Columns

What's a scribbler to do when a subject hits back?

Allan Fotheringham April 26 1999
Columns

What's a scribbler to do when a subject hits back?

Allan Fotheringham April 26 1999

What's a scribbler to do when a subject hits back?

Columns

Allan Fotheringham

Well, you see, we have this dilemma. On balance, your obedient servant would best have faithful readers figure it out, their common sense and wisdom well-known.

The dilemma is this. Should an employee be allowed to thrust nasty words at an employer, in a crowded setting, at a social occasion, before the High and Mighty? It is a confusing question, and what might be the remedy?

The setting is Politics and the Pen, a magnificent evening that is one of the events on the Ottawa calendar. It is put on by the Writers’ Trust of Canada. A board of directors of 20 worthies, and a volunteer committee of 18, spend a year trying to outdo last year’s event. And usually succeed. Ladies sell their

Porsches to finance the right frock for the black-tie bun toss.

Rich Ottawa types, and there are many, fill out the gaggle of some 375 to people-watch.

The idea is to throw together 44 published authors—on this particular evening everyone from former American ambassador James Blanchard to Maureen McTeer to Ben Wicks—and 44 politicians, everyone from Paul Martin to Speaker Gib Parent. There were 17 “The Honourables” spotted. The gossip was X-rated.

The backdrop was stunning. It was wall-to-wall champagne at the cocktail reception in the foyer of the Senate. Under the direction of our own Maurice Chevalier, m.c. Laurier LaPierre, authors—each festooned with a ribboned award resembling the Victoria Cross— were marched for dinner into the Hall of Honour with its magnificent vaulted stone arches overhead. It made you, for once, proud to be Canadian for dining with such history and symbolism.

And so? And so, your blushing lad, over dessert in the crowded Reading Room, is chewing over a chocolate truffle when a handsome woman, beautifully coiffed and beautifully dressed, approaches. “Mr. Fotheringham?” she sez.

My mother always taught me to be polite to handsome ladies who approach uninvited. I allow that that would be me. “I am Susan d’Aquino,” she calmly announced. “I know,” I said. She said: “I think you’re a f-g son-of-a-bitch.” My mother always taught me to be

nice to ladies I have never met. “Thank you very much,” I said. She turned on her heel and swept off.

My immediate impression was that Susan d’Aquino reminded me of Mark Twain’s wife. Twain was a great scholar of the greatly underestimated gift of cursing. He prided himself on his vocabulary of the genre.

His wife detested his hobby. One morning, while shaving, he cut himself and launched into one of his marathon blue phrases. Thinking to shame him, she repeated his entire words. Twain replied: ‘You have the words, my dear,” while lowering his razor, “but you

Susan d’Aquino, sad to say, didn’t have the tune.

The problem, it seems, is that some time ago—last year I believe—

I twice took on in this space husband Tom d’Aquino, the spokesman for the billionaires club Business Council on National Issues, for yapping his yap off to Peter C. Newman on how he had actually orchestrated Liberal legislation and had invented everything from penicillin to rock ’n’ roll. He protested in a vigorous letter to the editor.

The further problem, though— while Mrs. d’Aquino loves her husband as all wives should—she is my employee. I am a Canadian taxpayer (paying a trifle more than I think healthy, especially when some of it goes to help Jean Chrétien’s hotel I friends in his riding).

But I am Mrs. d’Aquino’s employer, g She is a very senior assistant deputy “ minister in Ottawa’s department of finance. Faithful televiewers will know her well. Whenever there is a federal-provincial conference or national unity windbag, she can be detected in the second row behind the ministers because she is so obviously handsome and intelligent She could do a cover on Vogue.

A day’s telephone calls to Mrs. d’Aquino’s finance department only results in the result that no one can, ahem, find her exact salary. (We’re only taxpayers.) Senior ADMs in Ottawa are in the $130,000 to $140,000 range.

But should an employee swear at an employer at a high social event? I ask some of the usual suspects around the dessert table. A woman says: “That would be a BCM.” A BCM, in Ottawa speakese, is a “bad career move.”

Men swear at me all the time. I get on elevators in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and a muffled voice comes from the back, “Fotheringham, you are a xpl?z*.” I get off, content that they at least read the guff. The champagne that evening was copious, the single malt quite reasonable, the wine ever-flowing, but Mrs. d’Aquino seemed quite in control of her faculties, as one would expect of an ADM, as one would expect of one of my employees.

What does one do? Ask my MP Bill Graham, a loyal Liberal, to ask in Question Period of Paul Martin why one of his higher-paid staff can swear at one of her employers, at a nice social occasion? It is, as Yul Brynner said long ago in The King and I, a puzzlement.