[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ournalism is often described as a first draft of history. To that I would add—“if, so it is quite often wrong, or, at best… barely right”. The release last week of Ben Affleck’s new movie Argo brought back memories of January 29, 1980 when the news broke that Canada had been harbouring 6 US diplomatic employees in our Tehran embassy and that they had been successfully spirited out of the country. Affleck has chosen the “Canadian Caper” as it was dubbed, as a jumping-off spot for his story which is essentially the flip-side of the Canadian Caper—how an American CIA agent sneaked into Iran and executed an unbelievable ruse to get the Americans out. The Americans would pretend to be a Canadian film production unit scouting locations for a movie to be called ARGO. Under this guise the Americans could be moved through the streets of Tehran from the Canadian embassy to the airport, and eventual escape.
I remember it all quite well, because back on January 29, 1980, I was news director of radio station CKPC in Brantford—a callow first-time news executive with scant 4 years of Journalism under my belt. Part of my duties involved helming a Saturday morning phone-in show, which should have been dubbed “Saturday Morning Coming Down” in honour of the large number of inebriates who seemed to gravitate to the program. January 29th actually was a Tuesday, but we had scheduled a special edition of the show because we were in the middle of a Federal Election campaign and the Prime Minister, Joe Clark was coming to Brantford and had agreed to do a live radio interview. I was pretty nervous, because I had never interviewed a Prime Minister before. The biggest interview I had even done was with feminist Author Jermaine Greer, and the fact that I remember nothing else about that encounter suggests there is a merciful God who sometimes helps us forget the otherwise unforgettable. My only hope is that she doesn’t remember anything either.
Preparatory to the Clark interview I had been researching the issues of the day and had my little list of questions ready to go. My main worry was whether I could keep any semblance of an intelligent conversation going for an hour. What happened next assuaged any worries about filling the time. Over the wire came the news that confirmed the Tehran hostage escape and Canada’s role. Clark had already left his previous campaign stop and the bus motorcade was on its way to Brantford. That meant the story, or at least Clark’s first public reaction to it would happen on my watch.
Days before Clark was to arrive the Mounties had come in to the station and checked the place out for security. We knew the entire national media would be there so we cleared a room where they could hang out and listen to the interview. Then suddenly, at about a quarter to the appointed hour, in swept the Mounties followed by the Clark entourage and the media. We didn’t get a lot of TV crews in Brantford so it was more than a little disconcerting to see at least half a dozen camera crews milling about.
The rest is a blur of images, although I do have an audio tape of all that happened, I haven’t tried to listen to is in many years. I remember as we were heading into the studio and Clark turned to his campaign manager Lowell Murray and told him he couldn’t come in if he was going to smoke. Everybody smoked then. That was my signal not to light up while interviewing the PM, because otherwise, in those days, I surely would have. My habit was extinguished in the mid 80’s.
The show started and of course, we started off talking about the hostage escape. Clark confirmed that the hostages had escaped from Iran and that Ambassador Ken Taylor (famous for his gray Afro haircut) had harboured the fugitives. A few more details and then, as it was clear he had little more to offer on the topic, I reverted to my list of domestic political questions, prompting Mike Duffy, then the star CBC political pundit, now a senator; to call me an asshole for failing to follow-up on the Iran affair.( I got to know Mike a bit after that and found him to be very good company, and a man with an uncanny memory for people’s names—the opposite of me.) For their part, the phone callers were mostly sober , thanks to some pre-screening I had arranged…and deferential. Many of them started off by congratulating the PM on the Iran success. And then… it was over. Within 5 minutes the entourage and the media had packed up and re-boarded the buses and headed off to Hamilton for the next event.
The capper for this reporter was to turn on CBS evening news that night and watch Walter Cronkite introduce the story, complete with a clip of Clark responding to the events, shot in our little Brantford, Ontario, Canada N3R 7C5 radio station, doncha know. Although I was not in the shot, It didn’t matter. This reverberating event had been broadcast worldwide, and I had been lucky enough to be on the fringes of it—admittedly, more a bemused bystander than participant, but there nonetheless. And you know? A lot of what passes for journalism then, as now, is a matter of simply… being there.
There was a bit of complaining about how the Canadian role in the event was handled in Ben Affleck’s movie. Taylor, played by stalwart Canadian actor Victor Garber, had a chance to tell Affleck that Canada’s role in the movie was reduced to that of genial hotelier, prompting the director to allow Taylor to write a postscript that formed part of the closing credits. Taylor risked much simply keeping his guests in booze during their three month confinement, alcohol being taboo in Iran, e specially during that period of extreme religious fervour. And while Affleck’s character Tony Mendez did indeed risk his life in spiriting the fugitives out of Iran; it was the stoical Kenneth Taylor who was the last one out of town.