In reflecting upon the life and work of the late Michael Manley the thought struck me that he is best described as a big man. Given the numerous meanings and interpretations that could be put to this characterization, I decided to explore as many of these meanings and interpretations as I could think of, to see to what extent this description was accurate.
As a six-footer, he could meet the criterion of being big physically, although many men of his time were bigger. In terms of social background, he was a big man. He came from the Clarke/Shearer family that comes closest to being a royal family in Jamaica. This family has produced four of the seven Chief Ministers/Prime Ministers that the country has had since adult suffrage in 1944. His father is a national hero and his mother the most famous and gifted sculptor the country has produced. Hence in terms of family and social background, Michael Manley was big. That he was not crushed by the great weight of this background itself speaking of him being big in character and personality.
Both size and social background were bequeathed to him. They were not of his own making. However, in terms of his own achievements he was a big man. He was without a doubt one of the most outstanding trade union leaders of his generation. But even greater, he was elected three times to the pinnacle of political power, a feat only equaled by his cousin National Hero Sir Alexander Bustamante. Yet even greater was the fact that he twice walked away from political office when he did not have to. The first was calling an election two and half years before they were due because in his view he could only continue to govern with a fresh mandate from the people. On the second occasion, he did so because of ill health. This is unlike so many who clung to power until death pried them loose from their grasp.
In dealing with the power given to him by the people Michael Manley proved that he was a big man in that he could be trusted with that power by his willingness to give it up when circumstances and health so dictated. The power belonged to the people. He was only a steward of that power for as long as he could competently discharge it. Only big men perceive and hold power in this manner. This probably explains why in his death Michael Manley inspired greater political unity and civility than in his lifetime or that the country has enjoyed for a long time. Indeed, some may even have wondered if such unity and civility had been lost forever in Jamaica, given the acrimony and fractiousness of our partisan politics.
Another way in which Michael Manley was a big man was in generosity of spirit. I had personal experience of this on several occasions. I remember one night in 1975 he had a meeting with permanent secretaries without their ministers being present. He opened the meeting by stating that he wished us to express our views, on a man to man basis, on what the government was doing. After the meeting had progressed for some time and feeling that my older colleagues were evading the real issues, with the brashness of youthfulness, I intervened and said that the government was juggling too many balls at the same time and that several were on a collision course because the issues and consequences had not been thought through.
Well, before I could illustrate the point, Mr. Manley interrupted me proceeded with a mini-lecture on being me being a technocrat unable to fully appreciate the prerogatives of policy. At the end of this mini-lecture, I said to him that if it were Prime Minister Michael Manley speaking to Permanent Secretary Errol Miller I would shut up. However, if it were Errol talking to Michael, man to man, I demanded to make my point. Which was it? He immediately apologized, said it was the latter and allowed me to finish my point with appropriate illustrations.
To my surprise, the next day he took decisive action on one of the issues I had highlighted and sent me a little note which I still keep and treasure. It said, “Errol, you were your usual belligerent self, last night, but thank you. Michael.” He was big enough a man for you to stand toe to toe with him and if your point was one of substance, he would acknowledge it even if at first he flew into a fit of temper and dismissed it.
But above everything else, Michael Manley was a big man because throughout his life he grappled with the central and large issues of human existence and society. Though he was a big man in family and social background he sought and used power for the purpose of lifting the small man. Those from humble backgrounds who had little in term of this world’s goods and whose influence and power resided in the vote or rebellion. He confronted head on the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and equality. By the integrity he maintained in this confrontation he lifted an entire nation, including those who opposed him, for they had to propose alternative approaches to tackling these large issues.
It is no doubt because of this feature of his life that the General Assembly of the United Nations in special session pause to pay tribute to him; that the President of the United States, his Secretary of State and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nation separately paid their tribute to him although he had declared a U.S. ambassador to Jamaica “persona non-grata”; that over sixty countries sent envoys to his funeral; and that Edward Seaga paid glowing tribute in Parliament and elsewhere and saluted his coffin at the graveside.
As an aside, those who remember the blazing, bunsen heat generated by the rivalry between them in the political arena, cannot help but note that Mr. Seaga’s acknowledgement of Mr. Manley in sickness and death was the act of a big man. Indeed, the tributes by paid by many leaders of the JLP and the NDM brought to the fore a refreshing breath of political maturity that one can only hope will not evaporate is the usual fashion of the nine-day wonder.
Ironically, Michael Manley who had lived his life to uplift the small man could not escape the scathing rebuke of some small men even in death. These were not men small in terms of social background, power or wealth, but rather small men in terms of narrowness of mind and meanness of spirit. Their preoccupation is the relentless and unforgiving recitation of the faults and flaws of others without ever considering their own warts and weaknesses. Some even claimed truth as the basis of their rebuke. Yet when the truth be told it is only our Lord Jesus who walked this earth in perfection, without fault or moral flaw. For the rest of us, the prospect of greatness resides outside of perfection. Greatness consists of living a life which despite its imperfections, faults and flaws grasp the eternal and transcendental values of human existence and in the process reach beyond itself to touch, impact and inspire the lives of others for the better and the good.
Michael Manley was a big man because he inspired the vast majority of us not only by his oratorical skills, which were enormous but by the consistency of his life dedicated to the upliftment of the marginalised and the oppressed among us and in the world.
March 18, 1997