John Carnell Crosbie, who died at 88 in St. John’s at the end of last week, was not a politician like the others – not like any other I have ever come across.
He was very smart, witty, opinionated, at times outrageous, sarcastic, chauvinistic, and contemptuous of those among his fellow politicians who got ahead by going with the flow. Crosbie was not a “going with the flow” sort. He was his own person, an independent thinker and unpredictable performer, fearless (or foolhardy) when it came to spurning political correctness.
Above all, he was a loyal son of Newfoundland and Labrador. He should have been premier of his province. When that path was blocked by Joey Smallwood, he shifted his ambition to Ottawa where his dream of becoming prime minister died when he lost to Brian Mulroney for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party.
I should explain my relationship with Crosbie and my conflict of interest. As Ottawa columnist for the Globe and Mail from 1973 to 1981, I got to know him and wrote about him when was he was finance minister in Joe Clark’s short-lived Tory government. I covered Crosbie’s 1979 budget and I was there the night in December when the Clark government fell on a non-confidence amendment to the budget, an amendment moved by a young NDP MP named Bob Rae.
Crosbie would go on to serve Mulroney as minister of three high-profile portfolios: Justice; International Trade (negotiating the free trade agreement with the United States); and Fisheries and Oceans (where it fell to him to close the endangered cod fishery in his beloved Newfoundland). He retired from politics in 1993 and repaired to his St. John’s law office to write his memoirs – which he did by dictating his account to his long-suffering secretary.
By this time, I was working in Florida. One day, I got a call at home in Tampa from Doug Gibson, Crosbie’s publisher at McClelland & Stewart. Gibson said he had a problem. Crosbie was sending him reams of material, but it all read like a legal brief, capturing none of the voice and flavour of John Crosbie, the charismatic and outspoken politician. And there was far, far too much of it.
Crosbie was vacationing on Florida’s east coast at the time. Would I, Gibson asked, go to see him and see if there anything I could do?
I drove across the state and found Crosbie in a prickly mood (to put it mildly). He resented any criticism of his literary labour and he certainly didn’t want any advice from a journalist who had taken the mickey out of him more than once in his Ottawa columns.
To cut to the chase, we made it work. Over a period of many months, Crosbie would courier me bundles of pages he had dictated. I would cut them mercilessly, rewrite them completely to make him sound like John Crosbie the politician I knew, not like a lawyer dictating a boring memo to file.
We disagreed frequently and had some strenuous arguments. Crosbie would accuse me of operating a literary “fat farm,” more concerned about length than content. He would, he said, simply get the publisher to bring out a second volume. Not a chance, said Doug Gibson.
On more than one occasion, Crosbie threatened to fire me. He probably would have, if his wise wife, Jane, had not intervened. “Shut up, John!” she told him. “Geoff knows what he’s talking about. Listen to him.”
John did. By the end, we were friends, and Crosbie was delighted with the result – “No Holds Barred: My Life in Politics” – all 505 pages of it. He travelled the country, promoting the book. It sold very well, and Crosbie was pleased about that, too. Even so, whenever we met, he would make a point of accusing me of hacking out his best stuff.
John Crosbie was an original. They broke the mold when they made him. I shall miss him.