Sunday, April 29, 2018



"Those were the days" I thought as I was watched the White House Correspondents' Dinner.
Nope, I wasn't recalling when Archie Bunker shocked the world in All In The Family (he really didn't but the political correct had to pretend) but my trips inside the American bubble to mingle with the famous and those who wished they were.
I also wasn't remembering when the dinner's guest comics were clever and funny like Stephen Colbert and not killing their good lines with foul expanses of dubious humour like Michelle Wolf.
Early Sun expeditions were legendary but our trips to Washington were great even by those standards. Led by Doug Creighton, the Sun founder and a delightful Pied Piper, the Sun mafioso used to invade the White House dinner because we owned the Houston Post, one of the larger U.S. newspapers that died a couple of decades ago. (One of Doug's few mistakes came when he bought the Post rather than the Chicago Sun-Times. Most directors wanted Chicago.)
The dinner's a magic time in Washington. The city's pretty with blossoms, the summer humidity not yet soaking, but mainly because major politicians spend a lot of nice time cozying up to major journalists even if they would never dare confess that in public.
 On this journey, there was a special tour into White House corners the public never sees. Some  Americans got annoyed when I pointed out an error in the plaque on a Truman portrait and was indiscreet enough to remind them it was nicknamed the White House after it was painted to cover scorch marks left when we burned it after winning the War of 1812.
Toronto used to have a great weekend when the Toronto Press Club flourished. The Byline Ball, revue and dinner that invited media greats like Walter Cronkite. Corporations and pols rushed to have receptions for three days.
Both Doug and I had been press club presidents and missed the decline and eventual death of that fine time of media smoozing. So we threw ourselves into this similar Washington weekend with abandon.
We had so many notables at our reception before dinner that no one really caught the name of a tiny U.S. cabinet minister who was pulled in by Don Hunt, one of the three Sun founders. Don who was quite large had reverted to his days as a rowdy sports reporter and had found the minister in a hotel hall.
Doug viewed his colleague's kidnapping with more humour than the minister's security detail. "Is Don carrying that guy or just dragging him?" he asked me. Fortunately the perplexed minister found out the friendly giant ran the Post before his guards were ordered to rescue him.
The dinner was a cross between a World Series game and the Academy Awards.
The Sun/Post had two tables.  I was sitting beside Miss Universe, whose date was a famous Texas congressman named Charlie Wilson. (Tom Hanks played him in the movie Charlie Wilson's War from a book that detailed how Charlie wangled huge sums for the CIA in Afghanistan.)
Across the table were Ken Taylor and his wife Pat. I tried to wiggle insights out of our former ambassador about his sheltering of the Americans trapped in Iran in 1979 but the dinner roar took the moxie out of major questions.  ( Ben Affleck's mischievous movie Argosy which downgraded Taylor and the Canadian role was far in the future.)
The star of the dinner was, of course, an actor who never rose above supporting roles. Yet Ronald Reagan was a better president even at the end with his Alzheimer's than Donald Trump is on his best day.
The mood was mellow and the applause was warm. Then Reagan, a great talker, rattled his sabre and got standing applause when he reminded us about his bombing of Muammar Gaddafi (there are many spellings.)
I did not stand. After all, he was boasting about bombing the home of the Libyan leader in a raid where two sons were wounded and Gaddafi claimed his four-year-old adopted daughter was killed. (The West still doesn't know if that's true.)
I looked over at Charlie Wilson, who was such a blithe spirit operating from his hot tub that he was nicknamed by colleagues as "good time Charlie." But Charlie wasn't standing either. And he had been a naval officer. "I don't think you clap or stand when you injure the innocent family of a leader," I said, and Charlie nodded his support.
It's hard from TV to grasp how the dinner has evolved from what used to be a grand party. Now it appears everyone is posing for the nearest camera. It doesn't help when CNN gives us those endless panels as we wait for hours to judge the latest verbal assassination.
I don't know why the correspondents' association bother with one comedy hitman when no one can top Donald Trump as a clown. The dinner audience is sophisticated enough to figure out his lies, and all the Trump supporters watching on TV will swallow any fib from his supposed fortune to his supposed accomplishments.
Poking this president with a stick of humour is like expecting a porcupine to feel the prick of a pin.
The dinner in this form has been ruined by the man who didn't come to dinner. CNN is going to have fill a Saturday night some other way, perhaps with Senate mud wrestling.

Saturday, April 7, 2018



Nelson Mandela and I stood under a tree awkwardly eating a buffet lunch while bodyguards watched suspiciously within grabbing distance and the elite of the world press circled waiting for their chance.
Mandela had lined up for the food at the Nijo Castle with hundreds of publishers and editors gathered for the prestigious annual conference of the International Press Institute in Kyoto.
But they weren't as quick as me to slide in behind him in the queue for food and chat about what he liked to eat. Turned out his favourite food came wrapped in nostalgia about his childhood - maize  porridge.
I followed him to the shade of the tree, having established a weird rapport when earlier we had crashed head-on into each other on an elevated walkway as we surveyed the famous 15 rocks in what is said to be the most famous Zen garden in Japan, Ryoan-ji, a raked gravel "garden" where the Japanese come to meditate. (It's also called Temple of the Dragon at Peace.)
 Neither of us had paid enough attention to those walking towards us. I'm big, but he was an inch taller and hard from a youth as a boxer and those awful years in the quarry of his prison on Robben Island. Still I almost launched him into air since he was 73. And that would have been a dangerous fall that would have snapped bones. But I managed to grab him and haul him back up to safety while his bodyguards behind him glared in horror. "Gawd, I almost wiped out the guest speaker," I said as we both grimaced in bruised embarrassment.
So I had really made an impression.  Thank heavens, I thought.  My wonderful and difficult boss, Doug Creighton, reluctantly paid for the trip during Sun budget cuts after telling me I had better get an "exclusive" interview with Mandela. (I hate media labelling interviews as exclusive if they are with famous leaders or personalities who live in the media spotlight. and are interviewed constantly.)
After a few mild questions not to alarm him since this was a touring day, I asked just what he was doing in Japan at exactly the same time as his wife's notorious trial for kidnapping and murder was starting in South Africa. (In this story, the dragon was not at peace but back home in court.)
He studied me in silence, then slowly said: "We have good lawyers. They were good for the family. They were in the struggle."
There were other questions that day and the next, after he asked "the Canadian who hits so hard" what I thought of his speech defending his African National Congress in a forum that included such luminaries as Robert McNamara, the former U.S. defence minister.
I told him it would have been better if he had written the speech himself. Mandela challenged me on that, but laughed when I pointed out that he hadn't known when he got to the end and had turned the last page expecting to find more.
Yet it was his almost painful response to my questions about Winnie, the beauty for whom he left his first wife, by all reports a gentle nurse, that I remember most about this encounter with a remarkable man who bloomed in world stature and acceptance for his compassionate leadership despite his beginnings in the bloody terrorism of the ANC.
A year after this, he decided to stop being polite in public about the woman who was lionized for her struggle against the brutal apartheid regime even as she was attacked as the cruel den mother of a deadly vigilante group which beat and murdered any opposition. He separated from Winnie as she  flaunted her nickname of Mother of the Nation, then several years later sued for divorce for being so blatant in her infidelity that "I was the loneliest man when I was with her."
Mandela married again, this time happily. When he died, he left Winnie nothing, and his family squabbled over his will. She died April 2, but that will not end the controversies over her corruption and cruelty and her many roles with the ANC government that so often is an affront to the decency and honesty of the leader who  brought it to power.
Unfortunately, there are those who choose to ignore the calamitous history as apartheid was strangled  and now portray Winnie as the valiant woman who wouldn't be hobbled by men or apartheid thugs. Her obituary in Time by a former UN official skips over the trial of her gang for the murder of the youth where witnesses just happened to disappear. (Of course the UN staff are always painfully politically correct when it comes to gender and whatever myth the power blocs dictate. Just look at their  dishonesty over Israel.)
Winnie was the firebrand who believed in tires of fire hung around necks as well as in oratory. Only a great man could have survived her to continue to be respected by all who met him, even if it was just for two days long ago on a foreign island.