Hey, Paikin, why the fascination with Bill Davis?
It’s a question I get a lot. I’ve never really spent any time considering it but the record does show that with no great plan to do so, I’ve ended up returning to the story of Ontario’s 18th premier numerous times over my 35 years in journalism.
My professional introduction to Bill Davis happened in the early 1980s during his final years as premier. As a cub reporter with CHFI-FM radio in Toronto, I frequently got sent to Queen’s Park to cover question period or big announcements by his government.
By the time Davis retired in 1985, I’d moved to CBC-TV and again, more out of curiosity than anything else, managed to convince my executive producer to let me do a story on the post-political life of Ontario’s second-longest-serving premier.
It was at that interview, conducted in his new office at what is now Torys LLP, that Davis uttered the words that have shaped so much of my interest in politics. During the interview, I pointed out to him that his now well-remunerated life as a lawyer, corporate director, and grandfather seemed like the best gig anyone could ask for and certainly better than the rough-and-tumble world of politics. He didn’t hesitate to answer: “Steven, this job on its most fascinating day can’t touch being premier of Ontario on the dullest.”
The notion that politics was exciting, compelling, enjoyable, and meaningful ran in stark contrast to everything I’d ever thought about it. From my vantage point in the press gallery, politics looked harsh, mean, and some days, irrelevant. Davis’s answer forced me to reconsider, so much so that it provided the inspiration for my first book “The Life: The Seductive Call of Politics.”
In the decades that followed that first 1985 conversation with Davis, I would have the occasion to interview him many times to reflect on his own career and those of key political figures he got to know well while in office.
At a certain point, more than 10 years ago, I came to realize that Davis had never co-operated on a biography of what was, after all, a very consequential life in politics. So I began to offer some subtle (and some other not so subtle) hints that he really should do that and I’d be happy to volunteer for the job, since almost by accident, I’d now known him for more than three decades.
It took a decade’s worth of cajoling, but eventually he said yes. Some might attribute the delay to typical Davis procrastination. The joke when he was premier was that his governing philosophy was: “Never put off till tomorrow what you can avoid doing altogether.” But I knew it was more than that. Davis had good reasons for not diving in with enthusiasm. First, having now been out of public life for more than 30 years, he genuinely wondered whether there’d be any interest in his story. I convinced him there would be and the book sales have proved me right. And second, he knew he’d have to revisit the most tragic chapter of his life, which he had avoided talking about all these years. When the backbench MPP was just 33 years old, his wife Helen tragically passed away, leaving him a widower with four children under the age of seven.
But eventually, at age 84, he was persuaded that there was some merit in telling his story and we are all better off for that. Davis has had a front row seat to an enormous amount of provincial and national history, which fortunately for the rest of us, he has now shared for posterity.
Why my fascination with Davis’s life? I think it starts with the simple fact that his most formative years in Ontario politics as premier (1971-85) were my most formative years growing up in Ontario. I was 10 years old when he became premier and 24 when he left that office. Because I was born and raised in Hamilton, Queen’s Park was just down the Queen Elizabeth Way and thus Davis’s government apparently had a greater impact on my political awareness than the other political giant of the times, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Not only that, there is something compelling about the extraordinary achievements of a man who was so good at projecting being ordinary. This was a guy who as premier still mowed his own lawn, and ensured that almost every night of his political life, he returned home to Brampton to sleep in his own bed.
He was also supremely lucky to have met the woman who would become his second wife, Kathleen, who embraced the responsibility of raising his four kids, plus a fifth they had together.
Finally, I think I’m still interested in the fact that even though he’ll celebrate his 88th birthday later this month (July 30), Davis continues to be relevant and wants to be so. Prime ministers and premiers still take his calls. The current Ontario PC party leader, Patrick Brown, has tried very hard to portray himself as a latter-day Davis in an effort to get red Tories to return to the party. Despite a significant falling out over the route of a proposed LRT for their city, the mayor of Brampton tasked Davis with leading the charge for a new university for the Flower City. The mission was accomplished with Ryerson University deciding to set up a satellite campus in the years ahead.
Bill Davis created TVO four decades ago and has often joked that had he not done so, I’d have been unemployed for the past quarter-century.
Add it all up, and I guess it helps explain a three-decades-long interest in a man who, while not perfect, nevertheless left and continues to leave a mark on his city, province, and country in a singularly distinctive way.
Nam Kiwanuka interviews Steve Paikin about his book, Bill Davis: Nation Builder, and Not So Bland After All on The Agenda in the Summer tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., or streaming on Twitter @TheAgenda.
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