Thursday, January 20, 2011


 Politics was their life, their sport, their passion

These are the days when my aging friends say they check the obituaries before the birth notices.
Since I was born when my father was 67, I'm not sure the Downings are part of that cliche saying, but I make up for it by not reading either.
Apparently the current Toronto Sun editors act the same way. As our former colleagues pass, they seem to go unnoticed and unlamented, although as many fine writers and newspapers have shown, a good newspaper obituary can be a delightful romp through nostalgia and recent history.
Another Sun Day-Oner phoned me the other day to say that the way things were going, he and I would not get a mention when we went to the big newsroom in the sky. (At least it will be big if Sun Media boss Pierre Karl Peladeau doesn't get his hands on it.)
I hope my late colleague, Bob MacDonald, is not paying attention from whatever heavenly nook he is inhabiting, but I also want to say farewell to Keith Davey before I talk about that passionate bear of a French Canadian, Michel Gratton.
Now Bob hated fatcat Liberals, and Davey certainly seemed to quality there, but I found the Davey away from partisan politics to be a nice guy who was a newspaper junkie. I could never convince Bob of that since he saw Liberals as the devil's spawn.
The last time I saw Davey, at a party thrown by a mutual friend, Senator David Smith, he kept telling me how he loved to go for a walk each morning to get all the papers and to see what I had to say. Sadly, because he was already imprisoned by Alzheimer's, he told me that every five minutes for several hours, but I didn't mind. His joy over journalism was a delight, since attacks against the Grits and him bounced off his wide smile. And he appreciated politicians of every stripe and anyone who wrote about them and did their homework. Ah yes, he loved sports and talking too, and surely those are among the finest things you can say about a gentleman.
We were on a panel once and I accused the Liberals of doing something dastardly in order to win the election. He roared at me and dared me to repeat it. So I did. He paused, then grinned that I seemed to have got his pragmatic politics right.
So farewell, Keith Davey. I'm sure St. Peter will tell you during your morning walk where the newspaper boxes are outside the Pearly Gates because I'm not sure that many political writers, or many Grits for that matter, get inside.
When I hired Michel Gratton to be the Ottawa columnist for the Toronto Sun and our tab empire, there was a slight problem. He had a huge rep and obviously knew politics from the ground down. Yet there  had been some sort of strange incident involving Gratton and a pretty female reporter who just happened to work at the Sun. Gratton at the time was the flack for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who leaned on him to tell him every last bit of gossip about the press corps.
To this day, I'm not sure just what happened. Did both have too much to drink? Was it a verbal altercation, or did it involve sex or some mangled scoop?
So I asked and was assured there would be no problem. And I checked with Doug Fisher and his key mind and huge collection of files. Doug loved his passion.  So Gratton arrived as the little guy from a humble stretch of Ottawa who was never as comfortable talking in his second language, English, as he was with the French that gushed from him in an argument. Some days I was never quite sure he was comfortable writing in English either because deadlines were something he tried to ignore. But he sure could bring fire and brimstone down on his enemies. What a glorious francophone battler for things he believed in, like Ottawa's Montfort Hospital, that he helped save right in his own backyard where if he wasn't a king, he certainly was a duke.
He was a charter member of the gang of journalists in Ottawa and Toronto who drank because they loved to drink and also to escape their devils. Old-fashioned journalism filled with self-destruction where shy charming driven guys like Paul Rimsteal drank to forget the adulation, deadlines and their failures.
I would arrive in Ottawa and go for my briefing at the National Press Club bar (now long gone) and Gratton, Joe O'Donnell, Mike Duffy (now the sober senator) Norman DePoe and others would tell me glass by glass just what the hell was going on.
Later I hired O'Donnell too as an Ottawa columnist. Les Pyette, the Executive Editor, and I as The Editor sent him to Washington because the big boss, Doug Creighton, warned that if we didn't have a columnist there in a week, one of us would have to go. So O'Donnell, happily ensconced in Ottawa and president of everything, was exiled to the U.S.
O'Donnell made his return the night of a Sun awards banquet.  He was overly refreshed when he entered late and took the only empty chair he could find, which belonged to Creighton who was up speaking as the MC. He leaned back too far and rolled over into the next table. Creighton didn't miss a beat. "I would like you to meet Joe O'Donnell," he boomed since he was used to the characters of journalism.
What fascinating days they were. Keith Davey was running around pulling strings and guys like Gratton and O'Donnell were running around trying to cut the strings in their columns and we all had a fine time. Democracies are so much more fun than dictatorships!

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