As someone who can smell the incense from the last pew of the church, it was no challenge for me to sniff the billows of the beer coming off Ralph Klein.
After all, it was just the two of us. Face to face. In an elevator. In downtown Beirut. Being in such close quarters in a bombed-out city with a half-bombed Alberta premier tends to sharpen both nose and memory.
Klein had been sent on a mad-cap tour of the Middle East by a bunch of Calgary and Edmonton brainiacs. They believed international exposure would help in a zany scheme to transform Alberta’s King Ralph into Canada’s National Ralph — the political figure able to resurrect the decimated federal Progressive Conservative party.
So there he was, the guy who regarded going to Caesar’s Steak House on Calgary’s 4th Avenue as an adventure in exotica, traipsing through Lebanon, Egypt and Israel doing he knew not what for he knew not why. There he was with his suit jacket gone astray, his red suspenders slipping off his shoulders, his shirttail hanging out like a white flag waving surrender to his desire for a good time.
I was in the media contingent travelling with him and, in the ancient tradition of newspaper brilliance, had been tasked to go out at midnight, hunt down the premier in Beirut and bring back a one-line quote to fit tomorrow’s story on some forgettable upheaval at home that had the opposition calling for his head.
We met somehow in the elevator and he, crafty old journalist-cumpolitico that he was, turned a crinkled smile on my request for comment, belched and boomed for-the-record: “Am I supposed to be scared? Do I LOOK scared?”
In fact, he looked as he always looked to me: like a man wearing a paper party hat and holding a martini glass who has just stumbled into a nudist colony at prayer and is wondering what time the fun re-starts. Obituaries published after Klein’s death on Good Friday made clear he led neither a charmed nor happy early life. But once he got his wheels under him first as a TV reporter, then as a gifted political communicator, he was one of the most fearless people I’ve ever met.
Not fearless in the sense of carrying bravado before him like a torch but rather someone who had come from a hard start to discover life is good: Be not afraid. Like many such eye-opening experiences, of course, it left him with blind spots, some of which cost him painfully at the end of his political career, one of which cost him infinitely more.
For all his robust appetite for life, Klein was stubbornly, at times obtusely, dismissive of organized religious life. He basked in the shoulder-sunshine of native spirituality lite, but once famously asked of Alberta’s constitutionally protected separate schools: “What’s the difference between a Catholic paper clip and a (non- Catholic) paper clip?”
Feigning belief that religious education is reducible to administrative efficiency was his back of the hand to all whose faith-based moral tenets he did not actively oppose so much as find stupefyingly irrelevant. If that made Alberta’s Christians, never mind their God, angry with him, well, did he LOOK scared?
Yet, thanks to some wonderful reporting by my former colleague Licia Corbella of the Calgary Herald, we now know Klein was deeply troubled in his late days by his great distance from God.
In an April 4 report, Corbella recounts beautifully how Pastor Ray Matheson reached out to the former premier in 2011 when Klein’s health began irreversible decline. She describes Matheson knocking on the coffee table in King Ralph’s den and telling him it was Jesus knocking to be let in.
“I said to him, ‘would you like to open the door to Jesus?’ and he said, ‘Yes I would, but I don’t know how,’’ ” she quotes Matheson.
Prayer brought Klein to profess Christ. Four days before he died, he gripped Matheson’s hand and said: “My ship is going to sail soon.” The pastor assured him Someone would be waiting for him on the water.
“He was so peaceful,” Matheson says, “so joyful.”
Fearless, too, I bet, but for reasons to do with the burning of incense much more than the belching of billows of beer.
(This post also appeared as a column in the Catholic Register and at 222.catholicregister.org)