Politicians and their public lives

Bob Wakeham
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Several thoughts of a fairly diverse nature crossed my mind as I watched on national television the shocking sight of Brian Tobin and his seemingly inconsolable wife escorting their son Jack to a waiting car after he had been charged in Ottawa with impaired driving causing death.

I couldn’t help but recall, for instance, a time back in the late 1990s when I was greeted with some surprising resistance from the handlers of the normally publicity-addicted premier to my efforts to produce a documentary on his career.

As I discovered while seeking an explanation for his uncharacteristic reticence to have a documentary camera crew shadow him for a week or so, Tobin — whom I had known since his days as a run-of-the-mill reporter with CJON Television (now NTV News), a time when no one could have foreseen his amazing success on both a provincial and federal stage — was willing to co-operate just as long as his children were not involved in any way in the production. It was an easy ground rule to observe, and I subsequently compiled a one-hour documentary on Tobin that aired on a CBC program called “Soundings.”

But it was his non-negotiable insistence that his kids stay out of the public spotlight back then that struck me as I watched that family tragedy unfold in front of a horde of reporters.

There was certainly no way Tobin could protect his son this time around from the glare of cameras. In fact, it is Tobin’s high profile, as the former premier of Newfoundland, as a former federal cabinet minister, that generated the country-wide coverage of the charges against his son. If Jack Tobin did not have a famous father, the story of what police believe was a night of drinking gone horribly wrong (as reporters are inclined to describe such events) would have received, at most, some local coverage.

Now, though, it’s a national story and will continue to be so as it plays itself out, one of the prices to be paid by families of those who work in a very public arena. Tobin could keep his youngsters away from the cameras those many years ago. Not this time.


Life goes on

The image of a stricken family was also a stark reminder that politicians are subject to the same ups and downs and ebbs and flows of life as the rest of us.

That’s not a particularly profound revelation to non-journalists, but for those of us who’ve spent an unusual amount of time covering politics, there’s a tendency to depersonalize those men and women who make their living in that world, to view the politicians as microphones with legs, almost robotic in their determination to make sure their every quote, their every action, is part of the ongoing desire to endear themselves to their constituents, those people who keep them employed.

And Tobin in particular epitomized the kind of political personality that provoked what some might think of as a cynical detachment on my part: he was always “on,” the consummate spin-doctor, perpetually adorned in the political costume, making it difficult to think of him as a husband or a father. He was — for me, anyway — strictly Brian Tobin, politician.

His spinning prowess, in fact, caused me to wonder as he talked to reporters last week whether he was once again in spin mode, trying desperately to portray his son as a victim, as much the victim, he seemed to be saying, as the younger Tobin’s best friend who was killed in the incident. Ultimately, though, I concluded, as best I could, that the television event showed the human side of Brian Tobin.   

The other thought I had was much more personal, a realization of just how fortunate, how damn lucky I was not to have wound up in the kind of life-altering mess in which the young Tobin apparently finds himself.

I don’t know the full circumstances of what led to the death of that young man, of why Tobin has been charged with such a serious crime, other than the information from the police who believe a truck was being driven recklessly in a parking garage, and that the man died when he fell from the vehicle and was crushed under its wheels. But what I do know for a fact is that I did some incredibly crazy things when I was the age of Tobin and his best friend, that I was, to put it mildly, frighteningly  irresponsible on more occasions than I even care to remember. And that it was a miracle my lifestyle did not precipitate a tragedy.

As I say, that news item on CBC Saturday night provoked a cross-section of  reactions on my part.                   

An eye-opener on a number of levels.              



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

Organizations: CBC, CJON Television

Geographic location: Ottawa, Newfoundland and Labrador

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