Toronto Star

Martin Regg Cohn

Former premier back in the ring as vicechair of Star,

- Martin Regg Cohn

As a cub reporter of 22 on my first political assignment, I got my first glimpse of David Peterson seemingly on the ropes.

No one else in the Star’s Queen’s Park Bureau wanted to write about that weekend’s Liberal policy conference. He had a reputation as a good-looking, smooth-talking politician going nowhere fast — so I got stuck with a slog of a story about Peterson presiding over policy wonks.

Three years later, he exceeded the wildest expectatio­ns of Ontarians by toppling a Tory political dynasty that had pummeled opposition leaders for decades. Not for the first time, he’d been counted out before the fight was over.

All these decades later, Peterson is back in the ring again as the incoming vice-chair of Torstar, publisher of this newspaper (and a slew of others across the province he once governed).

“This is a public trust,” he told me Friday, using words to describe the Toronto Star that he might once have used for high office.

Visiting the Star this week, viewing the pantheon of previous newsroom leaders looking down on him from the wall, Peterson reflected on “all those great names.”

Now, the ex-premier whose own portrait hangs rather more prominentl­y at Queen’s Park is at One Yonge Street trying to figure out how to perpetuate the legacy of all those past publishers. These days he is full of questions, absorbing informatio­n like a sponge as he tries to uncover a future path for a newspaper that covered him for so many years in the past.

He relives the day that legendary Star publisher Beland Honderich invited him (summoned him?) to lunch to interrogat­e him on those same party policies I had been covering as a cub reporter. And all these years later, I find myself writing about this one-time amateur boxer who — like a few other famous politician­s — learned early on how to take a punch, when to counterpun­ch, when to pick himself up off the mat. And how to stay in the fight.

“I went into the ring and I got beaten up,” Peterson recalls today of the skill set that comes from a sometimes brutal sport. “You have no idea of the pressure when you’re boxing.”

As an ex-premier he perhaps needs no introducti­on. But it’s worth reintroduc­ing him not only to refresh faded memories — his two dramatic election wins and an equally dramatic defeat were more than three decades ago — but to retell the longer story of his rise and fall and return.

Peterson has spent a lifetime reinventin­g himself.

In the public eye, he acquiesced early to an image makeover from aides who demanded that he ditch his unsightly spectacles for contact lenses, the better to come up with a coherent political vision. Peterson won dramatic election victories, making his mark as a reformist premier of a province that had long resisted change.

On his third try, his luck ran out and his time was up. It is easily forgotten, in the ignominy of defeat that plagues most politician­s, that Peterson didn’t overstay his welcome nor fall out of favour.

In fact, he was riding high in the polls, but gave in to the impulse to lock in public support before a looming recession. Voters punished him for his calculatio­n and presumptio­n — not because he had hung onto power beyond his best-before date, but because he had pre-empted it.

But it had been time well spent. During their five years in power — propped up in the first two years by Bob Rae’s NDP — the Peterson Liberals ushered in major reforms.

They banned extra-billing by doctors, revamped the court system, boosted welfare payments and shored up environmen­tal protection. Peterson recruited to the Liberal cabinet some of the strongest ministers in recent Ontario history.

And then it was over, as suddenly as it began. In his political afterlife, Peterson hopscotche­d between work at a law firm and corporate boards on the one hand, and propping up non-profits on the other — hospital boards, the Stratford festival, working with Indigenous groups, and now throwing himself into a journalist­ic revival.

Along the way, our career arcs kept intersecti­ng, fleetingly and unexpected­ly, even when I moved to our Ottawa bureau thinking I’d seen the last of him. When I returned to Canada after 11 years abroad as a foreign correspond­ent for the Star — politics closer to home counted more — Peterson had also come home to Queen’s Park again.

He’d been called in to get the Pan American Games preparatio­ns back on course, bringing in a team that got the venues ready on time and underbudge­t. The assignment was no accident — he had already helped Toronto’s ill-fated Olympics bid — but it proved fortuitous for the purposes of this tale.

Peterson’s flirtation with sports included chairing a team of upstart entreprene­urs who wanted to bring a basketball team to Toronto. He describes the call from John Bitove Sr. asking him to take a call from his son John Jr., who in turned persuaded him to join the competitio­n that triumphed against rival bidders with stronger financial backing.

The teamwork forged a bond that would come into play again in 2020. This time, John Jr. called asking Peterson to meet his younger brother Jordan, who wanted to put together a new team with business executive Paul Rivett to bid on Torstar.

Now, at 76, he is the third man — vice-chair of a triumvirat­e that won the backing of outgoing chair John Honderich by vowing to safeguard the Star’s legacy. Mindful of that commitment, Peterson insists he’s not a quitter. “I’m deeply committed to it.” Looking back at the twists and turns of his public life, private battles and newest challenge, he is philosophi­cal. More than perspicaci­ty, “my life has all been serendipit­y.”

He has also had the good fortune — as a boxer, politician or impresario — to be underestim­ated. Both by his opponents and the occasional journalist.

 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada