A PED­DLER OF GOS­SIP, WELL PAST HIS PRIME

National Post (Latest Edition) - - Issues & Ideas - CON­RAD BLACK Na­tional Post cblet­ters@gmail.com

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.”

JOHN KEN­NEY / CANWEST NEWS SER­VICE

Peter C. New­man in Mon­treal, Septem­ber, 2005.

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