The Ottawa press corps owes Pierre Trudeau more than it will ever admit. There won’t be much moaning at the National Press Club bar when, one of these days, he puts out to sea. The relationship is, as usually pictured, one of arrogance and contempt on the Prime Minister’s side and a somewhat spiteful sense of injury among the lads and lasses of the mass media. But Trudeau’s refusal to court the press corps in the past 15 years has forced it to be more independent than it ever intended or wished to become.
Ottawa is a cozy place. The power holders, the power brokers, the power seekers and the power voyeurs all know each other. As they chaff on the Sparks Street Mall and table-hop in the parliamentary restaurant, it’s easy for journalists to imagine that they’ve made it into the inner circles of power.
Lester Pearson used to foster the illusion by having selected scribes in for sundowners on the back porch of 24 Sussex Drive. He’d ask them what they thought he ought to do about pensions or public service collective bargaining and other weighty affairs of state, and they’d solemnly give him their opinions. These sessions may have done Pearson a bit of good. He was at his best in faceto-face conversation. But there was always a concealed reserve about him, and he tended to have fans in the press gallery rather than cronies.
John Diefenbaker treasured cronies. He liked to relax by swapping stories with pals, like the gang who used to sit around the general store or the barbershop in the little towns of Saskatchewan. And there were always press gallery people who had privileged access, although the list dwindled as the hostility between press gallery and prime minister grew.
Even Mackenzie King used to invite Grant Dexter of the Winnipeg Free Press for tea and a chat. And he treated the newspaperman as well as his dog. “Have a biscuit, Dexter,” he’d say, as he tossed a cookie in the general direction of both, giving the Free Press man the option of catching it with his hand or his teeth.
None of this for Trudeau. He has been known to go canoeing with Craig Oliver of CTV. But he has had no real press cronies. He refused this year to endure the evident pain of sitting through the
Allan Fotheringham is on vacation.
annual press gallery dinner. His press conferences have almost ceased, and his few contacts with reporters are stiff and uncomfortable.
Trudeau’s attitude has been a major factor in changing the old chummy press gallery into a diffused and more independent press corps. No longer does the life of the Ottawa journalist centre on the gallery of the Commons, where there are seats for only about 70 of the 300 people who belong—mostly for reasons of convenience—to the Parliamentary Press Gallery. They visit the House now by way of television.
In the old days of King, St. Laurent and even Diefenbaker, most press gallery members were in the pockets of the Grits and the rest were in the pockets of the Tories. Now few have any such allegiance. Watergate was a factor, as is the fact that the number of journalists has tripled in the past 20 years. But Trudeau’s refusal to admit any reporter to
Mulroney is a crony seeker, but Trudeau made the press corps more independent and more professional
the innermost of the inner circles has devalued all inner circles.
This is a problem for Brian Mulroney, who is a crony seeker on the model of Diefenbaker. Like Premier Hatfield of New Brunswick, Mulroney is a bit of a media groupie and carefully cultivated a list of press pals as he climbed the slippery slope to the Tory leadership.
But having been forced into more independence by circumstances and Trudeau, today’s press corps likes the feeling of being nobody’s men and women. So there’s some resentment of the Mulroney cronies who are prepared to take up the old role as their man waits in Ottawa for his coronation as prime minister.
That’s why there was little attempt to conceal the glee of many members of the Ottawa press corps when Mulroney’s grand entrance into Parliament turned out to be something out of a Buster Keaton movie. The great man sauntered into the House and turned his famous profile to give the folks the benefit of his best side. Then kapow! The Grits sucker-punched him again and again.
Mulroney will learn, the hard way, to handle himself better in the Commons. But he’s going to have trouble with the press corps. It’s not that they are firmly attached to the Liberals, as some have suggested. Anything but. Many of them want to see Trudeau go so badly that they can’t wait for his retirement and keep predicting it prematurely. A few want so much to see Trudeau depart that they’re trying to go easy on Mulroney to give him a chance. That in itself tells a lot. If Mulroneymania were raging, as Trudeaumania raged in 1968, they would have to restrain their enthusiasm rather than pump it up.
Mulroney is an unlikely subject of press corps adulation, anyway. He’s a bit too smooth and surface-charming, too much of a “Captain Plastic” as he’s sometimes called among the press corps. Trudeau in 1968 was refreshingly different. Mulroney is out of the old mould of the full-of-blarney politician, but with a thin skin that may be his undoing. Trudeau has survived the worst press any Canadian prime minister ever had by being oblivious to it, or at least pretending that he is. Mulroney will have to quit being touchy if he wants to survive long enough to become prime minister.
There’s a chance that Mulroney will charm his way into the hearts of the press people, outwardly tough but inwardly soft as they are. Nothing is impossible. But it’s a mighty slim chance. Who you know matters less in the national press corps now than what you know. The ability to analyse the important items in the flood of paper that flows from the federal government is more important now than hot tips on this policy or that. For one thing, the policies turn out to be mostly flim-flam with catchy names and no substance. And since this is already the type of thing Mulroney has issued before and after becoming Conservative leader, there’s little reason to think that a government he heads will be much different.
Under Pierre Trudeau’s malign neglect, the Ottawa press corps has grown up. It’s more professional, better educated and trained, less likely to have its head turned by a flashing smile or a policy gimmick. When press people toast the founding fathers of their profession, they’re unlikely to mention him. But he deserves a place in their pantheon.
Don McGillivray is national economics editor for Southam News.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.