A PEDDLER OF GOSSIP, WELL PAST HIS PRIME
Forty-five years ago, Peter C. Newman was an industrious and interesting Ottawa parliamentary journalist. A few years later, he wrote his first commercially successful book, Renegade in Power, about John Diefenbaker. It was a good read, but it was gossip and deformed perceptions of Mr. Diefenbaker for decades. His following book, Distemper of Our Times, about Lester B. Pearson, established the author’s bi-partisan, equal opportunity, love for malicious gossip. In a country where historical writing had largely been in the hands of rigorous scholars but turgid writers, such as Donald Creighton, (biographer of Sir John A. Macdonald), Newman seemed to make Canadian contemporary history interesting to Canadians.
The problem with this perception was that what he wrote was not history. Having written two books myself, requiring years of research and over 3,000 footnotes from serious sources, about two of the most famous U.S. presidents, I can recognize research and its absence. As the subject of one of his books, I know Newman’s technique. He interviews many people, has researchers scan the media and uses every catchy or amusing phrase, regardless of believability, and presents them in a light and sequence that makes his usually destructive case. He then quarrels with his researchers and helpers, who accuse him of lacking rigour.
In reading hundreds of books and thousands of articles about Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, I encountered scores of examples of this sort of work, more and less accurate, more and less entertainingly written, than Newman’s work. But none of them were written by people who garnered their country’s highest civilian honour as Newman has, or were generally taken seriously as writers. Kitty Kelley has yet to win the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her biographies of Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and others, though they are as well-researched and written as most of Newman’s work.
His Canadian Establishment books (including the one about me) put on the airs of serious sociology dressed up in lively descriptive writing; but they were really just unsubstantiated gossip and obsequious interviews conducted by a credulous author. Again, Canadians were pleased to read about other Canadians in lively books. But they were reading novels and would have done better to read seriously talented fiction-writers such as Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies or Margaret Atwood. As a non-fiction biographer, Peter Newman does little work and is a shoddy writer.
Thirty years ago, the late Jerry Goodis, a kindly and talented man, wrote of Newman’s love for exaggeration, mentioning his reference to then former finance and justice minister John Turner’s table at Winston’s Restaurant as “the Colombey-les-DeuxEglises of Canada.” (This was the village in Champagne made famous by General de Gaulle’s house, where he patiently waited 12 years for the Fourth Republic to flounder to an end). If John Turner’s banquette at Winston’s was Canada’s Colombey, were Canada’s Chartwell, Mount Vernon, Monticello, Hyde Park, Corsica, and across the Rubicon, all reserved tables for other Canadian politicians? Goodis told me that Newman had never spoken to him after he wrote about that and other similar absurdities.
In his history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Newman wrote that he had seen a frying pan in the upper branches of a tree in Northern Canada, which must have been left by an early employee of that company. The elements in Northern Canada do not leave frying pans in upper branches of trees undisturbed for 200 years. And trees don’t grow that way. Branches remain where they are, the trunk rises and new branches grow above the earlier ones. This was pure invention, for no purpose; a fable. His entire vast written product is littered with such nonsense. He has hacked for so long, he endlessly repeats previous lines as if they were eternally witty. Stockwell Day must be the fifth politician he has called “the best 17th-century mind in Ottawa,” or some such.
In his autobiography, Newman recounts being strafed by the German air force at Biarritz. I have often been in Biarritz, and know some permanent residents. I commissioned some research with the local newspaper and the official history of the city. There is no record of the German air force being active over Biarritz in 1940, and it wasn’t a rational military target. Given the author, I am prepared to fear the worst.
In that book, and in his promotion of it, Newman claimed an intimate knowledge of my wife’s and my sex lives, with each other and elsewhere. He knows nothing of these subjects; the passages are frequently de- famatory. Only a qualified psychotherapist could say what would possess an author who takes himself seriously to write such drivel. His principal comment on my current legal travails has been to regale Canadian television viewers with predictions that I will spend many years being sexually assaulted in U.S. correctional institutions. I think not, but I will leave that one also to the psychotherapists.
When he published his book of recordings of 20-year old conversations with Brian Mulroney, almost without notice to Mulroney, who was convalescing at the time, the former prime minister sued. The case was settled on terms that have not been made public, but the tapes have been sealed at the University of Toronto, for a very long time.
It is well-known that for some years there has been a lack of rapport between Jean Chrétien and me. I have not read his recently published memoirs, and if there are references to me in them, I doubt if they are complimentary or even accurate. But Newman reviewed this book for The Globe and Mail so acidulously that the book’s publisher, the gracious and equable Louise Dennys, took a paid advertisement in that newspaper debunking Newman’s review.
Newman confers credit on Chrétien for the Clarity Act, which contributed importantly to the resolution of Canada’s greatest problem in the preceding 30 years, Quebec separatism. Yet he fails to comment on Chrétien’s 40-year battle against the separatists, not from a safe constituency as a parachuted notable, like Pierre Trudeau, but in the trenches of St. Maurice. He dismisses Chrétien’s 10 years as prime minister as a “baleful interregnum” between Mulroney and Stephen Harper.
“Banal” perhaps, but the primary meanings of “baleful” are evil or calamitous or extremely sad. Chrétien’s time wasn’t baleful and wasn’t an interregnum. Newman is often reckless with words, as he is with the truth. In the same review he assimilates Liberal leadership changes to papal elections. Popes die in office; no Canadian federal Liberal leader has since Laurier. While at large in Roman Church matters, he confuses the Immaculate Conception with the Virgin Birth. In one of his favourite shuffles, he doubtless considers them to be “essentially” the same thing. As is so often the case, he knows nothing about it.
Now 78, shambling about in his ridiculous sailor’s cap, bilious and at least verbally incontinent, Newman is pitiful, but not at all sympathetic. Canada and Canadian letters and journalism would benefit from his subsidence. To adapt from the British humour magazine, Private Eye (about Harold Wilson), “All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, Myth-maker Newman has double-crossed them all.”
Peter C. Newman in Montreal, September, 2005.