They held the annual Ottawa Press Gallery dinner a few days ago and by all accounts the Trudeau’s were at their witty and photogenic best. The Prime Minister got even with Barack Obama for the joke the president made at his expense at the recent US Washington Press Corps dinner—suggesting Barack had given him “wedgies.” Sophie wowed the crowd by doing a yoga handstand, tricky enough—but even more so in a flowing white party dress.
It got me to thinking about some of the Press Gallery dinners I attended in my TV days when CHCH operated an Ottawa bureau. Back then, the early 80’s, the dinners were off the record and looking back one sees how far we have come in the evolution of our polite society. The evenings would start with a reception in the Hall of Honour, opposite the front entrance of the Centre Block. The Hall of Honour is used for special ceremonies and state occasions, and arguably was annually dishonoured by this entourage of miscellaneous scribes, scribblers and pundits, and their parliamentary “dates,”pouring back the freely available booze in preparation for the merriment to follow.
After about an hour and a half of preliminaries at the bar, dinner was announced and it was off to the elevators for the Parliamentary restaurant, where again the wine and liqueurs flowed freely. It was the 1980’s and the journalistic craft was populated by some prolific boozers. So much so that even though refreshment was available everywhere, I recall sitting next to a CBC reporter, now deceased, who had taken the additional precaution of packing a silver flask filled with brandy in his tuxedo jacket.
Everybody smoked then, and I recall even once seeing Pierre Trudeau, at what must have been his last press gallery dinner with a cigar in his hand. I’m not sure if it was lit. The highlight of the dinner was the after-dinner speech time, where the PM, the opposition leaders and the Governor-General all made, or tried to make funny speeches. The tradition was that boring speeches were greeted with a fusillade of buns. At one dinner Governor General Ed Schreyer spoke. Schreyer was legendary for his wooden podium style, and even as he approached the dais a voice at the back of the room ominously called out, “more buns please.” True to form Schreyer droned on and the buns started flying to wild glee from the audience, but Schreyer was not amused. When another wave of buns bounced off the lectern, Schreyer glared at a guest and warned, “if you throw another bun, I will come down there and kick your ass.”
Jeanne Sauve was Canada’s first female Governor-General. With her impeccable grooming, wardrobe and dignified manner there never was there a more elegant figure in the vice –regal office. It was a bit startling then, to hear her at one of these dinners tell a joke that was essentially a play on the French word for the marine mammal—the seal—phoque.
Sometimes the boys,( because in those days it still was mostly boys) would get a bit rowdy. I recall heading to the men’s room on one occasion and before entering, heard the crash of one of the massive oak doors on a Parliamentary washroom cubicle. Entering the bathroom I saw a future senator and a future prime ministerial aide rolling around on the marble floor flailing away in their tuxes. It was the golden era of journalism.
Written by: John Best