Rather than join the hordes jockeying for advanced position in Trinity Cathedral at his state funeral by rewriting the late Patrick Manning as the Stepfather of the Nation, and not the man who built a palace for himself with taxpayers’ money – and started work on a church likewise – I reprint here my 2001 profile, which I think captured him as he remained.
At his lowest political ebb, he risked talking to the man who had said, in the papers, that Patrick Manning would be the World’s Biggest Loser–except that would actually require him to win something!
He rang me on the Sunday this appeared, delighted: I had him down pat, he said; I still can’t be sure whether he intended the pun. Though we spent all our professional lives at loggerheads because of his shortcomings at work, not mine, I liked him, as a person.
He may be the only one in the country who isn’t, but Patrick Manning is not worried about Diego Martin West MP, Dr Keith Rowley replacing him as political leader of the PNM. Manning is in his view far more likely to lose his other substantive post, Leader of the Opposition, to current Prime Minister, Basdeo Panday, when he, Manning, becomes prime minister again, probably later this year.
And, despite Rowley’s challenge and the significant gaffes—the snap election, the firing by fax, the speaking as Father of the Nation—that have lost Manning the government, some dignity and much respect, the prudent punter would not bet against him.
It is not so much that Patrick Manning’s life must inexorably lead to his becoming prime minister again; it is more that Manning’s own vision of his life will not lead him away to anything else.
He has known no other profession than politics from the time he entered Parliament aged 24 in 1971. He will become the longest serving Member of Parliament in local history when the 30th anniversary of his election comes around on 26 September. Anyone spending that much time in any job ought to get the hang of it. Some aspects he has mastered.
There is no better baby-kisser in the business. Snot-nosed, dribble-lipped or yampee-eyed, he gathers them lovingly into his arms and delights in their slobbery busses. It makes the second task on Fear Factor look easy. He’s like a mall Santa: every baby has a turn. He is gentle, almost paternal towards children he does not know; and that is about as close as he gets to being the Father of the Nation.
That was easily the biggest blunder of his career. In a televised national address in 1995, he said, “I speak to you, not because I may, but because I must. As father of the nation…”. Well, nobody heard whatever he said next. All over Trinidad and Tobago, people stared at one another: he really said that? He really said that?
Today he explains:
When I made that statement speaking as the father of the nation, I was recognising that in every household there was a father who was expected to provide certain things for that household and I likened the nation of Trinidad and Tobago unto a house itself. I was in no way seeking to talk about the historical origin of the nation which everybody knows is an accolade that could only belong to Dr Eric Williams.
It was a case of father of the nation without capitals.
Mind you, his level of care for ordinary people is patriarchal, in truth. At his San Fernando constituency office, he sees 15 to 30 desperate visitors every Thursday. They need school books, a job, specific people imprisoned, help getting their manifesto for a “wholistic” approach to something or the other published. Many want something to eat, please. They are the losers of society, the flotsam and jetsam of all manner of social wrecks, not so far removed from the people you wave away from your Hyundai at traffic lights. To Patrick Manning, they are, every one of them, decent people.
Sure, after 30 years in politics, Manning knows the value of both appearances and individual voters; but he listens to his constituency office visitors with a patience that defies belief. Many deserve to be mashed away with a stamp of the foot, like stray pothounds; Manning pats them gently on the head.
He makes a note of names and addresses and gives a date by which he promises specific action. If all he can do is listen to a powerless person, such as the deeply disturbed man who ranted for 25 minutes about having people who hurt him imprisoned, then he listens sympathetically.
“You want to know what is better than sex,” he says (a standard question put to my interview subjects), driving around Cocoyea Village, where he was born and grew up. “Politics, taking care of people’s problems, nothing gives greater fulfillment.”
Only his enemies would deny a deeply Christian aspect of his character. He vetoed the selection of an atheist as a general election candidate because he is convinced a belief in God is necessary for sustained moral behaviour.
He recognises freedom of worship must include the freedom not to worship and grants there are many rooms in his Father’s kingdom which might accommodate the agonistic or atheist; but there is no room in a political party he leads for a people’s representative without faith.
He goes to church every Friday before Parliament (and stands near the back, doing his best, without being impolite, not to catch the looks of recognition that come even in the line for communion and which are oxygen to every public figure, no matter what they profess.) Like the late Lord Denning, the English judge who angered the Conservative political directorate by refusing to retire, Manning may well possess every Christian virtue bar that of resignation.
Last year, he promised to resign if the PNM lost the election; it has; he has not. He says he is not now wrong to stay, but was wrong to say he would go in the first place. He wrongfully assumed PNM people would have wanted him to go.
He has been persuaded by the eloquent, wide and vociferous support he says he has in the party. Keith Rowley’s challenge would permit an orderly passing of the baton but, whether right or not, he believes he has been called to duty and must remain at his post.
He is using this period away from government to prepare assiduously for his inevitable return to power. He reads nothing but policy documents, and those, critically. Like an expectant bride, he keeps a file of policy ideas which gets fatter every week, a hope chest for when he returns to office (no matter how many people seek to cast him as an old maid), probably by his preferred route of the courts and the election petitions challenging the elections of Bill Chaitan and Winston Gypsy Peters.
He has no problem with being handed government by the courts even if he lost the popular vote (which he doesn’t accept, anyway, since he believes the UNC was guilty of voter-padding). If it was good enough for George Bush, it is good enough for him; and whatever historians may say of the US presidential election 50 years from now, it was handled legally and properly.
Manning brings to public office one golden qualification: after three years as prime minister and 30 in politics, he is poor. He drives a secondhand car costing a fraction of the top-of-the-line Audi birthday present Prime Minister Panday gave his wife.
Manning’s biggest problem as PM, as business people say plainly, was he just wouldn’t make deals. He is happy to be seen as aloof if that is what it takes to remain above corruption. As prime minister, he refused invitations to the down-the-islands homes of wealthy business people. It did not win him friends but he is certain of that stance.
“Why I want to go in a big boat down-the-islands?” he asks. “I’m a little black boy from Cocoyea Village; they have no boats there.”
So Patrick Manning waits, considering every move carefully. In the endgame being played for the leadership of the PNM, Keith Rowley is more likely to tip over his own king than Manning admit checkmate.
Manning’s other endgame is being played simultaneously with Prime Minister Panday, who is himself moving along a series of tables, making far more hurried moves than his opponents in several other simultaneous games: the Attorney General (playing for the UNC and the PM’s chair); the election petitions in the courts (which may take away Panday’s slim majority); Big Business (jockeying for even more advantageous positions before any change comes); and the spectre of looming social unrest as the last strands of the social safety net unravel and dump the screaming, teeming underclass into his lap.
The result of Manning’s endgame against Panday for executive power is impossible to call now; but the players bring to mind the story of the old Jamaican man watching the cat chasing the mouse across his gallery floor. “’im,” says the old Jamaican man, jerking his head towards the cat, “will ‘ave to lose because ‘im running for ‘im suppah; but ‘im,” the old Jamaican man, nods towards the mouse, “’im is running for ‘im life!”
BC Pires extends his sympathies to the extended Manning family.