Friday, December 17, 2021

SUPERMOUTH LASTMAN WAS POPULIST GOLIATH


 Mayor Mel used to speak with one eye on the audience and the other on the pen of reporters. After I realized he would say just about anything to get attention, whether he knew what he was talking about or not, I started calling him Supermouth in columns and in radio and TV commentary.

He hated it. But then his skin was as thin as his tongue was quick. Yet as a salesman of himself and whatever he was pushing at the time, he would take any media licking and just keep on ticking like a demented Timex.

Yet there were times over the 30 years I watched his antics and fact free outbursts when we would be alone in some quiet corner outside a banquet or formal occasion and we would chat pleasantly and I would listen to insightful and humble comments and feel again that inside that bombast there was a shy, smart gentleman who had woven a facade around him to drive to fame and fortune.

His few close friends like Paul Godfrey used to talk about how quiet and thoughtful he was in private but few outside of them and his family ever saw it. 

I've had a close relationship with more than a dozen mayors and Metro chairmen in five decades of journalism. They didn't just leave their names behind in tens of thousands of faded newspaper clippings but on expressways, buildings, pools, arenas and other municipal bricabrac. Famous without being notorious! But Mayor Mel stands separate from them all when it comes to scandal and stunts that would have caused ordinary leaders to implode their popularity and suffer ignominious defeat and exile to the forgotten.

He died at 88 with much of the bad stuff left out of the obits. His accomplishments were listed as his North York and then the amagalmated city exploded. But they all really were overshadowed by him just surviving all those years at the top of the game. Some times when you search for feats by leaders, you  should settle for just a few goofs in the countless day-to-day decisions that any mayor or president has to make that involve more than just a buck.   

Mayor Mel should have been captured in a book like the famous "Power Broker" one that brought down Robert Moses after he dominated the Big Apple for decades. Yet no realistic book or movie on him would ever be believed because he was larger than life when he wasn't tripping over his tongue.

I have years of close encounters with our complicated municipal history. I saw my first city council meeting in 1957, back in the days when City Hall was a major beat in newsrooms and reporters and pols spent more time together than with our partners. When I got married, city council gave me a movie camera, Phil Givens, who brought the Archer to the Square, came to the wedding, and Ken Ostrander who left his name behind on the jewelry chain advised on the rings.

We have had flamboyant mayors like Lampy (I have his collection of lapel pins.) We have had enduring leaders like Nathan Phillips who served longer than any other mayor (as detailed in the book I wrote for him. ) There was a major goalie, Donald Summerville, who died in a charity hockey game (we went to the Downtown Y together and also to so many Leaf games that I felt guilty and wrote speeches as payment.) There was the civil servant, Dennis Flynn, who worked up to the dais and had been a war hero, shot while parachuting into battle. There was David Crombie, as charming as he was clever. and Art Eggleton, decent and dependable. A grand collection of interesting people!

There were also municipal leaders who sued me and got me drunk and one that became my publisher boss. I gave them advice they followed and advice they hated and even ideas that became policy like eliminating fees for children to swim and skate. There were ones who couldn't stand me, which was understandable for a daily columnist,  and one, Leslie Saunders, once the world's top Orangeman when it was a powerful force, delivered a lengthy diatribe against me in a Metro council meeting because I attacked him when my father had been a friend and the family doctor. 

When I write about the passing of leading politicians, I recall the advice from one of the best of those municipal leaders, Godfrey, when he became my Sun boss. After I used to write the editorial, I would send a copy to the publisher who 99.99% of the time would never respond. Now this could be interpreted as trust, but I also suspected it meant that if I wrote something that was considered really stupid or got us into trouble like the time city council stopped city ads in the Sun, Godfrey could say he hadn't read it first. I had written about William Allen after he died and said that the former Metro chairman had a reputation for being "too clever by half" earning him the justified nickname of Wily Willy. Godfrey sent the draft back and said for heaven's sakes couldn't we just stick to being nice after a major politician dies because it's rather late then to recommend changes.

So I will not go on at length about Mel's faults and colourful history, about how Marilyn, his wife and the love-of-his-life, was convicted of shoplifting, and then there was her phoney kidnapping, and then there was his mistress and two illegitimate children, and the time he called out the army in a panic to handle a snow storm, and the time he kind of favoured a motorcycle gang.....but I will now stop because under him there was the rebuilding and growth of the city into the largest and most important in the country, which is more important than some of the strange stuff he said about Africa etc.

Mayor Mel became a success as a furniture salesman and made famous the Bad Boy nickname he gave himself for his retail empire. He came from very little to become a millionaire. There are some who might  compare him to a political huckster named Donald Trump who also played strange games with his hair, but Mayor Mel was sharp enough not to go broke. I recall Tony O'Donohue, who was once almost mayor, approaching him at a council meeting and asking if he could get a deal on some appliances. Tony was quite impressed with what he got until the salesman confessed that Mayor Mel actually made more money than usual on the deal because Mel hadn't had to pay him a commission.

I'm not sure because of the erosion of the killer news cycle that Supermouth today would last as long as he did. But he endured and became the first Supermayor when the suburbs merged with a central city which looked down on the 'burbs. So he must be honoured for all those years of mind-numbing meetings when he was a key participant. Just not sitting on the sidelines and yapping is what people do when they really care about life.

 It was Teddy Roosevelt who pointed this out at the Sorbonne decades before this malaise in our politics where most of us dislike and distrust our politicians but just sit in the corner and sulk instead. "It is not the critic who counts: nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit goes to the man who is actually in the arena who strives mightily..." 

Mayor Mel got into politics because his letter of complaint to the CNE was never answered. He hated being ignored and never grew to like the Ex even though it is the country's largest fair. He stayed in politics for 30 years and always said he was speaking for the little guy who too often was ignored. And the majority loved Bad Boy for it even when he was shooting off at the mouth. 




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