The Court Jester

A brilliant teller of tales looks back over millions of words.

There comes a time in every man’s life (and every woman’s too, I assume) when the realization dawns that it is time to tidy up. If that man or woman is a writer, this process of tidying up takes the form of reviewing one’s accomplishments, putting one’s papers in order and (as in this instance at least) preserving one’s records and one’s writings. Readers should be grateful that writers do this for us, often employing assistants to track the whereabouts of texts that were otherwise misplaced or lost and forgotten.

I think Peter C. Newman has reached the tidying-up phase and has decided to do this, to set things in order to make it easier for his readers, both today’s and tomorrow’s, to assess his contribution to our national consciousness. That phrase “national consciousness” is rather grand, but I will return to it later in this review of the two volumes that are now staring me down. One volume, Heroes: Canadian Champions, Dark Horses and Icons, has a white jacket and a white binding; the other volume, Mavericks: Canadian Rebels, Renegades and Anti-Heroes, has a black jacket and a black binding.

There is a yin-and-yang here, but there is one feature that is common to the two volumes of this set of handsome books well designed and produced by HarperCollins. That feature is the author’s name, the byline.

I seem to recall eons ago being told by a journalist that you always refer to this author in conversation as “Peter Newman” but never so in print. In print he is always identified as “Peter C. Newman.” I was never quite sure why this is so, but from his Order of Canada citation I learned that the C. stands for Charles. I was disappointed to learn this fact, for I fancied that the third letter of the alphabet stood not for a personal name at all but for the imperative form of the verb “to see,” its homonym.

The truth is that Peter C. Newman (hereinafter just plain Newman or “the author”) sees much more than the rest of us do. As a popular historian he sees not only the Big Picture, but also the Telling Detail. As a popular biographer, he catches People on the Way Up, as well as the same People on the Way Down. (It might be said that he assists them on the way up and that he enables them to find their way down—this has certainly been so with respect to John G. Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney and Conrad Black, to name three of the beneficiaries of his attention.) In the 1960s when he served as editor-in-chief of The Toronto Star he seemed to be Argus-eyed (no relation to the Argus Corporation is intended); he was first on two fronts: to dish out the lowdown and to serve the platter of praise to politicians and other public figures of the day.

At the time of the War Measures Act, he broke the story of the “parallel government,” having it direct from the lips of Marc Lalonde and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, no less. (The problem was that the story was a fabrication of the Prime Minister’s Office from start to finish.) One day the late Walter L. Gordon told me of an incident that occurred when he was a member of the Cabinet of Lester B. Pearson. The Cabinet was a bucket of holes, and the deliberations and decisions were being leaked to the press on a diurnal or more likely nocturnal basis. During one session, Gordon cautioned his fellow Cabinet members: “We must not discuss this matter in any detail because Peter Newman is listening. He’s lying under the table right now.” As Gordon recalled, “Three Cabinet members were so dumbfounded that they actually peeked under the table expecting to see Peter curled up there!”

Whenever I think of Newman, another name comes to mind, that of fellow journalist, author and nationalist Pierre Berton. It may well have been Newman who dubbed Berton “the Big Foot of CanLit.” I am tempted to refer to Newman as “the Sasquatch of CanLit,” except that he is not at all as elusive as the fabulous Sasquatch. Yet there is something a little sneaky about Newman’s writing. (Note that I am not saying there is anything at all sneaky about Newman the man; by all accounts he is an honourable, thoughtful and positive person.) For this reason I am inclined to dub him “the Footpad of Canadian writing.”

This is an original appellation. No one has yet characterized Newman as a “footpad,” so I should explain that this term, quite common in rural Britain in the 1880s, referred to a thief who robs people who are on foot. He is no thief-in-the-night; he is a highwayman with that brigand’s characteristic bravado and bravura. Perhaps the contemporary urban equivalent is the “confidence man,” “con man” or “con artist” who works on your emotions to loosen your purse strings.

I think of Newman as a highwayman, a con man of sorts, because, in broad daylight, usually over a business lunch, he encounters his victims and leaves them physically unharmed but with diminished or enhanced reputations. In one of his books on “the Canadian Establishment,” he describes how he gained access to Nelson Davis, I recall it was, who proceeded to speak to him quite openly about his own business dealings and the peccadilloes of his colleagues, so much so that it came as a shock to Newman to realize that Davis had never before been interviewed by “a gentleman of the press.” I assume Newman showed restraint on that occasion, and I believe he protects his sources and shows judgement and discretion. Newman could have made mincemeat of Davis, but had he done so the gates of the residences on Toronto’s Lawrence Park and the Bridle Path would have been locked shut against him, effectively ending his career as an insider and a teller-of-tales.

I do not think of him as indiscreet, but he is a little devious and gossip has long been his forte, along with his welcome wit. In another article he revealed one of his interviewing techniques. He explained that should the interviewee not be forthcoming, the interviewer should feign disinterest, even pretending to drift off, at which time the interviewee will begin to rekindle interest by sharing some juicy tidbits. I have no doubt that this trick worked for him, although he did not have to resort to trickery with Brian Mulroney, who regarded Newman as his own personal Boswell, at least until the day Newman’s book titled The Secret Mulroney Tapes appeared like a bat from hell.

In the process our highwayman or con man has amassed an immense amount of loot. Newman has written millions of words that have appeared as columns or articles in newspapers such as The Toronto Star and news magazines such as Maclean’s. His first book, Flame of Power, appeared in 1959. It celebrated the achievements of major Canadian businessmen, and since then more than 25 books have appeared under his byline, most of them major bestsellers. For many of us he described and hence defined the Diefenbaker, the Pearson and the Trudeau years.

Now he has decided to parade his accumulated treasures, perhaps taking a leaf from the book of hard-working capitalists who in later years become philanthropists who lavish huge amounts of money on worthy causes. He probably sees himself as a celebrated author more than as a working journalist whose bailiwick is politics and business. As well he is seen to be a Canadian icon, a cultural and economic nationalist, but for our present purposes he is simply—on a grand scale—a writer of biographies who does so with flair and self-confidence.

That flair is not to be sneezed at. He has a way with words—a wayward way, I might add—that is remarkable if only because English is not his mother tongue but presumably his third, after Czech and German. He was eleven years old in 1940 when he was brought to this country from his native Austria. He attended Upper Canada College and the University of Toronto. Then he entered the world of journalism. What is distinctive about his writing, his accent so to speak, is his flair for felicitous phrases. I cannot resist sharing some of these from my files and from these two books. Who else (aside from Allan Fotheringham) writes like this?

“Joe Clark will never set the world on fire except by accident.”

Also on Clark: He appeared “like a fawn caught eating broccoli.”

“The enemies of laughter, by the way, deserve to be treated with the same abhorrence as the enemies of truth.”

“When a nation’s elite is less than three generations removed from steerage, it cannot afford too many pretensions.”

“Diefenbaker behaved as if he subscribed to the Islamic idea of power: that a sovereign has the right to govern only until a stronger one topples his throne.”

On himself: “The court jester is not part of the establishment; he’s an observer of it; and so am I. The court jester is sometimes very shrewd, and he sometimes tells people outside the fort what’s happening inside and tells those inside what’s going on, on Main Street … You are an outsider, but you have access.”

On his relationship with Christina McCall: “We divorced over religious differences. I thought I was God, and she didn’t.”

On Black and Amiel: “We no longer hate or envy them. We pity them. And that must be the most cruel punishment of all.”

On his writing style: “My operational code is to make facts dance; that’s why I’ve sold more than two million books.”

On Brian Mulroney: “He bugs us still.”

On Pierre Elliott Trudeau: “He magicked us.”

Also on Trudeau: “I once described his governing style as despotism tempered by epigrams.”

On the late Pierre Berton: “We shall not read his like again.”

On this country (a truly marvellous remark): “We live in an empty place filled with wonders.”

So much for his wit. Now to his two new books.

Of these yin-and-yang volumes, the white-jacketed Heroes is about 60 pages longer than the black-jacketed Mavericks. Whether the country has more heroes than it has mavericks is a matter of opinion. Indeed, the division into two volumes is really a flashy way of packaging journalistic profiles of prominent Canadians in two separately titled volumes rather than as one bumper book of say 800 pages, or as one book titled Heroes and Mavericks in Two Volumes.

Probably a better overall title would be People I Have Profiled in the Past and Recycled for the Present and the Future. These are politicians and business people and assorted public figures such as artists and filmmakers who over the decades have caught the author’s attention. Their names are known in households across the country, so book buyers who love journalistic biographies will want to read these twin books.

Heroes has a four-part division. 1. “The Arts” (13 people—notably Atwood, Layton, Davies, Berton, Callwood, McLuhan, Ralph Allen, Christina McCall; also shoe-horned into this category are odd fits: runner Terry Fox and Jack Poole of the Vancouver Olympics). 2. “Politics” (six people—including Ignatieff, Trudeau, Pearson, Judy LaMarsh; quite selective). 3. “Business” (14 buccaneers of business, notably Peters Munk and Bronfman, Jim Pattison, Ken Thomson and Navjeet Dhillon; they too form a select group). 4. “Okay, They’re Not Canadians, but They’re Still My Heroes” (that is the actual title for this section), which is a potpourri of outliers who have resisted the Procrustean beds: Stan Kenton, Princess Diana and Václav Havel. This is a mixed bag, to be sure. What to make of it?

I cannot figure out what all of these people have in common other than the fact that, except for that fourth group, they are Canadians and have been in the news and have caught the author’s eye. Newman’s nine-page introduction is not very helpful. It is titled “We’d Rather Be Clark Kent” and it offers the reader a series of lame generalizations about why we seem to be deficient in heroes. Instances: we lack “the hero factory run by Walt Disney”; “most Canadian heroes … died in brave circumstances”; “we have little talent for excesses of any kind”; “there exists a vague link between heroes and weather, which remains Canada’s most essential reality”; “we’re the only country on earth whose citizens dream of being Clark Kent instead of Superman,” etc.

I wish the author, instead of administering such bromides, had given some thought to the late George Woodcock’s objection to heroes and hero worship. Woodcock said that Canadians distrust heroes because they diminish us. We know instinctively that we should count on our own efforts rather than on those of non-existent superbeings. Yet Newman is plainly fascinated with the notion of heroism: “By its example, heroism is a tonic that heals and recharges.” His fascination with the concept certainly makes for lively reading:

I picked my personal candidates for this book based on admiring their courage, dedication to country and loyalty to their craft or personal crusades. They remained true to themselves and loved Canada, as I do. They were patriots with balls—a rare combination.

The author sees himself as fighting the good fight, above the fray and hence, as someone embattled, outside the establishment: “I consider myself politically neutral; I attack everybody, though I maintain some strong preferences among individuals.” At one point he strains to describe himself as a “muckraker.” Despite this rhetoric, we have a selection of “heroes” who are contemporaries (no northern explorers or research scientists need apply) who have all been profiled by Newman in the past.

The first profile in Heroes is an encomium for Margaret Atwood, who is oddly described as “The Corrugated Madonna.” The profile is really a review of her novel Life Before Man, which was published way back in 1979. The piece amounts to two pages and it ends rousingly: “All Hail, Atwood.” Well, yes. Is Newman being prophetic about her literary power? At first I thought Newman might be our Plutarch (with his Parallel Lives), but it seems he is closer to our Aubrey (with his Brief Lives). This is padding, Mr. Padfoot! Appreciations that date from the 1990s are more substantial, notably interviews with Irving Layton and Robertson Davies.

Mavericks comes in three parts. 1. “Business” consists of 15 articles that deal with businessmen: the Eatons (“Spoiled Kids Who Destroyed an Empire”), the Bronfmans, along with some men from the robber baron era: Sir George Simpson, Sirs Herbert Holt and Harry Oakes, and Lord Strathcona. The author is more informative profiling these historic movers and shakers than he is with contemporary wheeler-dealers; lacking the opportunity to interview them, he compensates by describing their backgrounds and attitudes in some detail. 2. “Politics” offers eleven profiles that include the usual suspects (Mulroney, Diefenbaker, Lévesque) but also a few oddities: Tom d’Aquino (“The Man Who Sold the Farm), Louis Riel (“The Mad Rebel Who Was Our Founding Father”), Kim Campbell (“Ah, We Hardly Knew Ye”) and someone named Kinky Friedman who is described as “That Bad-Ass Country Singer.”

The introduction to Mavericks, like the introduction to Heroes, skims the surface: once-over-slightly. It begins, “Power is for princes.” It includes a few silly statements, and here is one: “Man has always been alive to the itching in his palm.” It concludes, “These are snapshots in time, capturing many of these larger-than-life characters as I found them when I first wrote these pieces. Some subsequently changed their lives—and became boringly ordinary. But I am happy to report that none has yet been nominated for sainthood.”

The two books are collections of articles and book chapters reprinted in whole or part. The sole contribution that is new (aside from the two introductions) is devoted to Michael Ignatieff. It is subtitled “The Count Comes Home” and it is written in Newman’s best playful manner. It offers the occasional insight: “Having the mentality of a writer and the aspirations of a politician meant that Ignatieff had to turn himself into an actor.” This insight leads nowhere in particular and, after a nine-page canter through Ignatieff’s achievement-studded career, Newman concludes “there is nothing Michael Ignatieff has set out to accomplish that he has not achieved. Till now. The jury is still out on how his ultimate beau geste will play itself out.” Newman is wise enough to refuse to don the mantle of the prophet.

In all, Newman’s portrait gallery of goodniks and not-so-goodniks consists of 36 “heroes” and 26 “mavericks,” a total of 62 people. It is a real passing show. There are source notes and indexes for each volume that draw attention to the names of hundreds of other bit players. Try as I might, I could detect no changes that had taken place in Newman’s style over the last 50 years of work as a journalist—no maturation, no deterioration—no evolution, no deviation from his set topics of business and government and nationalism. Is this good? Is this bad? It is the way it is. There is novelty, but nothing unexpected, except for the author’s frequent outbursts of enthusiasm expressed in quick-witted turns of phrase.

Earlier I mentioned that Newman has made a contribution to our “national consciousness.” W.H. Auden, writing his great poem “In Memory of Sigmund Freud,” affirms that a person may exert an influence that affects an entire people. Here is what Auden says about the Viennese psychiatrist: if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd, to us he is no more a person now but a whole climate of opinion under whom we conduct our different lives.

Perhaps it is what a journalist would call a stretch to suggest the same is true of Newman and the influence of his writings on generations of readers. Yet I can attest that Canadians of a certain age find it difficult but not unrewarding to recall the leading politicians and business tycoons of the times in all their frailties without seeing them placed in the contexts created by this author. That is an undeniable contribution to the national consciousness.

I checked the list of names of past recipients of the Governor General’s Literary Awards. I searched in vain for the name of Peter C. Newman. As I had suspected, not one of his books had been marked for the distinction of the Literary Award for Non-fiction. In fact, the author has never even been shortlisted for that honour, despite the quality and power of such books as Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years and The Distemper of Our Times. He has been overlooked, as the actor Cary Grant was overlooked, film after film, until the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, mending its ways, offered the veteran actor, late in his career, a Special Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. In much the same spirit, the jurors of the Governor General’s Literary Awards should offer this year’s annual Literary Award for Non-fiction to Peter C. Newman for both Heroes and Mavericks.

In his profile of Czech leader Václav Havel, Newman writes, “We are all the better for his historical presence, and we miss his impish presence in world affairs.” Those words might be applied to our author, our footpad, Peter C. Newman.