Former Prime Minister Joe Clark is 82 today. Although he was only in Office for eight months, and the last two of those was spent in an unsuccessful re-election campaign, he is the PM I most remember from my earliest days as a newsman. In February 1976, I was about three weeks into my first paying job as a journalist, reading news and covering local councils for the now defunct CKOX in Woodstock. The Federal Conservatives were about to hold their convention to pick a successor to Robert Stanfield as party leader. An old friend, Tom Reid was managing the campaign of Jim Gilles, one of the lesser-known of the 11 candidates vying for the job, and through that association I decided to go to Ottawa to cover the convention. There was no suggestion of getting expenses covered—I don’t think I even raised the subject—but I must have been granted a day off to make the trip. I packed up a little tape recorder and drove to Ottawa in my 1973 Plymouth Duster.
The convention was held in the Ottawa Civic Centre in Lansdowne Park. I remember being awestruck as I walked into the press room to be photographed for my (first ever) press pass. In those days a free bar and food were provided for reporters, with no questions asked about the propriety of such things. One of the first recognizable reporters I spotted, at the bar, was the CBC’s Norman Depoe, the raspy-voiced newsman who was a star political reporter in the 1960’s but whose hard-drinking lifestyle had reduced him to a off-air role by the 1970s. He was resplendent in an impeccable suit with striped pants and a Homburg hat. And amazingly was sporting a cane-chair–the only time in my life I had seen such a thing.
It was quite dazzling to be on the convention floor, rubbing shoulders with all the familiar faces from CBC, and some of the well-known print reporters of the day—Mike Duffy, Alan Fotheringham. Christina Newman, Norman Webster, Geoffrey Stevens.
Joe Clark was literally Joe Who at that convention. All eyes and the betting were on a pack of front-runners—Brian Mulroney and Claude Wagner of Quebec, Paul Hellyer, the former Liberal Cabinet minister, and Flora MacDonald the prominent Red Tory from Kingston. When the first ballot was over, Wagner, as expected was in first place, Mulroney in second, and surprisingly Joe finished third ahead of Flora MacDonald who was far better known. She had been deserted by delegates who feared Canadian voters were not ready for a female PM. She hung on for another ballot, but when her numbers did not grow appreciably, she threw her support to Clark, who was also seen as a moderate and two ballots later Clark squeaked out the win. I filed my breathless reports down the phone, and drove home in a blinding blizzard with my first big news assignment under my belt.
My most memorable encounter with Clark after that, came in 1980, when Clark, now Prime Minister, was in the midst of the February election, having lost a vote of confidence in the House. I was news director at CKPC radio in Brantford, and hosting a phone-in show, not particularly well. Clark was touring the local radio circuit in southern Ontario. He had just left Simcoe and was headed to our show, when a story came over the wire that a bunch of US diplomats that had been hiding out at the Canadian embassy in Tehran had been flown out safely along with their Canadian host Ambassador Ken Taylor and his staff.
So when Clark got to our station, trailed by a busload of reporters, he confirmed the escape on our little talk show—and a video clip of Clark making the announcement on my show was aired on CBS news with Walter Cronkite that evening, as well as all the Canadian stations. I remember Clark sitting across from me wearing a pair of what we then called “Beatle” boots, trying to get his chief of staff, Bill Neville to stop smoking. I’d like to say I peppered Clark with insightful questions about what came to be known as the “Iran Caper”,(later immortalized by the movie Argo with Ben Affleck) but I was still, pretty green and after a couple of questions, moved on to discussing the election-a lapse for which one of the national reporters, who shall remain nameless, but later went on to the Senate, called me an asshole. I vowed to be a better reporter after that.