Geoff died this week, shortly after filing his last column. He had been hobbled by Parkinson’s, but at 83 he carried on stoically to the end, offering a fresh weekly take on the passing scene. We had been colleagues in the Ottawa press gallery in the 1960s and 70s, partners in the editorial direction of Maclean’s in the 90s and friends for almost 60 years. Despite his outstanding legacy of articles, columns and books, he was unpretentious, with a good sense of humour and a keen eye for the outlandish. I published this profile of Geoff in my book on the history of the Ottawa gallery, Power Prime Ministers and the Press: The Battle for Truth on Parliament Hill (Dundurn, 2018).
GEOFFREY STEVENS: ACCIDENTAL CORRESPONDENT
Geoffrey Stevens was an accidental Ottawa correspondent. He was working in the Globe and Mail ’s Toronto newsroom on Easter Sunday in 1965 when managing editor Clark Davey called him over. Davey said he had just remembered that he had to fill a vacancy in the paper’s Ottawa bureau. Would Stevens be interested? Stevens asked when he’d have to be there. Davey replied: “Tomorrow.” Although Stevens had “no particular interest in Ottawa” and had never been to the capital, he said yes and bought a road map.
So are stars created in the journalism business — or so they used to be. Davey had one piece of advice for the twenty-five-year-old: “For the first couple of months I want you to sit in the House every night and listen to what people are saying. And if you don’t understand what they are doing, go and ask them.” The lessons Stevens learned proved invaluable. In fifteen years in the Parliamentary Press Gallery he became one of the most respected journalistic voices on the Hill, a reporter who took the trouble to cultivate sources and learn the ins and outs. Ultimately, he proved a worthy successor to George Bain when he took over the valued page 6 editorial column in 1973.
But first came reporting on the Ottawa beat. In his first big story he revealed that Liberal health minister Judy LaMarsh was about to introduce legislation paving the way for a national medicare plan. The day the story appeared LaMarsh denied it. On her way into a Cabinet meeting she told a clutch of inquiring reporters: “Mr. Stevens and the Globe and Mail better guess again.” Later that day, LaMarsh introduced the bill.
Stevens attributes his success to following Davey’s advice. By working the corridors day and night, he said, “you learned and met people because you were around.” The most important people were the enthusiastic young ministerial aides to the most powerful figures in Pearson’s inner Cabinet. Among them: Michael McCabe for Mitchell Sharp, Bill Lee for Paul Hellyer, and Bill Neville for LaMarsh. They were a band of brothers, cultivating their networks and promoting their ministers with judicious leaks of inside information. “They were happy to do it,” said Stevens. “There was no centralized control.” In fact, the Pearson Cabinet did not leak like a sieve; it spilled from the top. The most famous story about leaks from the Pearson era was when the great man confided to his Cabinet that he was about to announce his resignation. After Pearson left the room, Jack Pickersgill stood in the doorway to prevent his Cabinet colleagues from hitting the phones to call reporters before Pearson could break the big news himself.
Government ministers gave reporters same-day access. “You’d call in the morning,” according to Stevens, “and ask if you could see the minister after Question Period. The answer usually was, ‘Sure, come on up.’ And you could sit down and talk about policy. Often they would bring in a deputy minister or another official.” Stevens said there was “less a sense of hostility between reporters and the politicians, a sense that we are all in this together.”
Not that Stevens went easy on governments or parties — especially during elections. In the closing weeks of the 1979 election, Stevens delightfully sent up all the parties by giving voice to a fantasy: that instead of flying around the country, the leaders, their supporters, and the press would file into a studio at the Ottawa airport every day to hear set pitches and never leave the capital. The reason for Stevens’s pique was his conviction that journalists covering the campaign “are less political reporters than they are stage props for the evening news.” Detailing the inane itineraries of the party leaders, Stevens wrote:
Does Mr. Clark actually know anything more about the problems of small business than he did before he strode, rapidly, through a box company in Kitchener? Is Mr. Broadbent’s understanding of the complexities of food pricing deepened because he was able to pose in front of the produce counter at a co-op in St. Boniface? Is Mr. Trudeau more sensitive to the diversity of the Canadian soul because he lit a string of firecrackers on a street in Chinatown in Vancouver?
Yet, Stevens went on, the fiction that these campaign stops somehow test a leader’s ability to become prime minister must be maintained. In the words of the headline on his story, it was an “election trail made of plastic.”
These confident judgments and wit were not a fluke. Stevens, thirty-nine at the time, had already paid his dues: two years as city reporter, including the all-night police shift, two years covering city hall, four years in the Globe’s Ottawa bureau, two years as bureau chief in the Ontario legislature, three years in the Ottawa bureau of Time, and a leave to write the political biography Stanfield on the Tory leader.
His debut as a journalist was classically inauspicious, however. After graduating from the University of Western Ontario, he told his father he was thinking of a career in journalism. “He looked disappointed and said, ‘Couldn’t you get a decent job?’” Undeterred, Stevens signed on at the Globe at seventy-seven dollars per week — having rejected an offer from The Canadian Press because it paid two dollars less.
His first big break came when a massive fire erupted in the Balmy Beach district of east Toronto. Stevens hustled to the scene with a photographer, interviewed the neighbours, and worked up a story. It ran on page 1. “The next day I started getting congratulations from all sorts of people. I said, ‘It’s just a fire story.’” Not exactly. Editor Dic Doyle lived in the neighbourhood and had been calling the desk to make sure the blaze was covered in his paper.
A similar accident of fate brought Stevens to one of his all-time favourite subjects, the Law of the Sea. The topic had been almost a fetish of Globe editor Doyle and his editorial board. But the man Doyle had assigned to cover the Third International Law of the Sea Conference in Caracas in 1974 had disappeared on him. Doyle sent Stevens off to find out why and to write about the global effort to set rules for use of the high seas and coastal waterways. The Globe reporter, Stevens reported, had set fire to his hotel room in an unguarded moment and had been put in jail. Stevens took over the assignment.
For the next seven years, as the conference moved from Caracas to Geneva to New York, Stevens dutifully recorded its progress — its lack of progress, in fact. Readers threatened to stop taking the paper if Stevens kept writing about the Law of the Sea. The Toronto Star’s acerbic writer Val Sears once said that “the two most dreaded words in the English language” were “more tomorrow” at the bottom of a Stevens column on the Law of the Sea. He took to numbering his columns, Law of the Sea I, II, III, and so on. In a fitting acknowledgement of his quiet obsession, on April 30, 1981, Stevens labelled one of his last efforts “Law of the Sea (CCCLXVI).” Stevens left Ottawa for corporate journalism at the Globe before sea law made it onto the books in 1982. He lost track of how many columns he wrote on the subject. “All I know,” he said, “is that I wrote quite a lot.”
Mainly, Stevens wrote about national affairs and the prime ministers: wage and price controls, five elections, the first Quebec referendum, and the fates of Pierre Trudeau, John Turner, and Joe Clark. Inevitably, there was the uncertain fate of the Trudeau marriage to deal with. Stevens knew Margaret Trudeau from casual meetings at cocktail parties on the Ottawa circuit and her occasional visits to the Press Club. When she was in Venezuela at a state dinner with Pierre Trudeau and performed an impromptu song for the wife of the president, he wrote a column about her “erratic and unpredictable” behaviour, based on eyewitness reports from a source at the dinner.
His editors did not print the column because Dic Doyle first wanted to make sure that Stevens intended to comment on Margaret Trudeau’s mental health. Assured that he did, Doyle ran the column the next day.
“She seems to enjoy public attention,” Stevens wrote, “but not the pressure and discipline that go with it.” The column title was “Mrs. Trudeau, rebel.” Margaret Trudeau was furious and confronted Stevens, insisting on her right to be herself.
Like so many journalists covering public figures — and sometimes aspects of their personal lives — Stevens had his own private challenges. His son Christopher, the eldest of three children, died tragically, eliciting a thoughtful note from Prime Minister [Pierre] Trudeau. His marriage to his first wife, Danny, ended, too. He eventually moved back to the Globe in Toronto where he served as the distinguished managing editor under Norman Webster, edited a newspaper for snowbirds in Florida, and in 1996 became my maneoffrey Styevensaging editor at Maclean’s. His award-winning The Player: The Life & Times of Dalton Camp is one of the finest political biographies of its time.
Stevens, along with his second wife, Lynn, and their family, eventually moved to Cambridge, Ontario. There he continued to write a sprightly political column for the Record and teach on a subject about which he is an expert: corruption, scandal, and political ethics.