NOTHING BEATS AMIABLE COMPETENCE
They say nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but I'd rather like to think it is when it comes to great newsmen like Knowlton Nash.
I have pounded into submission the "band of brothers' imagery from Shakespeare. So let me just say that when the apprenticeship in news is long and varied and rich in not getting beat by the opposition or intimidated by your topics, you develop a patina as it were that makes you part of a club that doesn't need passwords.
Knowlton was just some guy working for the CBC in Washington when I became aware of him because he wrote a regular freelance column for the Telegram which was solid and knowledgeable even if it didn't set the world on fire with wordplay.
As I rose through the ranks at the Tely and then the Sun, I grew to appreciate no-problem columnists who deliver insights on time without fuss. Some times the stars get blinded by the smoke of their own fireworks of glory. Prima donnas are wonderful but not when you're trying to get the damn paper out.
I'm sure people in the 1960s turned to Knowlton's views in print on the Americans with the same comfortable interest as they later watched him dominate television news back in Toronto.
To me he enjoyed the almost godlike status accorded Walter Cronkite in the U.S. Instantly identifiable voice and manner. The aura that this was the best approach to the news of the day because the anchor had been around and knew the phonies from the doers, the competent from the charlatans, the angles that seemed fishy and contrived because the people trying to aim them like broken torpedoes really had zero credibility to the insiders.
Back in the glory days of the Toronto Press Club, Cronkite was once the star of the annual Byline dinner and was one of the last yarning at the bar. There was an old-clothes feel to him. His stories involved the greats of the world but there was never the feeling he was showing off.
Just like Knowlton over the years after the day was done.
Cronkite told me, and of course it is explained in the books on him, that he deliberately slowed his delivery because he though it would be more acceptable, more comfortable, with the viewers who didn't like the ratatat deliveries over 150 words a minute from pretty boy talking heads. I wonder if Knowlton copied that but never asked.
I have told the story - but as the family says, I love to repeat myself - of how Knowlton and I were consulted by the lieutenant governor of Ontario about what he should do after the 1985 provincial election was almost a dead head.
It was a lunch for the News Hall of Fame. John Black Aird may have looked like the corporate lawyer leading the prestigious Bay St. firm but he was actually a warm and considerate man who even played floor hockey with the kids at Variety Village despite chronic back pain.
I was still exhausted from election night. Not only was I supposed to perform as the new Editor of the paper with a great editorial and column, I had agreed to be the on-air expert on the National with Barbara Frum.
Doug Creighton, founder of the Sun, hated to see his guys performing for the electronic media when he thought it took away from the Sun, but I figured I would be in the studio only briefly. Except the lead kept switching, and we had to do three different Nationals before the Tories won 52 seats and the Grits 48.
Creighton and my enemies did a tap dance on my ego when I returned. And I had to beat back Creighton's demand that we immediately support the Grits even though they had four fewer seats than the Conservatives whom we had always supported.
I was still smarting from those fights but I was won over by Aird being candid as to his choices and what advice he was getting.
Turned out that Knowlton and I agreed with Aird that Ontario voters had election fatigue after all the provincial, federal and municipal elections they had just endured. The dicey choice he was considering was not ordering another election but allowing the Liberals to form a government with NDP support, even if they had won fewer seats than the Tories who had ruled since the 1940s.
After another round and expansive chatter, Aird left us to circulate and then give the speech. Knowlton and I knew exactly what he was going to do. You know, I said, he never once suggested this was all off-the-record. But we knew in our gut it was. Aird expected us to act honourably, since that is the basic rule of how clubs operate, even if they were a humble press club.
So the CBC and the Sun knew in advance from two bosses what was going to happen and said nothing. (Ironically, when Aird announced his decision, the worst assassin of his reputation was the Sun's Bob MacDonald who pointed out that Aird only had the job in the first place because he had been a Liberal bagman. The next time I saw Aird, he kidded me about it.)
Perhaps there was a kinship between Knowlton and the Sun because we ending up owning British United Press, the lean wire service where he began and ground out thousands of stories. Perhaps he liked us as the upstarts vs. the grey Globe/Grit/Establishment who tried to dominate Canada.
Inside was still the kid who sold his own typewritten newspaper, then flogged papers on the street, who worked his way up to respected anchor and management even if there was a time when he hustled PR accounts in Washington, then became a freelancer, even editing confessios magazines, and then to the arduous life of foreign correspondent scrambling for assignments.
He could talk easily of the greats and exotic capitals and the news cataclysms he had been witness to, but he grew most animated one day when he discovered I loved the tropics and wondered what the hell I was doing in Toronto.
Where was my favourite escape, he asked? Bora Bora, I said, that Polynesian beauty spot that may well have been an inspiration for the great musical South Pacific.
He beamed through those trade mark thick glasses. Bora Bora, he said, was where he and Lorraine Thomson escaped to with luggage full of books when the world and CBC politics closed in too tightly.
Ah yes, the great lagoon with its squadrons of rays sailing elegantly along, the white-capped necklace of a barrier reef, the jagged distinctive volcanic peak above, and warm indolence broken by cycling into town to buy more cheese and wine as if we were in Paris (with prices to match.)
It's a wonder Knowlton ever came back. But he loved everything about the news, from when he was a kid newsboy to when he was a Canadian icon, and Toronto was a media capital.