No greater tribute than this: everyone claims to have known Jack

The morning after the 2008 election, Jack Layton convened his inner circle for a meeting. They had been summoned not to look back at what might have been, but to start planning for the next vote.

The morning after the 2008 election, Jack Layton convened his inner circle for a meeting. They had been summoned not to look back at what might have been, but to start planning for the next vote.

So, it was in keeping with the pragmatic side of the NDP leader that just hours before his death, Layton was again huddled with his closest confidants and his wife, Olivia Chow, to look ahead, planning for the future of a party without him.

Layton, the man who was indefatigable in his planning and his need to engage in the day-to-day machinery of his party, essentially sketched out his political will. He recommended Nycole Turmel remain as interim leader until a leadership convention can be held early in the new year. He called on the party and his caucus to recommit and prove the party and the movement is much bigger than one man.

But you can’t carry a party to a historic summit on pragmatism alone, and even in death Layton was providing inspiration with the mix of pig-headed optimism and passion that had finally delivered his 2011 crowning achievement.

His message never really varied over the years, even if his breakthrough came just months before his death. He always challenged his party, his supporters and Canadians in general to reach higher and not give up hope, even in defeat.

And that’s why his words, from an extraordinary letter he wrote to Canadians on Saturday, had already entered the country’s lexicon only hours after his death.

“So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world,” he wrote.

It quickly became his epitaph.

They were his own words, in a lovely bordered green card beneath flowers in front of his Broadview Avenue constituency office.

The words were seemingly quoted in every tribute, on every news website, on television screens, in social media. Spontaneous memorials sprang up all over the country, on Parliament Hill, on the West Coast, in Quebec.

Jack Layton, 1950-2011, was scrawled in chalk in Toronto bike lanes.

Today, all politicians of all parties and at all levels should be giving thanks to Layton. He appears to have single-handedly raised the profession of politics again in this country after years of it being stuck in cynicism and malodour.

It is a profession that has too often been dismissed as the sinecure of the self-interested, the vain or the corrupt. References to the “political class” are usually spat out with disdain.

A career politician is too often dismissed as a man or woman who lacks real life skills and experience. But Layton transcended all that.

He had leapt from the halls of academia to a lifetime of politics, yet was comfortable in celebrating his calling, revelling in his opposition to the comfortably entrenched.

The striking feature of those who signed impromptu books of condolence and left messages with flowers, was that many said they did not support him, but they had liked him and had respected him. Some messages were simple: “To One of the Good Guys.” “Jack: Remember You Forever.”

Others sought more poetic remembrances. “Dear Mr. Layton: You left us like a dew in the morning, but your spirit will stay forever.” That one was simply signed, “Torontonians.”

And that was a reminder that although he was born in Quebec, for all the mourning on Parliament Hill, in Quebec, on the West Coast, Layton and Chow were quintessential Torontonians.

It seemed on this day that everyone in Toronto had a personal memory of Layton.

They flooded websites, remembering running into him on the Danforth, bumping into him at the St. Lawrence Market, waving to him as he rode his bike through the downtown core.

It is a remarkable legacy for a politician.

It is really a bit of a conceit for those who shared time with him to say they “knew” Jack Layton.

In reality, it seemed almost everyone claimed to “know” Jack Layton and no politician could aspire to a greater tribute.

Tim Harper is a syndicated national affairs writer with the Toronto Star.