Peter Newman (Interview)
At 75, Peter C. Newman still exercises the powers that have made him Canada's most influential journalist for much of the last five decades.
At 75, Peter C. Newman still exercises the powers that have made him Canada's most influential journalist for much of the last five decades. With more than two million books sold, he is also renowned for, among other things, a blunt, tell-all style that has revolutionized Canadian political and business reporting. A regular columnist for Maclean's, he is known as the editor who transformed it into a weekly newsmagazine format (earning the nickname "Captain Canada" in the process). His personal life has also been newsworthy - and turbulent - ranging from the time he was strafed by a Nazi fighter pilot in France while escaping his native Czechoslovakia, to his four marriages, as well as the affection and outrage he has alternately evoked from members of the Canadian Establishment (a phrase Newman coined to describe the country's business and political leaders). Two of Newman's books in particular, Renegade in Power, a dissection of John Diefenbaker's disintegrating government, and The Canadian Establishment, an intimate examination of the country's power elite, are considered journalistic masterpieces. On the eve of publication of his memoirs, Here be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power, Newman talked with Maclean's Editor Anthony Wilson-Smith:
How does writing a book about yourself differ from writing about others?
In my previous books, I was using other people's energy. This time, I had to draw the inspiration from inside myself. Also, since this was a Canadian autobiography, I had to be self-deprecating in the extreme, yet not deferential enough to make people ask themselves: "Why am I reading this?"
You've been married four times: you must like weddings.
Not really. It's the honeymoons I enjoy [laughs]. I had two lengthy marriages, to Christina [author Christina McCall] for 17 years, and to Camilla [Turner, formerly managing editor of Flare magazine] for 12 years. These days those are legally considered full-term marriage, so this was not done lightly. Now I've been married for eight years to Alvy, my "last damn wife," as I'm proud to call her. I wasn't as irresponsible as it seems because I never cheated on any of my wives, unlike lots of people who stay married. It seems to me more honest if a relationship isn't working to remarry rather than go out and freelance. Marrying so many times wasn't something I planned, but I finally found the love I wanted - although that isn't really a fair statement because I had some very happy times, especially with Christina.
You acknowledge that your own failings contributed to the breakdown of some of your relationships.
Absolutely. Long after our marriage ended, Christina sent me a bitter note pointing out how the growing dichotomy between the Peter Newman she married and Peter C. Newman, the celebrity - between the professional and the private person - had driven us apart. All too true. Certainly during most of our time together, the overly ambitious workaholic was very much to the fore. I became much too obsessed in my work to be a good husband or father.
Have you mellowed over the years?
Of course. I have become a shy and soft-spoken simple man of God. But when I get behind a computer, I go crazy, and write things like: "Joe Clark will never set the world on fire, except by accident." Or: "[Kim Campbell] demonstrated an unerring instinct for her own jugular." I make harsh judgments about our leaders because I feel so strongly about preserving Canada. My books have sold because I take no prisoners, and reveal our leaders as they really are. I am politically neutral; I attack everybody. I do that not to be nasty, but because somebody has to tell it the way it is. Change demands inspired leadership. Shift happens.
Is there one book of which you're particularly proud?
Probably two: Renegade in Power and the first volume of The Canadian Establishment. In each case I pioneered the approach of writing about politics and business as blood sports. At the time, that was a huge leap for Canadian non-fiction. I tried to make facts dance, using the techniques of the novelist and poets, spinning anecdotes, and telling the tales I learned by turning myself into the Establishment's court jester. It was my presumption that I could captivate the readers' attention by being entertaining as well as informative and writing in a fresh style that would connect with their emotions as well as their intellects - anything to keep them turning the pages. I was ahead of reality television. But my scripts were authentic.
Who's the greatest prime minister you have covered?
In terms of accomplishment, no question that it was Mike Pearson. His list included medicare, the national pension plan, the Canadian flag, and so much more. In terms of a compelling personality, it was of course Pierre Trudeau. He was the only truly magical leader we have had in my lifetime, a man of indefinable intensity, pent-up power and hidden dimensions. But I also criticized him for acting like an emotional cripple. He invested much intellect but almost no heart or even gut in the people around him and the way he managed the government and ran the country. Still, I pick him as by far the most alluring figure I ever met of any kind in any field.
You've known both Paul Martin senior and junior well. How is the son doing?
Since we don't have a resident monarch or pope, prime ministers become our role models. That implies that they should act as enlightened, forceful leaders who impose personal and policy priorities that spread comfort and security among the population. Those qualities have yet to emerge in Paul Martin Jr. He acts too much like a puppet, fast on both feet, trying to jump out of the way of the next crisis before it overwhelms him, by giving the store away. That's not the way to lead a country. There are days when he makes Jean Chrétien look good, and that is a terrible condemnation. Chrétien may have been a thug, but at least we knew who was running the country.
Who's the most memorable person, good or bad, that you've known?
Musically, Stan Kenton, who was a great innovator in modern music, pioneering a form of collective improvisation that has never been equalled. In politics, Pierre Trudeau, who magicked us. In business, Paul Demarais, the head of Power Corp. He started out in Sudbury in northern Ontario with a failing little bus line, and now he controls assets worth more than $100 billion. He has done it with grace, style and elegance. He has not hurt anybody in the process and has made few enemies. He did all this as an outspoken French Canadian at a time when it was still a great liability to not be a WASP.
You appear to enjoy it when people mention your "purple prose."
My subjects complain about being "Newmanised," but I'm very proud of it. Writers should have their individual style. So many journalists still use the same outdated pyramid leads, and believe that the most important thing that happens any day in Ottawa, for example, is what the politicians say. In reality, what politicians say is totally uninteresting and unimportant: it's what they do, and more to the point, fail to do. That's what counts. I write about moods and attitudes, all those intangibles that add up to how power is gained and misspent, and which is much more interesting and significant.
Will the 21st century belong to Canada? Are you an optimist these days?
I feel that while the 20th century was the century of nation states, the 21st century will be the century of city states and we are not going to be very important in that context. We don't have enough critical mass, either in population or technology. The question isn't so much whether the 21st century will belong to Canada, but whether Canada will belong to the 21st century.
Why your book title, Here be Dragons?
Before the days of longitudes, cartographers thought the world was flat: you'd sail along and eventually fall off the edge. So they drew warnings on their charts, with the notation [in Latin], "HERE BE DRAGONS." I thought it was an appropriate title because I came unarmed and unknown to a terra incognita and had to conquer a whole bunch of dragons: being Jewish, being an immigrant when they were as rare as lepers, being shy, and becoming a marrying fool. Some dragons slew me, but I also bagged a few.
In reviewing your life, you cite Woody Allen, who said that the best way to achieve immortality is by not dying.
I'm 75, so you know it's not going to last forever. But I'm still taking all kinds of risks, and not too many pieces have dropped off. There's a sticker on my computer which reads, "We do not stop playing because we are old. We grow old because we stop playing." That's my credo.
Maclean's November 8, 2004