In closing the book on 2012, I noted the loss of several dear friends and colleagues, not all of them prominently covered in the American media. One of the most notable was my favorite liberal politician, the former Solicitor General of Canada, the Honorable Robert Kaplan, who passed away November 5 at the age of 75.
Kaplan had a very interesting upbringing in Toronto. His mother was part of a troupe of singing siblings, the Canadian version of the Andrews or Barry Sisters. Among his high school classmates back in the day was Barbara Amiel, who later made her mark as a fiery conservative columnist in Canada’s largest newspapers. Although Kaplan was her political opposite, he told me he had admired her fiery individuality since their teenage years. Amiel is now married to AmSpec contributor Conrad Black.
After becoming an attorney, Kaplan was inspired to enter politics by flamboyant Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He was the youngest member of Parliament when he won his first election in 1968 at age 32. He later served with distinction as Solicitor General and is credited with bringing the Canadian intelligence services up to date.
I first met him in 1989 in a social setting, over a weekend where we had time to chat. He heard me out on my theory that the Biblical passage which most accurately lays out political strategy for the ages is the story of Rehoboam in Kings I Chapter 12. King Solomon had run a relatively high-tax and big-government regime because he had to accomplish a lot of long-term infrastructure improvement. He built the Temple, the royal palace and the walls fortifying Jerusalem as a capital city.
When Solomon died, the elders advised his son Rehoboam to cut taxes significantly to win favor with the citizenry. His Young Turk friends told him not to give an inch, to show the nation he was as tough as his dad. He foolishly followed his buddies, stating (12:11) that “my father loaded a heavy burden on you and I will add to your burden; my father punished you with sticks and I will punish you with maces.” The result was a rebellion which led to the secession of ten out of twelve tribes, leaving him with the capital and the Temple and not much else.
I argued that big government can only succeed if it fulfills Solomon’s three prerequisites. A) It was a time of major national transformation. B) People saw tangible results in the form of major projects. C) It was stewarded by a highly trusted leader, a person of historical greatness. To my surprise, Kaplan was very taken by this perspective. He had not been exposed to Bible study in his youth but he came to respect its wisdom more as the years went by.
My last meeting with him came in 2011, when I went to Toronto for the birth of a grandson. On a Sunday afternoon I had the chance to sit down with Kaplan for about a half-hour because he was ahead of schedule for a charity event run his friend, the great Canadien goalie Ken Dryden. His main position at that time was as Consul representing Kazakhstan; I still have his two-sided business card with his name in English on the front and Cyrillic on the back.
He figured that would stump me as an interviewer, but I promptly asked him how the movie Borat had affected Kazakhstan’s reputation. He immediately began to laugh and said that was the sharpest question he had heard from any reporter since he took the job. The following is his entertaining and humble answer.
“In fact I was asked to provide counsel on the question of how to react to the movie when it came out. Like many others I thought it would be terrible public relations. I advised the government to ignore it in the hope it would blow over.
“As it turned out I was dead wrong. This was the best thing to ever happen to the country. It received loads of free publicity and no one was put off by the satirical depiction of it as a primitive place. Tourism and commerce flourished as a result.
“One fascinating anecdote around the time of the movie’s release occurred in Washington, D.C. The country had gotten the idea of dedicating a statue on the grounds of our U.S. embassy in honor of freedom in America. The President of Kazakhstan came to make a speech, expecting to be covered mainly by the reporters from back home.
“Instead there were American journalists everywhere. The event was packed with press. Cameras and microphones everywhere. The President got all puffed up and spoke three times as long as normal. He could not believe what a hit this diplomatic gesture had made.
“As soon as he finished his speech the reporters all turned around. Behind them stood Sasha Baron Cohen, who then proceeded — in character as Borat — to give a hilarious speech spoofing the event. That was why the media attended. They were tipped off by Cohen’s people.”
Canada, the Jewish People, and the world lost a good man in Robert Kaplan. As the Talmud says: “Fortunate is he who leaves this world with a good name…”