A humane patriot
Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places; and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honour and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. – American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery at 21 and subsequently founded an anti-slavery newspaper.
IN POLITICS truth may be proper and appropriate, but, I am afraid, it is often not beautiful.
If therefore truth is to be appropriate, the political life of David Thompson cannot be daubed with flair in all places and at all times; nor painted only in colours of bright gloss, but with a brush of pastel objectivity and undisguised realism.
I write not as one who regarded him as my friend, but as a journalist who by my pen risked his displeasure from time to time.
I seek not to dwell on the loving upbringing he enjoyed; the friendships he cultivated; nor the formidable value of his Combermere and University of the West Indies education, but to assess both the fulfilling and the challenging aspects of his outstanding public service.
The life montage of David John Howard Thompson which we are required to review at this point of his untimely passing at a mere 48 years of age, with only 1 043 days of service in national leadership, must be set against the backdrop of his full political contribution; not just his high or low points; and must portray both the ecstasy and the pain of it all.
It is most proper to state that at the start and at the finish, the panorama of the political career of Thompson had two distinct and extraordinary focal features: good luck and bad luck.
Yet I think the finished picturisation of David Thompson ultimately conveys moral texture and professional beauty.
At the commencement of his active career in 1987, he had the good fortune to inherit the safe Democratic Labour Party (DLP) constituency of St John, for 29 years the parliamentary home of National Hero The Right Excellent Errol Barrow, Prime Minister and Father of Barbados’ Independence.
When in January 2008, Thompson seemed to have reached the summit of political accomplishment, he had the bad fortune of assuming a Government at the start of the worst recession of our time, following upon a span in which the predecessor administration had become arrogant in power, overgenerous in spending and reckless in accountability.
After the euphoria of his long sought-after victory sunk in, Thompson would humorously admit to me that it probably had been “an election to lose”.
“Trust you to make the wrong choice!” I teased.
In his Budget Speech of 2008 he said: “Poets might want to express it as being passed ‘a poisoned chalice’; and our military leaders might understand ‘leaving a minefield behind’.”
In Thompson’s case, therefore, the years after 1987, and those after 2008, are where the true image of his political life is located, and his real value can be measured.
It is in these two periods – one overly long, the other tragically short – that we get to assess the man at the helm: first of the party, and then of the country.
Before 1987 he and others like Senator Liz Thompson had enjoyed spectacular success as a school-age debaters. This was where he made his first impression before Barbadian television audiences in interviews and a gripping debate format known as Understanding.
He joined the DLP in 1977 at a point when it had only recently lost the 1976 general election; Errol Barrow was overseas on a sabbatical; and the newly governing Barbados Labour Party (BLP) under Prime Minister Tom Adams’ Great Combination was getting strongly into stride.
Thompson was a moving figure in the advancement of the Young Democrats, his party’s youth arm, and within three years he was the forceful, young and articulate president whose baby face was dominated by large circular horn-rimmed glasses and a neat but pronounced, dark moustache that eventually gave way to a small beard before that too disappeared.
Immediately he earned a reputation as “one to watch” because of his no-nonsense language and his eagerness to engage political figures who were his senior. He would appear on DLP campaign platforms in the 1986 general election; but even before, in July and November 1984, he dared to venture to the heart of BLP-land, St Peter, to speak on behalf of the candidature of Sybil Leacock in the two by-elections held there to replace Speaker Burton Hinds who had died after a long illness.
Leacock won the first by-election against Owen Arthur by a single vote; and Arthur the second after the first outcome was ruled against by the Supreme Court.
Shortly thereafter Thompson, then only 25 years old, won the July 1987 by-election to replace Barrow as the St John representative, polling more votes than Barrow ever did – 4108. (This figure was only outdone by Thompson in the 2008 elections when he got 4 300 votes.)
At Barrow’s death the people of St John sent a clear message to the BLP candidate Hutson Linton and the wider society that they had firmly adopted Thompson as their MP.