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BOB WAKEHAM: Memories of John Crosbie

John Crosbie in action in the House of Commons in the 1980s. File photo
John Crosbie in action in the House of Commons in the 1980s. File photo - Contributed

A political force to be reckoned with, he was also a master of the saucy quip

John Crosbie fidgeted as the two of us leaned against a wall in a Parliament Hill conference space, taking in the loud goings-on of a civil service Christmas party in Ottawa in the late 1980s.

“Ya haven’t seen Jane around, have ya, Bob?” he asked, referring to his wife, as he continued to glance around the room.

“No, I haven’t,” I replied. “Not in the last few minutes.”

With that, Crosbie began to almost surreptitiously unwrap a chocolate candy kiss, handed another to me, and explained: “Jane’s got me on one of those goddamn diets again, and if she sees me eatin’ one of these chocolates, I’m screwed.” (Or words to that effect).

As I munched on my own Christmas treat, I couldn’t help but smile with the realization that the most powerful cabinet minister in the Brian Mulroney government, and the most dominant figure in Newfoundland politics of my generation (or any other generation, it could be argued) was nervous that his wife might catch him downing a chocolate kiss.

It was far from the first time, far from the last time, that John Crosbie provided me with a few seconds of mirth in the midst of a supposedly serious journalistic venture (at that particular time, I was producing a documentary on Crosbie for the Newfoundland current affairs show, “On Camera,” and we had a camera crew filming his every move for a couple of weeks in Ottawa and back in St. John’s.)

As a matter of fact, of all the politicians I’ve covered, written about, interviewed on radio or included in television programs I headed up, John Crosbie remains the singular member of his profession who always, without fail, made me feel comfortable in his company.

Even back in the early ’70s when, as a rookie reporter with The Evening Telegram I was interacting with him on a near daily basis and could have been easily intimidated by his commanding presence, Crosbie always seemed eager to put me at ease.

“Ya haven’t seen Jane around, have ya, Bob?” he asked, referring to his wife, as he continued to glance around the room.

And throughout the years, the decades, whenever we were in each other’s company, even during an era when I had become a supposedly hard-boiled journalist, a “pit bull,” as a local writer once observed, and sought to keep a healthy distance from politicians, Crosbie had a way of dismantling that somewhat sanctimonious wall of detachment I had put in place.

Of course, there was the common denominator of humour, even of the Grade 8 variety. Like the time back in the fall of 1976, and the two of us were travelling for a week or so by car throughout the riding of St. John’s West during a byelection as Crosbie sought an electoral transfer from provincial to federal politics. He was forced to use a microphone to bark some electioneering tidbits through a speaker on top of the car as we drove through a variety of small communities, and you could tell he was not enthralled by this particular requirement of life on the hustings: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is John Crosbie, your PC candidate in St. John’s West,” he said in that famously droll and flat Newfoundland brogue of his. “And I’d like to invite all of you to come to the parish hall in St. Mary’s tonight to hear me speak, along with cabinet ministers Brian Peckford and Bill Doody.” Then, he added quite loudly: “And, of course, to see the star of the evening, the one and only BOB WAKEHAM OF THE EVENING TELEGRAM. YEAH!”

At another point during that swing through the riding, he asked his driver to pull over when he spotted an old-timer leaning against his fence. I stayed in the backseat but rolled down the window so I could listen and take notes. After Crosbie and his prospective constituent exchanged greetings, the skipper stared at me (I was sporting extremely long hair and a scraggly beard) and asked of Crosbie: “Who in the name of God is that in the backseat, Mr. Crosbie?”

Without missing a beat, Crosbie glanced over his shoulder in my direction, and said: “Oh, don’t mind him, b’y — that’s Rasputin.”

Now, to be sure, it’s not as if Crosbie and I didn’t clash on occasion, or that I didn’t produce stories he would find displeasing, as he spread his wings of power here and on the mainland and I began to occupy the hallways of what some would think of as journalistic influence. But Crosbie didn’t seem to take umbrage or, at the very least, didn’t hold a grudge; he seemed to recognize, more than most politicians I knew, that I had a job to do and that most everything (perhaps with the exception of his family) was fair game.

Besides, there was so much of a positive nature to observe during his career, as many have pointed out during the last few days, beginning with his gutsy decision to try and put an end to the dictatorship of Joey Smallwood; to his years as the behind-the-scenes premier, the man running the province, while Frank Moores found more pleasurable ways to spend his time; to his rather extraordinary efforts to establish the oil industry off Newfoundland, not only through the Atlantic Accord, but his fight against much odds to convince the federal government to invest in the offshore (he was scolded by national institutions like the Globe and Mail at the time for establishing what it felt and wrote was a billion-dollar welfare handout); to, of course, his attainment of benefits for the thousands of fishing industry workers he put out of work when he announced the northern cod moratorium.

Crosbie made missteps, for sure (it was hard to comprehend why he wished to be the lieutenant-governor, a position that would see him muzzled for the most part, or “castrated,” as he put it).

And he certainly wasn’t a saint; there were well-publicized occasions when his loose-cannon vocal cords got him in hot water. (Although I’d argue that whatever politically incorrect remarks he made were more than superseded in significance by the way in which his social conscience played out in politics, his pro-choice stance on abortion, his unabashed and adamant support of gay rights, his successful efforts to improve Canada’s marital laws.).

But it’s the one-on-ones with Crosbie I’ll always tend to recall, and that unpretentious, earthy and blunt side that didn’t exist in most of the politicians I’ve had dealings with. (I know I’m far from alone here).

During the last couple of years, I saw Crosbie quite regularly after he and his wife moved into Kenny’s Pond Retirement Residence, where my mother lives. (Mom would occasionally knock on the Crosbie door and ask Jane: “Can John can come down for a game of cards?” Invariably, Mrs. Crosbie would reply with a smile; “Yes, take him so I can have some time on the computer.”

Crosbie and I would exchange brief hellos, or reciprocal thumbs up when I happened to be at Kenny’s Pond for a visit and spot him meandering into the dining room for supper with Jane.

During the last few months, it was sad to see the sparkle disappear from his eyes when it became evident that the physical and mental frailties of old age display not an iota of discrimination, that they can destroy even the most powerful of souls, even John Crosbie.

But he certainly had his day. Boy, did he ever.

And from one alleged curmudgeon to another: RIP John.

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 40 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com


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