Jack Layton was one of those rare politicians who could take the wind out of the sails of the SS Skeptic, the vessel crewed by people like me who have confidently — arrogantly, some would say — travelled from newsroom port to newsroom port with a warning to treat with suspicion every message uttered by men and women seeking public office.
And his success in proving there was at least one dramatic exception to the image of the distrustful politician did not materialize (at least for me) in the way in which he ignored major health problems to lead his party in the federal election or the dignified fashion in which he handled his terminal illness.
For sure, those cane-waving, charismatic, crowd-pleasing appearances across the country, seemingly devoid of phoniness, and his last, courageous days amongst the living — exemplified by that poignant and gut-wrenching letter to Canadians from his deathbed — had a dramatic impact on Canadians’ perception of Layton, mine included.
But even before the events of the last couple of months, I found myself almost reluctantly admitting that Layton was providing evidence that not all politicians were artificial, self-serving egotists, that, although rare within his profession, here was a man with an aura of decency about him.
Back in the ’80s, Layton was already heavily involved in campaigns to help seniors, women, the homeless, gays, the impoverished and just about any group of people being discriminated against or stomped on or ignored by those exerting power and authority in Canadian society.
Now, granted, there has certainly been no shortage of opportunists (way too many of them of the paternalistic and patronizing ilk) who’ve jumped on those do-gooder bandwagons over the years, especially if there was a vote or two to be gained.
But Layton, at least from what I’ve gathered, what I’ve heard, what I’ve read, was the real deal, a man consumed with helping less-fortunate Canadians for no other reason than he felt it was the right thing to do.
And I was hoping, to be perfectly frank, that he might have an opportunity to strut his apparently honourable stuff in the Prime Minister’s Office (to those who might accuse me of writing this material with orange, NDP ink, you’ll have to accept my word, even if I sound slightly defensive here, that I am — have always been, in fact — apolitical, and have been deliciously apathetic about election outcomes, strictly because it allowed me to operate with near absolute detachment as I plied my journalistic trade).
Now, in retirement, no longer chasing politicians, but asked to offer an opinion on their activities, I’m comfortable telling the six or seven people interesting in hearing that I thought Jack Layton would have made a good prime minister.
In any case, Layton wouldn’t want me, or anyone even remotely connected to the efforts of the media, to play the unofficial flunky role for politicians, to take what they say at face value, to let his good works, his reputation, turn us into patsies.
And I won’t.
Turning on the taps
As it turns out, it was relatively easy to raise the sails on the SS Skepticism once again, being exposed, as we are in Newfoundland these days, to a steady flow of government goodies, announcements of a fire truck here, a water and sewage project there, all designed to put the Tories in the good graces of the voters as the October election approaches.
It’s almost Codco-esque, in fact, to hear, as well, the denial of Dunderdale and company that these bucks floating into community after community have nothing whatsoever to do with electioneering. The PC caucus must think Newfoundland is comprised of absolute fools, a bunch of nincompoops.
Equally disingenuous, of course, are the cries of protest from the opposition parties who condemn, in holier-than-thou terms, a government daring to buy votes. (Does anybody honestly believe that if the Liberals were in power, they
wouldn’t be doing exactly what the Tories are doing? Of course they would. Of course they have. So would the NDP. It’s the nature of the beast of politics.)
Sermon alert: that’s why it’s so important for reporters to put these pre-election nuggets in context, to constantly and incessantly remind their readers, listeners and viewers of the timing of this open-wallet policy, and to put the correct spin, as well, on the predictable chastisement by the opposition parties.
A recent blog written by Geoff Meeker in his media column praised CBC Television’s Azzo Rezori for taking just such an approach to a variety of stories dealing with pre-election handouts. And if I can offer what might seem to be a less than objective note here (Azzo is a close friend of mine, and one of the most reliable and thoughtful reporters in the newsroom I ran once upon a long time ago), it’s refreshing to see his mug fronting some of the more important stories on “Here and Now.”
It seems to me the CBC bosses for way too long have been wasting his talent, experience and intellect by handing him the dregs from the morning editorial meeting, while all too often dishing out the significant work to the bubbly experts in the one-minute-and-40-second stand-up.
And if I could be permitted to continue on this circuitous route and return to Jack Layton, I believe the NDP leader would have had lots of time for a reporter with Azzo’s M.O., a journalist who would never fail to challenge a political sales pitch.
Perhaps I’m guilty of exaggeration, but I think Layton would have had respect for any reporter refusing to play the role of sycophant, for any individual in any profession, in fact, anxious to challenge the system, as he did throughout his life.
Jack Layton was, after all, a rarity: a politician you could take at his word, a politician of integrity.
Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.