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Guts, Grit and Humour

John Crosbie – “…he was one of ours”

by Bob Wakeham

It was bitterly cold, the crack of dawn, in late December in Ottawa, 1987.

And there he stood in all his early morning glory.

John Carnell Crosbie, the most influential Newfoundland politician of that era (or of any era since the late 60s) had just opened his door after descending a set of closed-in stairs from a second floor Ottawa apartment, and was a sight to behold, “a proper state”, to coin an expression his down home constituents might use: a loosely-fitted housecoat (fortunately) covered his rather rotund physique, his face was half-covered in shaving cream, his greying mop of hair was a dishevelled mess, a pair of slippers appeared to be half on, half off, and there was a look of discombobulation on his puss that could have stopped the Peace Tower clock on Parliament Hill.

“Morning, John,” I forced myself to mumble through shivering lips, trying to make the greeting sound half normal during what was obviously a rather unusual start to a scheduled liaison in the nation’s capital.

I detected a mutter of acknowledgement from Crosbie, the focus of my latest journalistic assignment, before he turned and lumbered slowly up to his apartment, leaving me and cameraman Kevin Hanlon standing in frozen limbo.

“Well, I guess that’s as close as we’re gonna get to an invite from the old curmudgeon,” I whispered to Hanlon.

And, with that, we picked up the tools of our trade—camera, tripod, lights, audio equipment, and wires galore—and followed our host up the stairs.

The “curmudgeon” was then at the height of his political powers, arguably the most dominant cabinet minister in the Brian Mulroney government, and—back in Newfoundland—a politician of legendary stature, and, for that reason, the subject of a documentary I was producing for the provincial current affairs show On Camera.

An hour after that initial, awkward 6am encounter, our mini-studio was in place in the living room of his modest apartment when Crosbie emerged from his bedroom, now bright eyed and bushy-tailed, the transformation complete from an understandably cranky, half-awake greeter to the affable public figure I had covered as a journalist for many years.

“Have a coffee, b’ys, and wake up,” offered Crosbie.

That particular “shoot”, in TV parlance, constituted part of a two-week shadowing of Crosbie, both in Ottawa and St. John’s, for the On Camera piece.

And what we were hoping to capture on that morning was a glimpse of Crosbie’s gift for exploiting both mainland and local media, exemplified, in this case, by his once a week, morning conversation with Bill Rowe, host of the most popular open line show back in St. John’s.

Although he was equipped throughout his career with a platoon of assorted flacks, Crosbie rarely required spin doctors, and could handle the press with amazing skill, somehow managing to ingratiate himself with even the most dogmatic and cynical of reporters—like me, for example—who worked diligently to maintain a healthy journalistic distance from provincial and federal legislators.

The journalistic and personal experiences I had with Crosbie spanned decades, beginning in the early 70s after the provincial Tories under Frank Moores managed to bring to an ignominious halt the 23-year, dictatorial rule of Joseph R. Smallwood, and ending in his later years when Crosbie and his wife Jane were living in the same retirement residence as my mother.

Even before the election that swept the Tories to power, Crosbie had already helped loosen the stranglehold Smallwood had had on the province when he dared to challenge Joey (as he was known by friend and foe alike), albeit unsuccessfully, for the Liberal Party leadership in 1969, a nasty battle that ultimately prompted Crosbie to drape himself in a Progressive Conservative flag, and also helped build his reputation, one that stood forever, as a gutsy politician, afraid of not a soul.

During his stint in the provincial cabinet, Crosbie virtually ran the province while Moores, the consummate bon vivant, embraced an unofficial department of wine, women and song. Thus, Crosbie has often been described as the “best premier the province never had.”

The Canadian Press/Paul DalyCP16568894

Going federal

In 1976, Crosbie entered federal politics in a byelection, and it was during that campaign that he and I travelled cheek by jowl for a week or so, the young reporter and the middle-aged politician, along with a driver, throughout the vast riding of St. John’s West.

Crosbie had won the Tory nomination in a landslide, with only two out of 200 delegates having voted for the other candidate, the quintessential token name on the ballot paper. When reporters asked about the results, Crosbie cracked: “Well there were obviously two pricks in the room.”

The eventual by-election campaign took place more than 40 years ago, but I still vividly recall a rally in a church hall during which Crosbie displayed his amazing crowd-pleasing prowess: mocking the rugged reputation of the NDP candidate, a popular labour leader named Tom Mayo, Crosbie did a crude but highly entertaining impression of a gorilla, hanging his arms as low as he could, swinging them back and forth, then beating his chest, bouncing around on the stage, and repeating, along with the grunting sounds of a primate: “I’m big tough Tom Mayo, ooh, ooh, ah, ah.”

And I got a hands-on sense of Crosbie’s popularity in the room when an elderly woman, having spotted my note-taking in the back of the hall, grabbed me by what was then a lengthy beard and proceeded to drag me across the floor, all the time shouting, in a thick Irish, Cape Shore brogue: “If you write one bad word about Mr. Crosbie in The Telegram, I’ll haul every hair out of your beard, one by one!!” The near-by crowd roared its approval. Hearing later about the warning and the assault on my shaggy beard, Crosbie had a grand belly laugh.

Although Crosbie was known to be absolutely fearless but often stubborn in his political battles, I was eye-witness on occasion to the fact that there was one person to whom he always listened, and an individual, as well, who could create in him a sense of anxiety, even for the most seemingly innocuous of reasons.

It was an evening when we (the CBC crew) had taken a break from shooting that On Camera documentary in December of 1987, and Crosbie and I found ourselves leaning against a wall of a Parliament Hill office where a Christmas party was in full swing.

“You haven’t seen Jane around, have ya, Bob?” asked Crosbie quietly, almost surreptitiously.

“No, I haven’t, not lately,” I quietly answered.

Then, seizing the moment, as it were, Crosbie quickly took several chocolate “KISSES” out of his pocket, gave one to me, unraveled another for himself, practically tossed it in his mouth, and explained in between aggressive and pleasurable bites “Jane’s got me on a goddamn diet, and if she spots me with this chocolate, I’m screwed.”

A Newfoundland/Canadian politician of enormous sway happened to be frightened to death to be caught by his wife eating a candy.


The cod fishery demise

In the early to mid-90s, I was in charge of CBC Television News in the province, and found myself with a unique perspective when Crosbie endured the toughest day of his career, the afternoon he announced the shut-down of the Northern cod fishery, putting thousands of his fellow Newfoundlanders out of work.

CBC had at least a dozen cameras positioned throughout the hotel where Crosbie was making the announcement, with monitors in a mobile control unit just outside the building reflecting each and every shot, as we decided which of those pictures would tell the story to Canadians.

And so it was that I witnessed that monumental, historic moment through innumerable images at once: angry fishermen attempting to break down the door to the room where Crosbie was situated, the heavy police presence, and, of course, several angles of Crosbie himself, trying to maintain his composure as he outlined the details of the indefinite closure of an industry long fundamental to Newfoundland’s very existence.

As the cross-Canada audience was soon to realize, the fishermen were unable to barge into Crosbie’s room, and that Crosbie, in his inimitable fashion, calmly remarked: “They don’t need to go berserk, trying to batter down doors to frighten me; first of all, I don’t frighten.”

Mesmerized by those images, and absolutely dumbfounded, as was the entire province, if not a great deal of the country, it did strike me that this was one of the most tragic days in Newfoundland history, and that Crosbie had been a reluctant, saddened participant.

There were no laughs.

Kim Ploughman/Downhome

The latter years

Perhaps the most incongruous decision Crosbie ever made was accepting the job of Lieutenant-Governor, the Queen’s rep in Newfoundland, a puppet on a string for the local government, reading Throne Speeches word for word. Not exactly a position for a man renowned for saying exactly what was on his mind, the repercussions be damned.

But that tenure in the mansion on Military Road in St. John’s did bring us together in a round-about way, in the sense that it provided me with plenty of fodder in a retirement gig as a columnist in The Telegram with which to mock his “tea and crumpets” role on behalf of the tabloid crowd in London, an anachronistic hangover from our days as Britain’s oldest colony.

I heard indirectly from others that Crosbie got a kick out of my weekend musings.

I was leaving the Kenny’s Pond Retirement Residence in St. John’s one afternoon a couple of years ago after a visit with my 90-year-old plus mother when I was surprised to see Crosbie in the building’s lobby. It turned out he and Mrs. Crosbie had just moved in.

We exchanged pleasantries, swapped a couple of yarns, and Crosbie reminded his wife when she came along a few minutes later that I was part of a crowd that had been putting the boots to him forever and a day. The celebrated sense of humour was still evident.

During the ensuing months, sadly enough, Crosbie appeared to become more and more feeble, old age proving again that it does not discriminate against the powerful and the well-known. He moved slower, and the twinkle in his eye began to dissipate.

Still, he invariably gave me a thumbs up and a warm smile whenever we spotted each other in the dining room of the retirement residence on the occasions I was having supper with my mother.

Crosbie and Mom, in fact, enjoyed an occasional game of bridge together, and she told me, without prompting one day, that he was an amazingly pleasant person.

“And so is Jane,” she added quickly.


One of ours

When Crosbie died last winter much was said and written about his accomplishments.

But what should have been noted, as well, was the fact that Crosbie personified during the height of his career the resurrection of Newfoundland pride, that his ascent to the powers-that-be hierarchy in Ottawa coincided with a renaissance, as it has been described in many local circles, especially within the artistic community, in Newfoundland, a palpable effort to dismiss once and for all the “Newfie joke” syndrome, to toss aside the cloak of insecurity, and to brag to the world of the uniqueness of the Newfoundland culture and the Newfoundland persona.

Thus, when Crosbie ran for the leadership of the PC Party in 1983, his candidacy seemed to illustrate that new-found (so to speak) self-worth so evident throughout the province; a dignity of identification that seemed to have gone astray since Newfoundland ambivalently joined Canada in 1949.

Newfoundlanders of every political persuasion in bars and kitchens back home cheered for Crosbie during the leadership convention, and lustily booed when his lack of prowess with the French language doomed his candidacy. The vast majority of his devotees, of course, choose to ignore Crosbie’s politically disastrous equation of his inability to speak French to his inability to speak Chinese.

In the newsroom where I worked, we lamented (only half facetiously) the fact that Crosbie’s defeat meant his future chances of becoming Canada’s PM were zero to none, thus depriving us of having the opportunity to localize endless stories, for endless years, out of Ottawa: “Prime Minister John Crosbie, a Newfoundlander, announced in the House of Commons yesterday that…”

But John C. Crosbie still had a hell of a political voyage.

And he was one of ours.

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