Friday, March 25, 2016



There are hurricanes of facts and fictions about the flawed former mayor of Toronto and the fraudulent leader in the U. S. presidential race.
For once there is no need to spend any time regurgitating biographies to point out the holes and lies in  their supposed public histories.
Which is a relief since one of the curses of social media today, and in the activist world of NGOs and loudmouths, is that so many rushing to their judgment really don't know the basics of the performers and the issues.
Even in the media.
I am embarrassed hourly by the columnists and commentators who lurch to their keyboards and microphones to repeat ad nauseam the same old stuff without ever sniffing out a new insight.
There were weeks in my decades of journalism when I had to perform so often I was tired and hoarse and stretched -  six columns, seven editorials, one CBC radio commentary and one CBC TV show was not an unusual week.
Yet I always tried to go beyond the flavour-of-the-day in news. (Once when I cheated, the Sun president complained to the publisher that my column, editorial, and commentary were the same, and I felt really guilty because, after all, he was blind.)
So I will spare you a recitation of what you should know already if you actually have been paying attention and unlike the great majority, shoot your mouth off without having any bullets.
I want to emphasize the similar reality of the success behind Ford and Trump - the anti-politicians  perceived as not being phoney crooks like all the other candidates.
 It worked for Ford because he really was frugal with public money. It works for Trump because he appears to be so rich that he won't line his pockets too much with public millions.
The street guys and gals liked Ford despite his bloat, and Trump despite that silly and bizarre hair because it was obvious from those appearances that they really didn't give a damn.
So there was a loyal Ford Nation despite huge flaws as large as his stomach. And Trump rides high while cheating and exaggerating and bluffing more than a drunk at closing time.
The huge difference is that Ford's success was rooted in shyness while Trump probably performs for the bathroom mirror.
Ford was the anti-bullshitter, while having some talent for BS. Trump oozes bullshit but since so much of his bluster is aimed at what the ordinary Joe perceives as the Establishment, he is excused because he says what his fans would love to bellow in the official ear.
 Ford felt most comfortable with ordinary folks who needed help. That's why he returned calls for aid or showed up towing uncomfortable officials. He couldn't get hurt there, not like on the floor of council where his ignorance on an issue could be exposed. It soothed his soul to have people crowd him on the street or at games and events because he could perform in a protective bubble of goodwill and good spirits.
I think his dysfunctional family, led by a father they idolized but I thought one of the dullest politicians I ever met, and a rough, rude mother, and his failures in school and sport, that his shyness and distrust meant he trusted only himself.
Trump feels most comfortable when he's yammering and everyone else has to listen. That's when he's controlling the agenda and can reduce the number of questions that will reveal this would-be emperor has no clothes and very bad hair. Criticism and challenges roll off his back of confident ego because he figures his zealots really don't remember or really understand the complicated stuff. .
It doesn't come as a surprise to any journalist who has spent a lot of time around public figures, whether they be actors or premiers or super jocks, that away from strutting on their stage, some can be almost painfully shy and withdrawn.
I was among the many critics of grandstanding Mel Lastman and called him Supermouth so often, it was repeated by colleagues. Yet we would chat often in quiet peace in the corner at public events where all he wanted to do was go home and put his feet up and perhaps watch himself in Bad Boy TV ads.
Of course he had an enormous ego, the craving for attention so that he would not be ignored, but there was also a driven side, that often he forced himself to this public persona. Same with Ford.
So Ford sought his escape in addiction, and in the blue-and-white world of sports, preferring kid football (he pretended there had been college football) to being "bamboozled" - or so he thought -  by the experts with their degrees and their boasted credentials.
Ford was stubborn because he was wary of change that came from the Establishment and not his gut. He wanted to fight his battles on his turf and on his terms without oratory.
He rode hobbyhorses like getting rid of deals for politicians because they were safe. As CNE president, I would huddle with him after his usual spiels about stopping freebies for councillors and it would be a gentle talk without the bombast. He had done his bit and let's talk about something else.
Since the family was wealthy, it was an easy hit for him to be a tight-fisted conservative in public policy and personal spending, BUT it was also comfortable, the way he really felt.
Obviously the devils didn't just claw at him in the wee hours and he sought refuge for years, like so many, in drugs and booze and marching to a populist drummer. I was told about his curses by police sources years before the Star's front page because they feared his stubborn independence.
Now we will never know if his attempts to put this behind him was bedevilled  by his system being compromised by the birth of that deadly cancer.
Canada has had spectacular redemption in its major politicians beginning with our first prime minister, Sir John A., who was an obvious drunk. Yet his notorious binges ended and he didn't drink in his last years.
There is the famous shout by opponents at his supporters that their Macdonald was drunk during a speech. The comfortable reply from the Tories was that their Sir John A. drunk was better than any of their guys sober.
That is the way the Ford Nation felt about their champion. Unfortunately for this province and city, too often it was and is true.

Friday, March 11, 2016



I was waiting out the final minutes before I was wheeled in to the little O.R. for my second eye surgery and listening idly to the nurse taking the medical history of the patient in the next bed.
I quickly learned a lot, including what he ate, when was his last asthma attack,  and that he really didn't know how heavy he was.
The fact amazed me that there were still people around who didn't worry about their weight as they grow older.
 I was also amused at how easily you can collect info on anyone even in an age when banks insist on checking your DNA before they return one of your dollars,  and a utility company will not discuss the  bill with you unless you're the person who opened the account.
The two of us ended up near each other afterwards as we waited to be cleared to go home. And I mischievously struck up a conversation and dropped in his personal tidbits.
He looked stunned. I explained I had been nearby when his history was being taken.
This didn't bug him as much as it would have some people, particularly women, when it came to age and weight, so we passed the time talking about life and the weather and inevitably, in Toronto,  the awful Leafs.
Turned out he was a sports fan, particularly of the Argos, and since I had briefly been a junior Argo and watched the Grey Cup several times from the sidelines, and once from the bench, we yarned and remembered the grand old days when the Double Blue won most games and the other city team then actually won the Stanley Cup.
Inevitably 1967 came up. The country remembers its centennial. Montreal remembers its Expo. And Toronto remembers the last time it won the Cup.
I told him of being in Montreal in charge of the Telegram coverage of Expo and getting a call from Tom (Windy O'Neill) who said would I like to come to the Forum for the Saturday afternoon game against the Canadiens in the Cup final..
You bet, I said.  The amiable lawyer was a great companion. He had been playing junior with St. Mikes and selling programs at the Gardens in 1943 and one year later, because of the war, was pressed into service as a small Leaf forward playing sort of defence. The joke was he was under orders never to venture over the other blue line or he would be fined.
Windy played two years for the Leafs and really got banged up. And bigger players were coming back from war. So he told the owner, the irascible Conn Smythe, that he was going to become a lawyer. And Smythe snarled that no one could go to school and play for the Leafs. Windy was just a no-talent slave and how dare he try to better himself.
So he quit, which was like parachuting out of Heaven for a hockey player. Off he went to Dalhousie, then played some senior hockey,  and then returned to practice law and Grit politics and continue to be, as Scott Young wrote, the best piano player in the NHL, especially when it was late at night in one of his haunts, the Toronto Press Club.
The Leafs won that afternoon, I reminded my new acquaintance. In the first period, one assistant captain, Bob Pulford, got into a fight with Terry Harper. So I stood in a hostile crowd and urged Pully on.  My excuses were that I had helped open the Jamaican rum display at Expo before the game and that I had played football with Pulford and gone to high school with him.
I didn't realize just how irritated the crowd had got until they started throwing stuff at me. A man behind tapped me on the shoulder.  He said he was Randy Ellis, father of Ron Ellis, the Leaf player, and he was sitting with Ron's wife, who was pregnant, "and you are starting a riot."
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Windy was not sitting with me. He had scored free tickets, but not together, so he was not aware of why the north-west corner of the Forum was in ferment.
So I sat down and tried to keep quiet. The last hot dog covered with mustard sailed over my head and then no one threw anything but words. Besides, the Leafs went ahead and won. It was our last Cup as the Leafs became better at making money than playing hockey.
 I finished my story rather pleased that I didn't have to explain who all the actors were in my anecdote, for example, that Randy Ellis had been a good player on a national senior championship team.
Not only did my new acquaintance enjoy yarning about Hawgtown sports, he demonstrated again that Six Degrees of Separation is more a reality than a myth.
You know, the theory that any person connects to any other person in the world in just six relationships. There is even a charity based on that, headed by Kevin Bacon, who is often used as an example of how he relates quickly to any other actor, but there have also been plays, books and movies illustrating Six Degrees for more than half a century.
 My new acquaintance said that in two day's time he was having dinner with a close relative of Windy's.  He said there once had been a restaurant with Windy's name and that posted on the wall for years had been a letter from Conn Smythe, whom I had just described in cruel fashion.
The letter praised Windy for helping the Leafs win the Cup in 1945, his final NHL year. At the end, there was a P.S. that summed up Smythe's rude dictatorship over his team. It informed Windy that he had made a long-distance call costing $1.40 from the hotel in Detroit during the Cup series and he must pay this sum without delay.
I hope the best piano player in the NHL, nicknamed that by Neil Young's father, told Smythe to go whistle for his money. After all, the sand and gravel magnate with the expensive passion for horses may have been great at charity in raising money for crippled kids, but there was a bully side  -also displayed by the rest of the bosses in the old league - that is only equalled today by chumps like Trump.  Imagine going after a young guy virtually playing for peanuts when you're so rich you can pay to take your own battalion to war.
Yet my message today is not that but advice on how to pass the time when you're stuck in a medical system that cares nothing about how it wastes time for patients/prisoners.  Next time you're in a clinic and can't rescue yourself with a magazine or TV, strike up a conversation with the other inmates. Who knows what connections will follow?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016



The great conspiracy that concealed  that Ronald Reagan was struck by his Alzheimer's while he was still in the White House as U.S. president seems to have survived the accounts of the death of his loyal wife who shielded him from exposure.
It's hardly an earth-shattering scoop that Reagan was often fumbling for words and names in his final years. His stalwart champion, Nancy,  and key aides, could not conceal that from the public. But they certainly threw a cloak over the significance of the major extent of that so that the popular myth is that Alzheimer's did not cruelly ravage him until around 1994, five years after he left the presidency.
Not everyone co-operated. His son, Ron, who has always marched to his own drummer, defied and angered his mother and brother when he said a couple of months ago in a book about his father that he thought Reagan already was suffering towards the end of his first term.
When you sift the tides of information about Reagan over the decades, and connect the few but persistent mentions, the earlier reality of this form of dementia which robs the memory more each day cannot be dismissed as a nightmarish claim by his enemies.
In fact, I first found out about it in 1987 and have written about it several times. But I have never before made the point that actually I find it rather reassuring.
A few acerbic wits like Bill Maher couldn't let her funeral pass without pointing out that maybe Reagan was the final blow in winning the Cold War but Nancy really was running the presidency in the final two years, just like Woodrow Wilson's wife had taken over for him.
Yet despite all the Doomsday scenarios in books and all the movies with Armageddon twists, isn't it reassuring that it is quite likely that the most powerful leader in the world was mentally ill while he could blow up the world using the codes carried by an aide. Yet we all muddled through thanks to the steely wife and insiders like Colin Powell, the four-star general turned National Security Adviser who stayed close.
My peek inside the Oval Office at the president who carried file cards in his pocket even to comment on the weather came in 1987 through Bill Stevenson, the spy author who moved easily in the world of  world secrets, as I detailed in a column about his death that appeared Dec, 3, 2013, as a blog ( titled The Intrepid Bill Stevenson.
Bill, the author of best sellers that were turned into great movies, and his wife, Monica, an award-winning 60 Minutes producer, were great hosts at their Rosedale home. And their guests were  famous figures from the front pages of major newspapers.
So when he phoned on a Friday to invite me to a Sunday barbecue, it was a golden invitation. Except I was exhausted by playing Editor of the Toronto Sun while we were short-handed and just wanted to escape to my cottage on the Trent.
On Monday, Bill appeared in my office to deliver his latest column for me and related with great satisfaction that I had missed an affair that I would have remembered for the rest of my life.
"Ross Perot flew in to tell us that he had just met with Reagan in the Oval Office to tell him of what he had found out the last time he flew to Hanoi to insist to the North Vietnamese that they had to release all the American POWs and MIAs that they still had in their prisons despite their claims of ignorance," Stevenson told me.
"Why didn't you tell me Perot was coming," I yelled in frustration at not meeting the legendary billionaire
'"Because I think the CIA is tapping our phones because of the book that Monica and I are writing about the Prisoners Of War and the Missing In Action. Perot says they tap him," Stevenson said.
Then he dropped a bomb. He said Perot and Reagan had often met but that Perot said it was really strange this time. Only Powell was with them in the Oval. But Reagan fished a file card out of his pocket to read aloud: "Hello Ross, how are you? Isn't it nice out today, especially in the Rose Garden."
"You're telling me that the President of the United States is so ga ga that he needs a card to greet an acquaintance," I demanded of Stevenson. "Yes, Perot said there was no doubt that his mind is going," he replied.
Perot became controversial for his obsession to save the American soldiers left behind in the Vietnamese ruins after the war ended. He was always talking about plots and assassinations.
But he did make four billion selling companies to GM and Dell and had enough support in the country to run for president twice. And there were some news stories about his regular reporting back to the White House on his secret trips as a special envoy of the president on the POW issue.
Not exactly an observer to be ignored.
And Stevenson, who used to SCUBA dive with Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond,  and then go over to Noel Coward's cottage next door in Jamaica for martinis, was not exactly a dupe when it came to chronicling world figures.
So Stevenson and Downing believed what Perot told us. And we didn't write a damn thing. Who would have believed us then? Apparently most people don't even believe it now.