Golden Boys

Two emeriti tell tales from the old school of political journalism

Some journalists write history, or at least the first draft thereof; some journalists change history through the strength of their reporting; some journalists do neither but have a good time nibbling around the edges and are often amusing in the process.

Most journalists who rise to prominence in their fields do live interesting lives, deal with interesting and often powerful people, and travel to interesting, often esoteric places. They can be our surrogates, our eyes and ears, sometimes even our advocates, and often we share their experiences vicariously. And in the era we are looking at, most journalists did all of this on other people’s money.

But when they talk or write about themselves, rather than the world they watch and investigate for us, as in autobiographies, the paradigm changes. Sure, there are additional insights gained from their war stories, but do we really care if the champagne was good, whether they cheated on their partners (or their expense accounts) or if their kids did well in school or hockey? Factors to consider when approaching journalist autobiographies.

That said, there is serendipity in the fact that two of Canada’s best known practitioners from a golden era of political journalism that is rapidly disappearing, broadcaster Craig Oliver and essayist/columnist/scribe Allan Fotheringham (who likes to refer to himself as a “sensitive poet” rather than a journalist) have produced their autobiographies at the same time.

Both are now in their seventies (although Fotheringham will soon turn 80); both came from modest circumstances in Western Canada. Allan Scott was only two years old when his father died of complications from an appendectomy, leaving his mother a widow with four young children and little means. Eight years later, the only bachelor in Hearne, Saskatchewan, Doug Fotheringham, married his mother and adopted the four siblings.

Craig Oliver grew up in rough-and-tumble wartime Prince Rupert, British Columbia, son of a bootlegger father and an alcoholic mother who ran a taxi company. They separated when Craig entered elementary school.

The fact that both Fotheringham and Oliver, through a combination of wits, talent and determination, propelled themselves to the top of the intensely competitive (some would say cutthroat) and hard-scrabble worlds of broadcasting and print says much about their basic sinew. Their careers paralleled each another for quite some time, both eventually working for national organizations, both spending time in Toronto and Ottawa, both covering the same multifaceted scene of Canadian politics (with some international fire chasing thrown in) and both were posted to Washington at the same time. Indeed, both were at the same dinner party at Canadian ambassador Allan Gotlieb’s residence, now made famous by the slap. And both were scooped on the story, since they were inside yukking it up with the high-profile guests while the slap happened outside on the street in full view of the less privileged scribblers who had not been invited to dine. (Gotlieb’s wife, Sondra, had slugged her social secretary while they awaited a late–arriving guest.)

But that is where the parallels stop. Oliver and Fotheringham are very different species of journalist and they have written two very different styles of books.

Oliver’s Twist: The Life and Times of an Unapologetic Newshound is a fairly linear telling of Oliver’s searingly difficult early life in Prince Rupert (being bounced around in foster families and eventually reconnecting with his mother), his breaks getting into local broadcasting, on to the CBC and then to increasingly senior positions at Canada’s largest private broadcaster, CTV. There is lots of inside stuff about the off-screen grappling within both the public and private broadcasting structures, but Oliver’s career also brought him into close contact and friendship with many of the leading political players of the past four decades (including wilderness canoeing expeditions with Pierre Trudeau).

This not only produced insights that go well beyond who-what-when-where journalism but also shines light on the relationships between journalists and the subjects they cover. Oliver deals with these candidly and with sensitivity, but the narrative also underlines how much the current environment has changed from those golden years.

Can anyone imagine a member of today’s Parliamentary Press Gallery having a candid tête-à-tête with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, let alone going canoeing with him? Or being invited to drop in to 24 Sussex Drive for an after-dinner cognac on the way home from some official function, as I and any number of my era Press Gallery colleagues were when Jean and Aline Chrétien were in situ?

Craig Oliver represents some of the best of conventional journalism. Allan Fotheringham is a bird of a different feather, and a colourful plumage it often was.

“Foth,” in his own words in Boy from Nowhere: A Life in Ninety-One Countries, is more entertainer than policy analyst, the boulevardier and classy dresser who boasts of the beautiful women he has known and loved (although some of them, like Barbara Amiel—now Lady Black—later denied connection with him), and a man for whom life has been an unending panorama of the mundane and the magnificent, with “Dr. Foth” always at centre stage. (The “Dr.” appellation came from fellow boulevardier and Montreal Gazette columnist, the late Nick Auf der Maur, and has always bothered Fotheringham’s younger brother Jack, who has an earned PhD.)

There is no doubt that Foth in his better days was one of a kind and, according to Peter C. Newman, was in the 1980s the highest paid journalist in Canada, owning the back page of Maclean’s, writing a column for Southam News, appearing as a panelist on CBC’s long-running Front Page Challenge and authoring a stream of books published by his great friend Anna Porter. And yet there is an undisguised bitterness in the book about how these various gigs came to an end and a lingering conviction that he was denied the recognition he felt was his due.

Fotheringham offers a telling self-definition when relating his belief that Richard Gwyn, who was The Toronto Star’s iconic national affairs columnist for decades, blocked a deal that would have had Fotheringham’s Southam News column published in the Star, since Southam had no outlet in Toronto. Gwyn’s resistance was rather strange, Fotheringham claims, “since he wrote a rather serious, well-thought-out political column and my gig was dancing around and humorous—Art Buchwald crossed with William Safire and Pete Hamill.”

One of Foth’s successors at the Vancouver Sun, columnist Pete McMartin, probably summed him up best: “Fotheringham’s public reputation—the irreverent balloon-popper of the nation’s gaseous elite—overshadowed his real gift. When he wanted to be, when he turned his eye to life outside the halls of power, he was the best pure writer columnizing in North America … A poet lurked underneath that smirk, and I sometimes think that, to our loss, his ambition overtook his talent.”

It is something of a medical miracle that Foth is around to retell his tale, having almost died because of a botched follow-up to a colonoscopy in the spring of 2007 that led to months in hospital and rehab, feeding tubes, wheelchairs, hospital-acquired infections—the works.

Since Boy from Nowhere is a summary of his almost six-decade career, it is understandable there is a lot of material in here that we have seen before.
I cannot remember how many speeches I have heard Fotheringham begin with his admission he feels like Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth husband. Sometimes, Liz is replaced by Gina Lollabrigida, but the punch line is always the same, “I know what to do, but I’m not sure I can make it interesting.” It’s in here again.

Our mutual friend, the late Vancouver Sun columnist Marjorie Nichols, used to refer to Fotheringham as the man with no neck, which was her way of saying he had a short man complex. But what he may lack in altitude, he makes up for in ego and that ego has been often reinforced by the milieu in which he swam. For example, it says much that 21 of Toronto’s most attractive and interesting women, including Anna Porter, Adrienne Clarkson and Geils Turner, would agree to pose with him as Fotheringham admirers for a Beverly Rocket spread in Toronto Life.

Fotheringham boasts he was the most hated journalist in the country, not only because of his income but also his access to monarchs, princes, presidents, prime ministers and business titans—there is no doubt he is a name dropper. There is also no doubt he was a stylist and some of his phrases like “swivel servants,” “the Regressive Convertible Party” and “the Excited States of America” got overused to the point of cliché.

He claims to have invented Brian Mulroney as candidate and began referring to him as “The Jaw That Walked Like a Man.” After his first meeting one on one, he remembers having second thoughts. “I remember thinking, Is that all there is?—to borrow the title of the old Peggy Lee song. Is this the future prime minister I’ve invented? All Irish charm and bullshit?

Nonetheless, he was quite happy to accept the many invitations to 24 Sussex Drive and Harrington Lake after Mulroney became prime minister. Indeed, he claims that proximity led to his transfer to Washington for “cleansing.” Ironically, Craig Oliver’s transfer to Washington was for similar reasons, although the complaint was that he was too close to Trudeau and some of the Liberal Cabinet ministers.

Fotheringham did not fall into the category of those who wrote history, but some of his stuff certainly influenced history. An example that comes to mind was his wickedly cruel, colourful but accurate saga of Joe Clark’s botched world tour shortly after he won the Conservative Party leadership in 1976. The Foth description of lost underwear, walking into bayonets and inane conversation with peasants created a devastating first impression, picked up by the rest of the media, that Clark never fully recovered from.

There is no doubt that readers lapped up the Fotheringham wordsmithing, bought his books and contributed to the celebrity journalist mantra that reinforced itself. Even in his later years when the style had become repetitive and sometimes the facts a bit slippery, Fotheringham was probably right that his column remained more popular with readers than with the editors who fired him.

Fotheringham boasts of how many countries he has visited and some of the memoir is more champagne-laced travelogue than incisive journalism (the many friends who hosted him and his second wife, Anne, from Puerto Vallarta to Provence, all seemed to be rich and some of them famous), but this should not be allowed to detract from the seminal stuff in his earlier career.

Craig Oliver also writes about his scoops and war stories (including several actual shooting encounters in Central America and a brief dust-up in Panama that he describes as “a nice little war. Great rum, good restaurants, and nothing to contribute to sleepless nights.”) But his real epitaph is his continuing insightful and pithy explanations of what is really going on in Ottawa based on his long experience, diligent working of his contacts and a well-tuned gut. He is seldom wrong, and in his book, he explains how he has been able to maintain that track record (indeed, success reinforces success with more tips, more envelopes, more information). As longtime bureau chief and then senior correspondent, he has had an immense influence over what gets on the CTV news from Ottawa, so his calls were answered when others’ were not.

But Oliver’s Twist is an autobiography and, in addition to the news, Oliver is disarmingly honest about some of his own insecurities, the family tensions posed by his alcoholic mother and his advancing vision impairment, as he is now legally blind. Oliver is a reflective analyst and the book format gives him the opportunity to elaborate insights that he can only allude to on air. Indeed, Oliver’s section on the latter days of the Chrétien prime ministership and the civil war within the Liberal Party is one of the best informed summaries I have seen anywhere. Oliver’s assessment of Stephen Harper is equally insightful, and he admits he has never been able to rationalize “the mean-spirited, secretive, and autocratic nature of his government’s conduct in its first two terms with my many personal encounters with an invariably polite and thoughtful individual.” He observed “there was a complexity to Harper that led him to throw obstacles in his own path, even when he was at his most innovative and brilliant. Like a character out of Dostoevsky, he seemingly feared success, feeling that it was undeserved.”

Oliver only hints at some of the more juicy details of his and his high-placed contacts’ experiences and remains protective about many of his sources. In so doing, however, he deals with the seldom explored relationship between politicians and bureaucrats as both friends and news subjects. A newer generation of journalists believe they should only be peeping Toms, that nothing is off the record and that any personal contact must be confined to the journalist newsmaker paradigm. Oliver, Fotheringham and I began our careers when there was much more informal contact between politicians, senior bureaucrats and members of the media. Does personal contact with a politician or senior bureaucrat influence a journalist?

Of course it does, but frequently in the right direction. Oliver cites one instance when there were rumours that Brian Mulroney, a reformed alcoholic, was drinking again and claims that he had been seen at various dryout clinics, including one specific weekend in Miami. Oliver was able to shoot that one down with the CTV news desk because on the weekend in question, he and two other prominent members of the Press Gallery, Don Newman and Graham Fraser, had been Mulroney’s dinner guests at Harrington Lake.

Inappropriate contact? Nonsense!

Serious political journalists should share with politicians and bureaucrats an interest in the values and overall health of the democratic society in which we operate. That does not mean supporting any particular political or partisan beliefs or taking sides in the game. But our ability to understand, evaluate and describe the game can only be improved if we spend some time in the dressing room as well as watching the play from well above the ice in the press box.

That means we have to trust that serious journalists will have enough intellectual honesty and judgement to not be co-opted or corrupted by the better understanding that comes from personal contact and knowledge.

In conclusion, I doubt that either of these books will win prizes, but both news junkies and political junkies will find them a source of worthwhile information and an enjoyable read to boot.