Legendary politician dead at 103

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Haakon Lie, widely viewed as a legend in Norwegian politics and a founder of the social welfare state, died Monday afternoon at the Oppsal nursing home on Oslo’s east side. He was 103, and had experienced a long lifetime of class struggle, war and emerging affluence.

“He still kept looking forward, to the future, even though he was well over 100 years old,” reminisced Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who often would be called up by Lie to discuss issues of the day or be told what Lie thought Stoltenberg’s modern Labour Party should do. The prime minister recalled that when he recently visited Lie at Ullevål Hospital in Oslo, Lie was in a two-man’s room. “That was so typical,” Stoltenberg said. “Here was one of Norway’s greatest leaders for decades, sharing a room at the hospital.”

Lie headed the Norwegian Labour Party from 1945 until 1969, during all the post-war years when Norway emerged from German occupation and built a modern social welfare state that later would become affluent with the discovery of offshore oil. Lie was a champion of the working person, but a rabid anti-communist and anti-facist, a man who strongly supported NATO and the United States.

“He was one of Norway’s greatest politicians for decades,” said Stoltenberg on a Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) talk show devoted to Haakon Lie Monday evening. “He commanded respect.”

Lie lived through the class struggles of the 1930s, was a resistance fighter during the war, and a cold warrior in the 1950s and ’60s. His disdain for communism ultimately led to his branding as “Norway’s McCarthy” and to a famous split with another leading Labour Party politician of the times, Einar Gerhardsen, who was far more sympathetic to the Soviet Union than Lie. Gerhardsen attacked Lie at a Labour Party meeting in 1967, saying Lie had stifled debate and scared people from revealing their opinions. The two never fully reconciled.

Although Lie retired as party secretary he remained deeply involved in issues and was revered by party officials. His birthdays were always observed by party officials, and Gro Harlem Brundtland flew home from a busy week of foreign travel when she was prime minister to attend Lie’s 90th birthday celebration in 1995.

Lie continued to sound off on political issues after turning 100 as well. He famously complained about the decline of health care services by saying that home health care had fallen victim to the whims of a stop-clock. He had always been an ardent supporter of Israel and was a personal friend of David Ben-Gurion, but he criticized Israeli politics in later years and expressed sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. He even worried that the current global finance crisis would have a backlash for Norway’s current Labour-led coalition government.

“He was so strong, the most beautiful man I’ve ever met,” said veteran politician Jan Bøhler.

“It was under Haakon Lie’s leadership that the Labour Party developed and grew,” said commentator Arne Strand. “He was a legend.”