Saturday, March 9, 2024


They knew how to work the phones. That was a theme in the flood of nostalgia after the death of Brian Mulroney, which was a nice repetition of what was said after John Turner. There was also nostalgia about the many kind things they did outside the spotlight of publicity.

I love both things about those giants. Now I have reached my anecdotage, to the chagrin of the family, I like stories about such history more than the formal accomplishment facts. I also confess that facts grow dimmer which is a curse to me who lasted through my cub days as a dumb reporter because I could remember exactly the trivia of history when it was only seconds to deadline.

There are those who grumble about the famous names that I can pepper in a blog but then there were four decades when I was trying to figure just wot-in-hell was going on in the stout silos of politics, business and sports while I worked for two great newspapers and dabbled in other media which treated me like a rube. But then that was life when work could be a premier's delusion or an actress that maybe would later date an Oscar winner or a fender bender on a back concession.. You covered whatever you were told to cover, and life could explode out of tedium in the next minute.

I did get to see the jerk side of famous people. And the flashes of decency.

I was confirmed as Editor of the Toronto Sun in 1985 with a headline that almost made me forget the months of doing the work in tedious addition to being a daily columnist. One thing I will never forget is the telephone call I got from Brian Mulroney to congratulate me. Sure I knew that he had probably been jogged into action by staff but when my secretary Rosemary Little said calmly that the prime minister was on the phone, I first went to the office door to make sure there was no gag going on in the newsroom. (Any denizen of a feisty newsroom will know that I mean.)

It was nice to have the butterscotch tones of the top politician in the country wash over me. Wouldn't you like it if the PM called to wish you well in a big promotion? It certainly knocked my cynicism about politicians for a loop.

If you read about Mulroney you know that he could use a personal phone call like he was granting you a Nobel. Read a great biography by Steve Paikin called John Turner: An Intimate Biography and you can see how Turner also weaponized Bell. There is something about a call from a famous man that makes you remember more good than bad. I must confess as a Tory I was inclined to like the Conservative ones more than the Liberal ones but then Mulroney to me was a gentle thoughtful man in his private musings and Turner wasn't. 

It may have been that time at the Shaw Festival that his wife Geills complained loudly that Mary and I had better seats than they did, or at Roy Thomson Hall when Turner and I got front row seats at a John McDermott concert because John announced above us that the former PM had helped his success and that I as an old friend had written the liner notes for his album of war songs.

Turner ignored me sitting beside him and I smelled the reason was not my columns but that he was soused. Drinking had been a problem for both PMs (but I won't throw insults as a rum-and-coke media survivor. And Mulroney became such an avid counsellor for abstention that he would have fit right in with the old Sherlock TV series.)

The relationship between political leaders and old columnists has always wandered in a mine field. I wrote thousands of columns realizing that what I said was also being read by the target with whom I could share an elevator the next morning. And of course there were also those occasions when the pol would retaliate from his dais perch.

My introduction to the danger of public criticism came when John Diefenbaker asked my publisher to fire me, the same Dief who had been introduced years before around Ottawa by my father, a Toronto Tory power, as not a struggling prairie lawyer but a future Conservative leader.

I have had many encounters with the greats of Canadian politics but I will spare you, from the weird like singing a duet of "Oh yes I'm the great pretender," that hit by The Platters, with Kim Campbell when we were discussing puberty songs at an editorial board, to being ignored by PET when he and I were the only ones touring a medical lab in Mexico.

I am playing it safe by staying away from lengthy discussion about the wives. After all, the female of the species is more dangerous than the male. I was once driven from the front door of a new premier  by the shouting wife attired only (I think) in a slip. It was just another evening in a Venezuela luxury hotel lobby before I came across Margaret Trudeau verbally lambasting an aide for some alleged error. I liked the aide and came to his defence to divert her. She cursed me. I was in no mood for that, having just battled to get my column sent from South America to a city the locals had never heard of. So I cursed back. She and I got quite inventive which startled many tourists. After she was retrieved by an embarrassed official, she faced the wall in the receiving line for an official banquet and gave a Nazi salute.

Naturally it made the news. The famous are aways under a cruel microscope which we must remember when we judge. So we should treasure those like Brian Mulroney who survive with honour.

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