake that no politician in recent times should ever make. This is to not waffle on abortion. Instead of waffling Vander Zalm, who was a fervent Roman Catholic opined against it. Abortion was legal in British Columbia.
I was astounded to see our unpopular premier park his own car and not be followed by policemen or security agents. This small-time mentality (even after we were told our city had been discovered and was now world-class because of Expo 86) was one that greatly pleased me. Somehow our city had escaped the entrenched and siege mentality prevalent in the governments of cities in the United States and other parts of the world.
My knowledge of politics in general was limited. I had first met and photographed Vander Zalm in 1984 (the very year he had purchased Fantasy Garden) when he ran for mayor (representing the Non Partisan Association) against Mike Harcourt. I remember chatting with Vander Zalm before the pictures. We talked about pipe smoking as I was one, too. We discussed our preferences. At one time I had smoked Dutch tobacco so we compared notes on our favourite brands.
It was at the Socred Party Nomination Convention in Whistler in 1986 when my knowledge of politics was put to a test by the unlikely command of Rick Staehling, art director of Equity Magazine (an influential provincial business magazine edited by Harvey Southam, who was a scion of the newspaper family fortune). Staehling dispatched me to cover the event. I was flustered and unhappy. I had never done this sort of thing. I was good at lighting individual businessmen or politicians but certainly not comfortable of using exposure sensitive transparency film in situations where I could not control or properly measure the lighting.
Rick Staehling had always been a film buff (he is now, and has been for many years the resident, Friday afternoon, film reviewer for CBC Radio 1) and he had this concept (misguided in my opinion at that time in what I call cross-casting. Staehling defines it as:
In movies and television casting against type--or counter casting--is when an actor is chosen for a type of role they don't ordinarily play. Eternal good guy Tom Cruise turns psychotic hit-man for director Michael Mann in Collateral. Esquire covergirl and Mad Men co-star Christina Hendricks looks like a clueless, red-haired bombshell but is in fact the smartest character on the show. When casting photographers against type, the same strategy applies: assign a fashion shooter to a food story, put a food photographer on portraiture, or a large format stylist on a news story. It's an approach that challenges the best people who often deliver surprising and satisfying photographs. It can also result in some awkward and god-awful work. Which is why it is still probably wisest to use people for what they do best.
My day in the Whistler convention was a puzzling education in parliamentary government for me. If anything, until then my only expertise was in the coup d'état of the Argentine kind and the one party rule of Mexico’s PRI. I could not understand the obvious humiliation of a political candidate having to cross the floor to lend support to the more popular candidate. Watching the gracious Grace McCarthy cross the floor to lend her support to Bill Vander Zalm I could not discern any whiffs of disappointment in her face.
It was at Whistler where I spotted a man I have photographed many times. He came in by a back door. In greeted him in Spanish. Edgar Kaiser smiled at me and went on. There were rumors then that have never dissipated in that he was instrumental in the eventual win by Bill Vander Zalm on the fourth ballot.
While at Whistler I never spotted any soldiers with machine pistols. “How odd, these Canadians are,” I thought.
My difficulties increased as the day wore on and I had to put my one egg (I was one photographer) in one basket. The Vancouver Sun and the Province had assigned several photographers to each of the candidates. I had to choose one. Early that morning I had watched journalist Allan Fotheringham enter the convention centre carrying a brown paper bag. I followed him up the stairs to his desk. He sat down and removed a six-pack and opened a can. I went up to him and greeted him. “Watch Vander Zalm,” was the tip he gave me. I did.
I think that Staehling’s concept in the end bore fruit and I was quite happy with my pictures, but most of all, of the one you see here. It may not be all that sharp but it does show the special relationship that Vander Zalm had and has with his wife.
In 1988 I went to Surrey to photograph the new mayor. I had contributed to his win by taking picures of him in yellow slickers by a red tractor, with a Sikh working in a logging mill, talking to an old lady at a outdoor market, and chatting with a farmer while sharing both sides of a fence. The competion had run campaign portraits of men behind desks wearing shirt and tie. Facing Mr. Bose I asked him to put on his chain of office. With it on, he asked me, "Do you remember two men in particular who also wore it?" I said nothing. He explained one was Bill Vander Zalm and the other Ed McKitka. It was McKitka who had passed a city ordinance regulating how high fro the floor Playboys and Penthouses had to be placed in corner stores to prevent minors from perusing them. Years later McKitka was caught acused of fondling a young woman in some function.
By 1991 Vander Zalm had resigned in disgrace. In August of 1993 the then editor of Equity Magazine, Mike Campbell (brother of Premier Gordon Campbell who successfully ran both of his brother’s bid for mayor and then premier) called me to his office. Mike Campbell pretty well always talked to me without beating about the bush. He told me that Vander Zalm had granted Equity his first interview after his departure from the political arena and that he had stipulated on two conditions. One was that the interview would not be controversial in nature and that the accompanying photograph would be a pleasant one.
The idea that most magazines function with unimpeachable editorial ethics most of the time is something that I believe to be a fallacy. I would have to believe in the tooth fairy. I have seen in the past how Vancouver Magazine publisher (70s, 80s and early 90s) Ron Stern would cajole editor Mac Parry to do this or that while Parry, to my knowledge, mostly always stood his ground.
In my past I have photographed people I didn’t like but whom I photographed to look good because magazines were paying me to do this. Campbell’s request was not special, as far as I was concerned.
But something must have stirred my conscience as after I snapped my portraits of Vander Zalm in a suite of the Wedgewood Hotel I took some pictures (for myself) using b+w film, more dramatic lighting. With the help of a green filter I darkened the features of the man. In this portrait I can read defeat and regret. But to this day I really don’t know which of the portraits is the accurate one.
I photographed Vander Zalm for the last time in November of 1995 for a cover article written by Stuart McNish for Equity. This was an article which centred mostly on Vander Zalm’s successful venture into business. At the time he had bought Mitsch Nusery, a wholesale, dwarf conifer establishment in Aurora, Oregon.
I spent a half day with Vander Zalm and his wife. She made him up and graciously offered me coffee. I photographed the man inside and outside in his garden. We talked plants. When he talked plants he was a serious man. There were no jokes of any kind and his botanical Latin and Greek was just perfect. He told me that his favourite plant of the moment was Ilex crenata (Japanese Holly) which is an almost indestructible plant that resembles box but it is easier and faster growing in our climate when used for ornamental hedging.
While chatting with Vander Zalm I remembered another time when I had faced a politician that I did not like (but I had never met before). I had to photograph Premier Bill Bennett for Equity and I was not looking forward to meeting the man who seemed brusque and uncomfortable with people. In the confines of his Robson Square office he charmed me and my impression of the man changed.
As I watch Bill Vander Zalm in his present campaign to kill the HST many say he is being opportunistic. I have a friend who thinks that not only will he succeed in his bid but he will also found a new political party. My friend says, “He will not be the leader but he will found it nonetheless.”
I asked my friend to compare our present premier and Vander Zalm on a scale from 1 to 10 on their individual quotient of trust. My friend, hedged his bet and replied, “They are both equally low.” I am not sure I agree. I have a problem suppressing my impressions after having met both men several times. Reading about them in the press is a different situation. I think my personal experience is worth something.
Mike Campbell’s last question to Vander Zalm in that September 1993 Equity was:
Are there any misconceptions about you personally that you would like to set straight?
Bill Vander Zalm’s answer was:
I suppose I will never live down what happened in Fantasy Garden. I wish I could correct that, but I don’t think I ever can. It’s too bad. I think the average business person would have done much of what I did. I regret having done some things the way I did. The perception that Bill Vander Zalm was a one-man show is false. I had the cabinet involved to a greater extent than anytime before or since. We also never got enough credit for our economic programs, particularly the Taxpayer Protection Plan I announced in January 1991.
In later years Mike Campbell with the expert guidance of art director Chris Dahl (and with the advent of Photoshop) produced some Equity covers that had Vander Zalm shooting himself in the foot. Another featured Glen Clark and Mike Harcourt wearing Nazi brown shirt uniforms.
When I read the continuous scandals of the present BC Liberal government I can only think that Gordon Campbell wouldn’t dare park his car across the CP Train Station and cross the street without escort.
If my friend (the one who hedged his bet) is right it just might be that Bill Vander Zalm, in character, will soon have the last laugh.