Recently, there was another news report of an unusually bright alien rock entering the earth’s atmosphere, briefly lighting up the night sky like noon before breaking up and disappearing. I have had the privilege of twice being at the right time and the right place to witness such an awesome sight. For an instant, the mind flashes from intense wonder, to religious hope, to nuclear horror, before settling back into the scientific complacency of knowing it was “just” a large meteorite.
There have been meteorites among the human race as well. This past week, I read two books about such notable careers that were also exceptionally short. The first book was The Pope Who Quit, by Jon Sweeney, not about the recent Benedict XVI who stepped down three years ago this month, but his predecessor as far as resignation goes, a solitary hermit named Peter who reigned ever so briefly for 107 days as Pope Celestine V at the end of the thirteenth century, and who was rumored to have been murdered by his successor, Boniface VIII. Sweeney notes a similarity to “the laughing pope” John Paul I who served for only 33 days before he (some speculate) was killed. The other book was Oliver’s Twist, the autobiography of a much-respected CTV political reporter, Craig Oliver. His own career has endured long but, among other things, he writes about the meteorite prime ministers Joe Clark (in office 273 days), Kim Campbell (132 days), John Turner (79 days), and Paul Martin (serving by contrast, a Methuselan 14 months). It is more than interesting to learn how these people, some of them highly unlikely candidates and fiercely opposed by the established powers, managed to have their moment in the sun. For anyone who doubts there is much human frailty and corruption in Canadian politics or the political media, Craig Oliver’s telling of it may persuade you otherwise.
When they occur, meteorites surprise us humans so much that there is a sudden splurge of talk everywhere, and then the news dies out almost as quickly as the event itself. So it is with meteoric people. I doubt that I will think it hugely important to tell my grandchildren about these short-term prime ministers, or that the children will read much more than footnotes about them in school, though I could perhaps see myself making a cautionary tale of the very unusual papacy of the hermit Peter for those who want to radically change church or state.
These are political stories, after all, with tales of intrigue, lust for power, of exploitation and sleaze. The same goes for the thirteenth century popes who were among the world’s largest land-owners at that time, heavily involved in worldly politics. And part of the reason the brief careers were indeed so short is that the perfectly clever vices of opponents overcame the less perfect political instincts of these meteorites. But though such people are often forgotten, their experience in sudden office tends to shine light, as real meteorites do, on the darkness into which they came.