Worth a read

Bob Wakeham
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Due strictly to the nature of the reporting business, especially that part of the job that requires the scrutiny of high-profile figures in Newfoundland, I’ve been a Bill Rowe observer for more years than I care to remember.

For the younger generation, of course, Rowe doesn’t have an existence beyond that of open-line show host, doing his best to continue the saucy, cajoling, verbose, occasionally patronizing, sometimes bizarre, even once in a while effective legacy created by the likes of Ron Pumphrey and Bas Jamieson.

But for those of us with some length to our pearly whites, Rowe has somehow managed to stay highly visible for over 40 years through an amazing capacity — the result of a combination of hubris and smarts, and a performing prowess that could match that of some of our finer local actors — to constantly, and successfully, reinvent himself.

And Rowe has achieved the dubious distinction of having earned a living in three professions that are always near the bottom of the barrel of public popularity: politician, lawyer and journalist (I was lucky enough to be stuck upsetting readers, listeners and viewers in just one occupation).

New writing venture

Now, he’s the author of a piece of non-fiction, a self-described “behind the scenes” glimpse of the eight months he spent as Danny Williams’ boy in Ottawa, highlighted by the vicious spat between the premier and Paul Martin over the attempt, ultimately successful, to renegotiate the terms of the Atlantic Accord to give Newfoundland a fairer slice of the offshore pie.

Rowe was already a successful author of fiction (another notch in his belt of reinvention).

“Clapp’s Rock,” in particular, was a novel I haven’t forgotten (and this is a profound piece of information) because it proved to be a distraction for a few days when I was trying to get on the wagon back in the early ’80s, at least one way to overcome 2 a.m. heebie-jeebies. (I’ve thus established myself as the only person to cite a Bill Rowe book as a step to sobriety; to tell the truth, given the circumstances, the phone book would have been therapeutic.)

I didn’t need to tackle “Danny Williams, The War with Ottawa” as an antidote for withdrawal, but my journalistic neurons (and the fact that I’m a sucker for anything written by Newfoundlanders about Newfoundlanders) made it mandatory that I give Rowe’s book a gander. 

It’s an easy and quick read, if that’s part of your criteria for literary entertainment, although there’s nothing particularly revealing about the battle over the Atlantic Accord.

Rowe did not play a major, consequential role in the Accord talks, and remained, for the most part, on the periphery.

But it was close enough for him to obtain a few colourful anecdotes about the temper tantrums of both Williams and Martin, the political self-destruction of John Efford, and how advisers in both camps handled themselves.

For instance, media types who’ve had run-ins with the premier’s press secretary, Elizabeth Matthews, should get a kick out of her moniker “the little princess,” an uncharitable bit of name-calling only heard behind her back and apparently earned for bouts of snootiness.              

And there are other pieces of similar colour to give readers with an interest in the personalities of Newfoundland politics a bang for their buck (or 20 bucks, in this case).

In total command

As well, there’s an implied reconfirmation throughout Rowe’s memoir that Danny Williams runs the ship like Captain Bligh and God help the Fletcher Christian who dares to question the way in which he operates.

For what it’s worth, I believe there are much more interesting aspects of Rowe’s public life than the eight months in Ottawa that he might want to consider as material for a memoir: his time in Joey Smallwood’s cabinet; his nasty leadership battle with Ed Roberts; his leaking of the police report into the fire at Tory cabinet minister Tom Farrell’s apartment; his painful  resignation as head of the Liberal Party to make way for the crowning of Don Jamieson; his relationship

with Brian Tobin; his exploits as a lawyer; and his participation in any other noteworthy events, or association with the rich and powerful, that he might wish to share with the rest of us ordinary folk.           

I’d have a read.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by e-mail at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: Liberal Party

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • newf turf
    October 21, 2010 - 21:22

    Enjoyed your column Bob. You stuck to the facts about Bill Rowe's book and I agree, a more personal memoir, would proberly be more interesting and a better read. While Fintips rant was a great little read, I thought he tried to hard to put himself in Bill's shoes. Fintip's opinions are just that !!! "Therein lays the rub" 'Between the lines" " Perceives as a continuing snub from Williams" " And perhaps more deservedly" "ragged arse artilliery" ohhhhh myyyyy I could go on, but I'm sure you get my point. He seems to be reading Rowe's mind!! I have enjoyed Fintips rational rants for some time, but every now and then, his condecending jealousy is so obvious, he unknowingly,disrespects himself.

  • Fintip
    October 16, 2010 - 23:18

    A well crafted column. Rowe’s book is worth a read even if it suffers at times from extreme tedium. Indeed his penultimate chapter reminds me of a car engine I rebuilt in my youth only to be left with a box of parts with no discernible purpose. I share Wakeham’s suspicion that Rowe has a lot more interesting stuff he could jam between the covers of a book. For all his willingness to engage the open line gang, one can’t help but think he is holding back, biting his tongue, keeping his powder dry on issues and insights of much greater weight. It may stem from a perception of personal vulnerability or from sensitivity to the sensibilities of others. It is often the case that those who harbor the most compelling personal stories choose, for one reason or another, not to share them. I was disappointed, for example, that Frank Moores chose not to share his account of the toppling of a dictator (an almost incredulous yet very real story that bears no resemblance to the baloney cooked up by his chroniclers). Moores undoubtedly knew where all the political bodies were buried but was perhaps constrained by the prospect that among them were a few skeletons of his own. Rowe might suffer the same trepidation in which case we need reminding that courage, not talent is oft cited as the prerequisite for great writing. Wakeham concludes that Rowe “did not play a major, consequential role in the Accord talks, and remained, for the most part, on the periphery”. And therein lays the rub. Between the lines there is abundant evidence of Rowe’s personal struggle with the id. There is the resentment of being left outside the inner sanctum during the Battle of the Atlantic Accord and what he perceives as a continuing snub from Williams. Beyond that there is probably a deep rooted feeling by Rowe - developed over time by way of one’s own inevitable comparison with others - that it might as easily and perhaps more deservedly been Rowe leading the assault, not following behind with the ragged-arse artillery. A Rhodes Scholar and successful lawyer like Williams - minister of the crown, opposition leader and well known broadcaster to boot. What else must one have? Rowe might further reflect that in intellectual prowess, interpersonal relations and overall charm his skill set must surely top that of his gutsy, smart, yet thin skinned and occasionally oafish one time employer. But what about vision and insight? Well in those Rowe might actually find himself surprisingly in unison with Williams, and hence perhaps a source of what might still be a modest, grudging admiration for each other. This commonality is predicated on the belief (well my belief) that Williams harbors an intense, deep-seated disdain for Canada’s national government (Ottawa, not Canada). It is resentment I suspect that predates the Accord battle, the equalization reprisals and indeed any particular brand of government. It even predates his election to the legislature. It might be his affinity for the underdog that is coded in the DNA of almost every Newfoundlander at birth. It is the realization that not only was this once odds-defying nation bound over to Canada by fraud, collusion and subterfuge, but that almost perpetually since then has assumed the role of Canada’s favorite whipping boy. I say harbors because while Williams has more than once offered a glimpse into his soul, for obvious reasons he has never been willing or able to bring a true bill of indictment against Canada. In that respect he is probably like thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Newfoundlanders whose own vulnerabilities require that they regularly stifle the urge to publicly decry the con in confederation. For many of his years Rowe undoubtedly made a valiant effort to say and even believe otherwise. He was a big and small L-Liberal, part of a liberal family and tradition - wanting to believe those lofty liberal ideals were best pursued within a larger liberal nation such as Canada. Whatever his earlier convictions (and he is on record as having only contempt for separatists), it is perhaps with great irony that his stint as Williams’ ambassador in the nation’s capital might have occasioned his first real grasp of the depths of indifference and ill will toward this province that persists there. I think Rowe left Ottawa a different man than the one who packed his belongings in the family sedan and headed to the mainland. It was an experience that spurred such feelings of humiliation and contempt that it virtually oozes out of his book and is more and more evident in exchanges with his radio show callers. His resentment of Canada clearly dwarfs any resentment toward Williams. Perhaps now he understands that only an unprecedented consensus and consolidation of wills from Newfoundlanders could ever succeed in establishing a new, fairer model of governance for our people whether it be a vastly reconfigured terms of union or re-emergence as an independent member of the world community. It would require all the Rowes and Williamses this province could muster, acting in unison, to successfully challenge the status-quo. No doubt the will is there but is the flesh too weak? Why not tell us Bill how you really feel.