Remembering Richard Gwyn

How many of us do our best work in our mid-seventies? That was only part of what made journalist Richard Gwyn extraordinary
By Steve Paikin - Published on Aug 17, 2020
TVO’s Diplomatic Immunity featured a regular panel discussing global issues. (From left to right: Eric Margolis, Richard Gwyn, Janice Stein, and host Steve Paikin.)

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We’re mourning the loss of Richard Gwyn at TVO. And I’m sure many others across Canada are doing so as well. Not to sound competitive, but we hold a special place in our hearts for Richard at TVO because he was such an integral part of so much of what we have done here at Ontario’s public broadcaster for so long.

I guess it’s probably fair to say we started preparing for Richard’s inevitable death more than a year and a half ago, when I last wrote about him. The last column came after a visit to the Toronto seniors’ residence in which he was now forced to live. He simply wasn’t able to care for himself anymore. And the task of doing so was understandably too Herculean for his wife, fellow author Carol Bishop Gwyn. Richard certainly looked like his old self during our visit. But nothing that emerged from our conversation made any sense at all. This once-brilliant interpreter of national and international events could pretty much speak only nonsensical gibberish. How utterly cruel Alzheimer’s is.

Richard never cared for golf or other sports. He had no children and was sad about that. In fact, the only time I ever saw him less than enthusiastic about life was when he and I briefly discussed the fact that he and his first wife of 42 years, Sandra, had been unable to have children.

“It just didn’t happen for us,” he said.

So, instead, Richard became a great writer and speaker and a prolific reader. And those were the very things Alzheimer’s took away from him.

Richard John Philip Jermy Gwyn died last Saturday at age 86.  Many forget that, although he had such a great reputation in Canada, he actually started his life in England, where he was the second-born son of a brigadier in the Indian army. (His older brother died in infancy.) It wasn’t until age 20 that Richard left for Canada, where he soon became the parliamentary correspondent for United Press International. But his career really took off when he joined the Toronto Star in 1973, writing about national, and then, a decade later, international affairs.

Richard’s relationship with TVO began in 1983, when he started co-hosting a program called Realities with his fellow author and journalist Robert Fulford. Wodek Szemberg, still a producer at TVO, was responsible for that collaboration and recalls Richard’s firm belief in Canada’s innate ability to “muddle through” the crises of the day.

“Whether this concerned Quebec separatism or the rising deficits and debt in the ’80s, Richard would dispense with calls for some fundamental solutions by saying, 'We'll find a way to muddle through this,’” Szemberg told me yesterday. “I suspect that there was a bit of an English Tory in him that looked suspiciously at revolutionary ideas. At the same time, Richard's personality was such that he frowned on excitability in general. 

“But,” the Polish-born Szemberg continued, “as I was still learning about Canada when I was working on Realities, his take about its political culture stuck with me and has proven to have historical legs.”

But Richard’s most important contribution to TVO began in 1994 with the creation of the network’s first-ever daily current-affairs program, Studio 2. Along with University of Toronto international-affairs expert Janice Stein and the Toronto Sun’s well-travelled foreign correspondent Eric Margolis, Richard became part of a regular Wednesday-night trio that opined on global issues.  The threesome clicked so well — disagreeing so agreeably — that TVO created a weekly spinoff series called Diplomatic Immunity to give Richard and Co. another vehicle for their analysis.

“Richard was an original, unconventional thinker,” Janice told me via email yesterday. “He never accepted an argument at face value and would find the slightest chink in the logic. But he challenged with grace and civility, laced with warmth and friendship. It was a joy to have him disagree with you.”

The terrific trio (with the Globe and Mail’s Patrick Martin eventually replacing Margolis) were thus on TVO twice a week in prime time until 2006, when both programs were subsumed into the new nightly current-affairs offering, The Agenda.

Back in 1976, when Patrick Martin hosted Capital Report on CBC Radio, his superiors told him he could book any guests in the entire country to analyze the Montreal Olympics, the new separatist government in Quebec, and the election of the new 36-year-old leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, Joe Clark.

“What I wanted were the best, most astute political commentators in the country and to talk with them, live, for the whole hour of the program,” Patrick recalls. He chose the Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey Stevens and Richard Gwyn.

“The breadth and depth of Richard’s national political analysis was unsurpassed, and he was just hitting his stride,” Patrick emailed me yesterday. “Through his columns, his books, his TVO appearances over the next four decades, Richard left an indelible impression on politics and journalism in Canada.”

“Richard was an interesting man, curious and clever, and who enriched his adopted country,” emailed Dan Dunsky, who produced the weekly Studio 2 foreign panel, Diplomatic Immunity, and was the first executive producer and co-creator of The Agenda. “He was also a nice person, which sometimes gets overlooked with people who lead public lives.”

“Mon dieu!” Eric Margolis emailed me upon hearing the news. “A lovely man and gentleman. I will really miss the old boy.”

It’s sometimes odd what sticks in your mind all these years later, and, in the case of Richard, it was the signature way he acknowledged the camera each time I introduced him. He had a particular way of looking off camera, then, upon hearing his name, finding the camera and nodding his head as if to make special contact with each individual viewer every time. In fact, I remember him repeatedly showing a nervous Diplomatic Immunity guest how he did it, when that guest didn’t know whether to smile or keep a straight face, look at the camera or look away, upon being introduced. We all had a great laugh as Richard attempted to show the guest how one acknowledges being introduced. Of course, he did it so naturally and with great style — and the same way every time. Richard was all about getting every detail of his television performances just right.

If you wanted to see Richard at his intellectual and witty best, a trip to YouTube to watch his TVO interviews would surely do the trick. However, I’d also recommend you find Peter Raymont’s wonderful documentary History on the Run: The Media and the 1979 Election, about Joe Clark’s huge upset victory over Pierre Trudeau. Raymont’s camera follows Gwyn on the hustings, pounding out his columns on a typewriter, offering analysis of the only campaign Trudeau ever lost. Richard is in his glory doing what he loved so much: covering politics and searching for those details no one else could find.

But there was also a moment in the documentary where one of his competitors, Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail, for some reason missed a quote during a campaign speech by NDP leader Ed Broadbent.

“I’m counting on you desperately,” Simpson told Richard, who happily shared the quote which he’d taken down.

“That’s just simple courtesy,” Richard said in the documentary. Courtesy counted back in the day. At least, it did with Richard Gwyn.

“He was wonderful to work with,” Raymont said. “He gave me great access. All the political parties and journalists respected him. He was the dean of the press corps.”

One of the things that made Richard so extraordinary was that he did probably the best work of his life in his mid-seventies. His first bestselling book, The Shape of Scandal, about malfeasance in Ottawa, came out in 1965. He also won kudos in 1980 for The Northern Magus, a much-praised study of the current prime minister of Canada’s father.

But his most brilliant work came in the 21st century, when he decided to devote a decade of his life to the cause of better understanding Canada’s first prime minister. John A: The Man Who Made Us emerged in 2007 after years of research. “For all you may want to criticize him,” Richard would say, “No Macdonald, no Canada.” At more than 500 pages, it was the first serious look at our most indispensable founding father in half a century, and Richard deservedly won enormous praise for it.

But he wasn’t done. In 2011, he followed up that bestseller with the more than 700-page Nation Maker: Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times.  He was 77 years old and at the height of his relevance and influence. How many authors can say that? Both books brought him back to TVO for one-on-one interviews and panel discussions and, frankly, I can’t remember Richard ever having been happier. He was the centre of political attention in Canada, winning plaudits and awards at a time of life when most people have long since hung up their typewriters.

Five years ago, Richard and I belonged to a volunteer group of history nerds called the Friends of Sir John A. Macdonald. Our mission was to organize some kind of event to mark the 200th birthday of our first prime minister on January 11, 2015. We didn’t want to sugar coat Macdonald’s past. But we were concerned that no one in a position of authority was doing anything to observe this red-letter date in our history. Given that no one in the country knew more about Macdonald than Richard, we thought it essential to have him be part of our group.

Thankfully, he agreed and helped organize a fantastic event. Four hundred people showed up at the Royal York Hotel, including Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, then premier Kathleen Wynne, and former prime minister Kim Campbell. Dinner was had, speeches were given (and, yes, we did mention Macdonald’s record on Indigenous issues and hanging Louis Riel), and actor R.H. Thompson regaled the audience with Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s eulogy to Sir John, which brought the house down. And Richard loved it all.

Richard wanted to follow up his Macdonald triumphs with another book project and embarked on the research. But life had other plans. He could tell dementia was setting in, and I can recall asking him whether he wanted to appear on The Agenda to talk about it. He wasn’t ashamed of what was happening to him. After all, it was hardly his fault, and there was nothing he could have done about it. So, while he talked to me on the phone about the changes that were happening to his mind, he declined the guest spot, fearful that he wouldn’t be able to make it through the interview without something adverse happening. He understandably wanted people to see him at his best and not less than that.

You know the rest of the story. He stopped his column-writing in 2016 and stopped appearing on television in 2017.

Richard gave innumerable speeches and interviews over the years. He must have written thousands of columns, in addition to writing seven books.  But he was never better than when he gave the eulogy at his first wife Sandra’s funeral in 2000 (the same year she became an officer of the Order of Canada; Richard would become an officer himself two years later). His speech was a glorious love letter to a woman with whom he’d shared a personal and professional passion for more than four decades of his life — Sandra was an author and journalist, too. For a proud Canadian, he demonstrated every ounce of the stiff upper lip of his mother country but not in a forced, phoney way. It was just Richard being strong, poetic, and filled with grace. Although I shared the TV screen with him on myriad occasions, that remains my most powerful memory of him at his very best.

Rest in peace, dear Richard.

Correction: Richard Gwyn began working at the Toronto Star in 1973, not 1983.

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