All roads lead to Rohmer

Bay Street lawyer, Royal Commissioner, political insider, decorated war hero, Northern visionary, best-selling novelist — way to go, Richard!

ROY MacSKIMMING October 1 1974

All roads lead to Rohmer

Bay Street lawyer, Royal Commissioner, political insider, decorated war hero, Northern visionary, best-selling novelist — way to go, Richard!

ROY MacSKIMMING October 1 1974

All roads lead to Rohmer

Bay Street lawyer, Royal Commissioner, political insider, decorated war hero, Northern visionary, best-selling novelist — way to go, Richard!

ROY MacSKIMMING

I’ll admit it: we laughed when we heard Richard Rohmer was going to publish a novel. My writing friends and I shared the news with grins of disbelief. Okay, he’d done a damn good job chairing the Ontario Royal Commission on Book Publishing, he’d written a couple of useful nonfiction books on northern development and Canadian energy policy, he had a ton of clout with the provincial Tories and a lucrative law career with Lang, Michener, Cranston, Farquharson and Wright (the Michener is the former Governor General, the Lang is Senator Dan).

But what did all that have to do with writing a novel? Didn’t the guy realize that fiction is serious work, for God's sake? Like death, it’s a great leveler — we, of all people, knew that — and Rohmer’s public status was no substitute for the unavoidable apprentice years of sweating blood and swallowing disappointment. Some nerve.

And that’s pretty much what Mordecai Richler said to Rohmer’s own chiseled face at a McClelland and Stewart cocktail party last fall, when Ultimatum first appeared.

Of course Rohmer does have a lot of nerve. His retort to Richler, quite rightly, was that writers have no business telling each other w hat they may or may not write. The actual wording of the reply is not printable here, which at least proves how heated the exchange was between the short, trim, elegant Rohmer and the baggy, rumpled Richler. Normally Rohmer is charmingly correct in his navy-blue Bay Street pinstripe, making you doubt that there’s a single vulnerable spot in his makeup, but this once he blew the cool that is one of his most prized possessions.

It’s true that few' “serious” novelists are interested in writing a didactic political melodrama like Ultimatum, but few could deny, without hypocrisy, that they covet Rohmer’s sales — more than 25.000 copies in English and French Canada, with the mass-market paperback in Canada and the U.S. to come. Here’s salt in the wound: Rohmer

w'rote Ultimatum in six weeks. He didn’t even write it, he dictated it — in six weeks, his first novel, at the age of 49, and it went quickly to the top of Canada’s best-seller list and stayed on the list for nine months. And Rohmer can’t even remember the last novel he read.

“Until Ultimatum I’d never thought of myself as a novelist,” he says. “But then I had the advantage of never having written a novel before, so I could plunge right ahead.”

When I visit Rohmer at his country retreat he’s completing Exxoneration, the sequel to Ultimatum, which is being published this month. The 50-acre farm is tucked away among the lovely, quiet Mulmur Hills, a little south of Georgian Bay. From the living room of the frame bungalow' the land pitches away at various angles to the expanse of windy grey sky. Rohmer has been up here all week, alone except for an excitable Yorkshire terrier called Charley.

It’s a good place to write a book, peaceful and mind-expanding — although the clutter on the dining-room table suggests a somewhat different activity, the researching of an investment portfolio, perhaps, or the writing of a corporate memorandum. The Philips battery-powered dictating machine is there, the most recent annual report of Exxon, the world’s largest petroleum corporation, whose name is punned in the title of the new' novel, and several files of clippings relating to the energy crisis and oil and gas finds in the Canadian Arctic. These are the peculiar tools of Rohmer’s novelist trade.

Unlike most other literary people. I enjoyed Ultimatum. The critics panned it because of its wooden style, papiermaché characters and Plasticine plot. But its w'arning of a U.S. take-over of Canada in 1980, in the wake of the ultimate energy crisis, struck me as thoroughly credible. It appealed, in a negative sense, to my nationalist instincts because it will set readers to questioning the terms of our relationship with the U.S. On top of that, its crude brand of

suspense makes it as effective as those Forties movie serials that are terrible but still fun to w'atch: will the Desoto coupe containing our unconscious hero hurtle over the cliff, or will a benevolent Fate intervene? Come back next week and find out! At the end of Ultimatum. the doom of Canada appears sealed as American troops prepare to land at Canadian airports. But wait, but wait . . .

Rohmer, in jeans and a yellow turtleneck (startling me, since I’ve always seen him in his Bay Street gear), lets me in on the sensational events of the sequel. It gives a neat twist to Ultimatum and frankly I can’t wait to read it, just, as those unrefined nonliterary types always say, to see how it all turns out — because he won’t tell me the final twfist, which may lead to a sequel to the sequel.

Instead, he and Charley steer me outside for a tour of the property. Rohmer’s little Day-Glo yellow two-seater Porsche convertible, license COL 411 (he is honorary colonel of 411 Squadron, an air-reserve unit he still flies with on weekends) looks incongruous sitting among the silent, obscure fields. Down on a level stretch lies a new'ly dug. spring-fed pond, and running along the farm’s far side is a landing strip being built for Rohmer’s Piper Cherokee.

“I’m having the strip seeded next week,” he says. “There will be putting greens along the edge. And I’ll have the pond stocked with trout.”

! remark that I didn’t know he golfed or fished.

“1 don’t,” he says. “Don’t have time.”

Then why is he bothering with putting greens and trout?

“Oh. it’s something to do, 1 suppose.”

Of course. What else should he be doing, reading novels?

Rohmer is talking on the telephone in his office. He is talking to the president of a very large and very important Toronto manufacturing firm, for whom he has arranged a very strategic meeting.

“Yes, Donald. We’re all set. I’ve reserved the private dining room at Hy’s. You and your people are to be there by

Rohmer was the “fixer’Tor Robarts

twelve-thirty, Mayor Crombie and his aides will be arriving at one.

“What’s that? Negative, Donald, negative. Now please let me emphasize one thing: for God’s sake, keep it short. The Mayor is an intelligent man, you won’t have to explain the whole theory and history of this thing to him. He’s got the picture. Give him lots of time to ask his own questions, that’s the idea.”

It’s one of the Rohmers speaking, perhaps the quintessential one — Dick Rohmer, the man of undefined but undoubted influence. It’s the side of him that became most fully developed during the Sixties, when he was one of the most important Conservatives in Ontario although he was little known outside the party’s inner circles.

At that time Rohmer worked very closely, and very discreetly, with thenPremier John Robarts. He played a major role in Robarts’ successful campaign for the Ontario Conservative leadership in 1961, and two years later accepted an invitation to be Robarts’ “special adviser on personal political matters.”

Rohmer is deliberately vague about what that job entailed. According to one veteran observer, Rohmer played the role of “fixer” for Robarts: meaning, roughly, that apart from the obvious advisory function he made political bargains, oiled negotiations, and generally helped to get key people together — much as he was doing for the manufacturer who wanted something from Toronto’s Mayor David Crombie.

In the 1967 campaign for the Conservative Party leadership, Rohmer supported former Finance Minister Donald Fleming, a curious choice considering Fleming’s lack of voter appeal, and one reflecting Rohmer’s debts to the party’s Old Guard. Rohmer’s own attempt at federal politics was cut short voluntarily in late 1967, when he surrendered the Conservative nomination he had won in the Toronto riding of York North. His stated reason was bad health; he was indeed suffering from stomach trouble, but the condition would only have worsened at the prospect of the Conservative misfortunes that developed in the following months. In any case Rohmer stepped out of the running, and the next June his successor in York North, Gordon Hurlburt, lost out to Trudeaumania, and to Liberal candidate Barney Danson, by almost 10,000 votes.

It was then that Rohmer embarked on his career as Public Phenomenon.

This career has had three phases so far: Rohmer the northern dreamer, Rohmer the royal commissioner, and

Rohmer is a man of impatient nationalism, itching to translate his ideas into action — before it’s too late

Rohmer the pop political novelist. If you look closely, all three phases are interwoven quite naturally. The novelist writes about the ideas of the northern developer; the royal commissioner works to save an industry in which the novelist participates; and the northern developer adapts the experience of the royal commissioner in advancing policies for Canadian energy resources. And the whole “exercise,” as he likes to call his multifarious projects, is fueled by the man’s impatient nationalism, by his fascination with growth and his itch to translate his developmental ideas into action — before, as he’s always pointing out, it’s too late for Canada.

Rohmer first emerged in his role as Tory nationalist Cassandra for a brief moment in 1953. He was 29, a survivor of 135 wartime flying missions and a winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross for valor; in a speech to a Toronto service club he charged the St. Laurent government with negligence in failing to safeguard the national interest.

“Canada could not put up a single modern aircraft in its own defense,” he asserted. “She is absolutely helpless to an air attack.” The remark stung the Liberal cabinet sufficiently that within 24 hours Brooke Claxton, the Minister of Defense, was attacking Rohmer in the Commons, charging that the speech was politically motivated, and the RCMP was checking out the young Conservative for security violations.

Fifteen years of law and political work later, Rohmer reentered the national awareness, again with a prophecy on the grand scale. The subject was that Canadian favorite, the Northern Vision; but unlike John Diefenbaker’s 1958 version of the vision, Rohmer’s was based, characteristically, on extensive research (a multi-level study by Acres Research and Planning Ltd.) and attracted the support of big-name businessmen and academics. This was his Mid-Canada Development Corridor concept. It was born, according to Rohmer, while he was pondering the state of the nation during his short-lived federal candidacy. After resigning the nomination, he spent the better part of two years publicizing the concept, which was based on the proposition that “Mid-Canada” — the million-square-mile boreal forest stretching across the nation between the barren North and the ribbon of southern settlement — is capable of supporting a w'hole new tier of urban life.

The idea is either grand or grandiose, depending on your point of view. But enough People Who Count rallied

around the vision and Rohmer was able to organize and finance a week-long conference at Lakehead University (itself in the mid-North) in August, 1969. The conference produced task forces to study different aspects of the Mid-Canada idea, all culminating in a final report that recommended long-range development policies for the area as a

national priority. The report was presented to Prime Minister Trudeau in February 1971.

And then silence. Trudeau referred Rohmer and his report to the Advisory Committee on Northern Development, a group of senior civil servants representing the various federal departments with an involvement in the North, and

“Trudeau is a Jesuit-trained Quebec academic,” says Rohmer. “His priorities are social and cultural, and especially Quebec ”

they’ve sat on the report to this day.

Rohmer dismisses the government’s inaction with the bristling air of the man who knows exactly what’s wrong with the way this country is governed: “Our Prime Minister is simply not programmed to feel concern for the land or its resources. He is an elitist, Jesuittrained Quebec academic. Therefore his

priorities are social and cultural, and especially Quebec. When he referred our Mid-Canada report to the bureaucrats, he knew exactly what they would do with it: nothing. The bureaucrats did their duty.”

It’s a favorite theme with Rohmer, the aloofness and unresponsiveness of an overgrown Ottawa bureaucracy. “The

mandarin class in Ottawa automatically rejects any idea that comes from outside itself. Besides,” he says with a tight smile, “they tend to see me through Blue-tinted glasses.”

Ironically, Rohmer’s other major public report, that of his Ontario Royal Commission on Book Publishing, has come dangerously close to suffering the same fate as the Mid-Canada report. Although the royal commission was created by Rohmer’s close associate, John Robarts, and although the recommendations of its three interim reports were all implemented by the provincial government (including a million-dollar, no-interest loan to a beleaguered McClelland and Stewart), the final report itself has been shuffled back and forth by yet another clutch of bureaucrats sitting on yet another interdepartmental committee — created, this time, by a true-Blue administration through whose corridors Rohmer normally moves with singular grace and success. Parts of the report have been adopted, but the major proposal, for a book-publishing development board, lies amoldering.

Those two infuriating tangles with governments are part of the reason why Rohmer has written off the idea of entering federal politics, a move often expected of him. Another part of the reason is that in 1973 he looked into the possibility of running in YorkScarborough, against Liberal incumbent Robert Stanbury, but met with no follow-up encouragement from Conservative leader Robert Stanfield.

You still tend to feel skeptical hearing him deny any ambition of holding a seat in parliament. But then you think how thoroughly a House of Commons job would destroy the life he enjoys, how the constraints of party and caucus would prevent him from winging his funny new ideas at the public in speeches, articles and conferences.

This is where novel-writing comes in. In his novels — or fables, which is what they really are — Rohmer can pull together his concepts, notions and visions in one place, establish their credibility in a plausible near-future, and work out the country’s destiny in terms of them. Like any other fabulist, he can revel in the experience of creating his own moral universe, where the truth is finally told and the sinners saved, or at least told off.

Thus, in the Canada of 1981 as portrayed in Ultimatum's sequel, Rohmer’s pet notion of a mobile parliament (moving around the country to foster national

His novels’ heroes are like himself

unity) has been put into practice; the government has created a Canada Energy Corporation, as Rohmer contends it should, to control all new oil and gas finds in the country; and so on.

Like Ultimatum's hero. Prime Minister Robert Porter, the hero of the sequel is smart, energetic and enterprising. Like — well, like Richard Rohmer, only younger. As a rule Rohmer shields his private self beneath that highly polished public manner, but in the novels he has permitted himself a small indulgence by portraying his heroes as rather like himself. Prime Minister Porter, for instance, values the wise counsel of a fatherly Governor General with whom he once worked as a young lawyer; similarly, Rohmer began his own law career as a junior to Roland Michener.

The resemblance is superficial and quite harmless. Neither novel delves into its hero’s background to reveal a youth anything like Rohmer’s: a gas-station-owner's son who divided his teenage years between the homes of his divorced parents; who was thrown out of his father’s house at 17 for failing his exams; who went to work in an aircraft factory for nine months, leaving to join the RCAF on his eighteenth birthday because flying was all he’d ever wanted to do; who won his wings and was shipped to England in 1943, before he was 20; who flew a Mustang during 14 months of low-level reconnaissance for enemy troops, tank movements and artillery, including three ops on D-Day; who returned home with a DFC and no intention of going to university, much less law school, until he was practically bullied into it by a former teacher.

This youthful past, so unlikely for a man of Rohmer’s present style and station, is some indication of the complex crosscurrents in his makeup. The other contradictions are no less striking. A seemingly impersonal man who can’t hide the warmth of his feeling for his wife, Mary-Olivia, and their two daughters, one of whom plans to follow him into law. A discreet corporation lawyer who makes headlines. A denizen of Bay Street with a passion for the North. An undoubted success who suffers defeats in pursuit of nationalist aims. An establishment Tory who rejects socialism, but whose ideas rock the boat and betray an underlying belief in government planning that is distinctly socialistic.

And then there’s that charming, elegant. authoritative man up there who’s making himself the centre of your attention. If he’s really vulnerable under all that cool, you’ll never know it. 0