Shining moments from my days covering politics
With all this talk south of us concerning Donald Trump’s hatred of the media (as he heads inexorably, and hopefully, towards a premature end to his scary time in office), and of his decision to limit the number of press briefings presided over by poor old Sean Spicer, the administration’s punching bag, I started to think of relationships and settos I’ve had with Newfoundland politicians, or of those I’ve observed.
Another edition of storytelling time, in other words, with an old journalistic fart.
Joey Smallwood was obviously an intimating character, had a Trump-like disdain for the press, and would only tolerate those reporters willing to act like glorified stenographers.
At the height of his power, for instance, Smallwood would pull up in his car in front of the VOCM offices on Kenmount Road, where an obliging reporter would run out to the vehicle, stand sometimes in pouring rain, saturated, turn on his tape recorder, stick his microphone through Joey’s open car window, and allow Newfoundland’s answer to Castro to ramble on about everything and nothing, whatever the premier considered to be important. There would be no questions.
But Smallwood could be a bullying figure even after he was forced, kicking and screaming, into retirement.
During the 1977 leadership convention, Smallwood was then out of politics, but showed up to vote and was immediately sought out for a live interview by a mainland reporter with the CBC. It was an exchange I watched (and enjoyed) from a few feet away. The interviewer never knew what hit him:
Reporter: “Mr. Smallwood, who are you supporting here at the convention?”
Smallwood: “I’m supporting no one. I’m here as a delegate. Not as a former premier, not as a former leader. I have one vote, just one vote, like everyone else here. Just a single, solitary vote. And I will be telling no one who I shall be voting for.”
Reporter: “They say here on the convention floor that you’re supporting Bill Rowe.”
Smallwood: “Who are ‘they,’ sir? Who are ‘they’? If you can tell me who ‘they’ are, then perhaps I can answer your question. But without knowing who ‘they’ are, I can’t possibly respond.”
Reporter: “Thank you for your time Mr. Smallwood.”
Brian Peckford was, for a while, upset with CBC TV for its coverage of his administration, and declared he would boycott Mother Corp. No more on-on-one interviews with any CBC reporters. But the freezeout ended in a rather ridiculous and somewhat humorous style (at least we thought so at the time): Peckford did an interview with a CBC reporter he thought was from NTV. The premier’s abstinence from all things CBC was broken.
One morning in the early ’70s, I was assigned to get Liberal Leader Ed Roberts’ reaction to a statement being issued later that day from Premier Frank Moores (we had been given an advance copy, as had Roberts). Roberts asked whether his remarks would form the basis of what we usually called a “separate” story, or if it would be included in the overall main story. When told he would be part of a front-page story with Moores, Roberts concluded his reaction would be buried; he would therefore prefer to wait until the next day to react in order to guarantee better coverage. I put him on hold and told our news editor, Bill Kelly, what Roberts had said. Bill picked up my phone, and the conversation went something like this:
“Tell you what, Ed, if you talk to Bob now, you’ll be on page one, included in the overall story with Frank. Don’t talk to Bob, and we’ll have him interview you for tomorrow’s paper, and l guarantee you’ll end up on page 42, just beneath the social notes column.”
Bill then handed the phone back to me.
The first words from Roberts: “Your Mr. Kelly is a very persuasive man.”
I was at a rally for John Crosbie in St. John’s West when one of his supporters, a tiny but bigmouthed woman, demanded to know my identity. When I told her I was with The Evening Telegram, she grabbed my beard and hauled me several feet across the floor, warning loudly: “If you write one bad word about Mr. Crosbie, I’m gonna haul your beard out, one hair at a time.” Crosbie loved the display of unambiguous support.
Brian Peckford was mocking me after a legislative scrum, during which I had asked some touchy questions about one of his cabinet ministers. As other reporters watched, Peckford’s sarcasm erupted: “Oh, my, my, big tough Bob Wakeham.”
I responded in kind: “What the f--k is your problem, Peckford?”
It wasn’t one of my finer moments. I realized that too much familiarity with politicians can often breed an unhealthy level of cheerleading comfort, but it can also breed overt contempt and rudeness. I figured I should probably get out of the political reporting beat, and go behind the scenes as a producer (and indulge in covert contempt).
It was a good move. It was time.