Mighty Mouth

Reaching some two million readers, columnist Andrew Coyne is never at a loss for words. Does he believe in what he says or does he just love to argue?

Cheryl Devoe Kim
Summer, 1997 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

Andrew Coyne is so excited that he barely touches the brick-grilled chicken on the plate before him. When he does come up for air, he stabs the chicken with his fork, ripping at the meat, in too much of a hurry to use a knife. Olives and small chunks of tomato fly off the plate. For long bursts he doesn't eat at all --too much to say, his mind racing, off on what you think are tangents until he miraculously comes back to the question, which you have long since forgotten. He talks not just in fill sentences, but in complete paragraphs. You can hear the punctuation.

He has barely caught his breath after arriving 20 minutes late for lunch, slightly frantic. His reputation for lateness precedes him --20 minutes late is a compliment. He's slightly dishevelled and unshaven, hair askew. His blue knitted pullover covers a T-shirt. Near the collar there's a spot of something reminiscent of spaghetti sauce.

The wine has loosened him up. He launches into another long monologue "I've said this before, so forgive me if it sounds a little rehearsed, but it's like that Seinfield episode -- I'm not a conservative -- not that there is anything wrong with being a conservative--some of my best friends are conservatives." And in part because of the company he keeps, Coyne is known as a brash neocon writer, despite his significant liberal views. He's a Southam columnist who chose journalism because he thought law would have been too easy. He's the kind of guy who can rewrite the national budget but paid no attention to expenses incurred to at least one publisher when he missed a deadline. While he's ruthless in print, in person he makes sure a near-stranger has cab fare. At 36, Coyne his presence felt-on television and radio, in magazines and newspapers.Three times a week, two million readers get a peppery taste of how he thinks the country should be run.

The TV camera catches Coyne's eyes burning with rage. His tie needs loosening. He pounds the table with the outside edges ofhis hands, boldfacing the key words in his rant. He is co-hosting CBC Newsworld's Face-Off with Judy Rebick, a show where political pundits get together for high-spirited debate. Being the co-host hasn 't protected Coyne from being attacked himself. He's the one in the hot seat, on this December 1995 episode entitled" Neocon Media." Diagonally across from him is Rick Salutin, left-wing Globe and Mail columnist. Rebick and Saturday Night editor Kenneth Whyte, the other guest of the day, might as well not be there.

Salutin leans back in his chair with his characteristic smug look.The black shirt with the black jacket gives him the desired air of anti-establishment. People say, privately that Salutin is obsessed with Coyne. In Salutin's weekly column, he mocks "a world view this cocky you don't have to argue your points, you just state them," and cringes at the fact that Coyne has written about what the Left should be doing. He slips in snide comments about Coyne's academic style ofwriting and his debating days at the University of Toronto's fabled Hart House.

Talk of who controls the media-the Right or the Left-quickly deteriorates.The debate turns personal hen Salutin accuses Coyne of "straight character assassination."

"I'm sorry," Coyne responds. "What did you spend your last six columns doing? What was your last column about? How 'l liked the other right-wingers better' What do you think that was? Was that character assassination or not?" Salutin sits back while Coyne bellows at him. He has goaded Coyne into losing his temper.

"You've decided in your Olympian wisdom that you're going to call me a right-winger," Coyne shouts. "Apparently I have no say in the matter as to how I define myself. Apparently to be a right-winger in this country is to be in favour of public health care, public education, public pensions,redistributive taxes, liberal immigration laws, right down the line."

It is a rant that Coyne has practiced after years of being mislabelled. If forced to categorize himself, he says he's a liberal. And many of his positions are liberal. He's against the death penalty, and believes crime, is in part, a social problem. He believes in a national integrated child-care benefit. He does not think it's time for federal tax cuts. And he says gays should be allowed to marry and adopt like everyone else.

But there are other liberal views Coyne does not spare from his venomous pen. He is someone who likes to disagree, and triumphs in coming up with ingenious ways to coax readers into his camp. Why shouldn't we include unpaid housework in the GDP? Because "by the same argument, the figures should be adjusted to take account of unpaid sex, at the going rate for a prostitute."

Since leaving his position as columnist and editorial writer at The Globe and Mail for Southam News last May, he has scoffed at others' worries about Canadian culture. He dismisses the claim that the CBC is Canada's broadcaster: "If that were ever true, it is not true now-not with an average audience share in prime time o fless than 10 percent." He mocks the magazine world for trying to protect Canadian. content:" Sports Illustrated's crime is to have hired Canadian writers to write about Canadian athletes for the pleasure of Canadian readers of a magazine printed in Canada by Canadian workers. Thank goodness that was snuffed out."

Coyne's rousing words give him influence. Globe editorial writer Marcus Gee explains that "you have to raise your voice a bit as a columnist or editorial writer. Because there is so much mumbling out there on all these issues, somebody who has a clear distinctive voice like Andrew's, a voice with real edge, gets noticed."

"Sometimes he got people thinking because they were so enraged," Gee says. "He just enraged an enormous number of people [at The Globe and Mail.] And maybe that turned some people off-probably got a lot of people to cancel their subscriptions. But on balance I think it was good for the paper. His editorials were talked about."

People may be talking about him, but not necessarily in fair terms. They label him as neoconservative because they're lazy, says The Next City editor Lawrence Solomon. And once someone is labelled, he adds, "You don't need to know anything else beyond the picture on the column-you see Andrew Coyne's picture and you know he's a neocon, so no point reading him.That's where I think the criticism of Andrew Coyne comes from. People feel it's legitimate to codemn him without understanding what it is he's saying."

And letter writers have condemned him. "We have neocon Covne providing his usual shallow right-wing insight," wrote one reader. "While he proclaims to be neither left- nor right- wing, his neoConservative columns in The Globe and Mail and The Financial Post would show otherwise,"wrote another reader, unhappy that The Toronto Star had decided to run his column twice a week.

Most journalists, with the exception of Globe writer Miro Cernetig, have bought into the idea that Coyne is a neoconservative. Coyne was noticeably absent from, Cernetig's mini-profiles of the so-called neoconservative players in "Young Bucks of the New Right." The February 1994 scorecard as topped by Devon Cross, president of the Donner Canadian Foundation, which funds the conservative magazine The Next City. (Coyne is a contributing editor.) Kenneth Whyte made the list, as did David Frum, Financial Post, columnist and author of two books on the New Right. Stephen Harper, who orchestrated much of the Reform party policy-and for some time was expected to succeed Preston Manning-was said to be another important player.There were others-journalists, politicians, academics and philanthropists--but generally without a liberal streak like Coyne's.

In "Young Bucks," Cernetig characterized the neoconservatives as "small-l liberals who have been mugged by reality. It's not that they are opposed to government, they just wish there were a lot less of it." Ironically, this definition better describes Andre, Coyne than the people whom Cernetig named in his article. But in Canada, the real meaning of the term has been lost in the Left's frenzy to label and dismiss a rising group of more conservative thinkers.

According to Mark Gerson, author of the 1996 book The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars, the term was first used by Michael Harrinigton and the editors of Dissent magazine. It described a group of disillusioned NewYork liberals, such as Saul Bello, Gertrude Himmelfarb and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had moved to the Right in the '60s and '70s.Writer and editor Irving Kristol, considered the doyen of neoconservatism for having been a few years ahead of everyone else in articulating this disenchantment, calls it "a current of thought emerging out of the academic-intellectual world and provoked by disillusionment with contemporary liberalism."

But in Canada, neoconservatives are rarely characterized by either the original American definition or Cernetig's adapted Canadian definition.To this day, the term is being used to describe everywhere from CFRB's brash radio talk-show host Michael Coren to Ontario's NDP premier, Bob Rae. The "communist pigs" have made room for the "neocons" in the cesspool where radical thinkers are thrown.

Because Coyne's views range from extremely liberal when it comes to personal liberty, to very conservative when it comes to government spending, it is simplistic to try to place him on the political spectrum. But Coyne has been pegged as a neoconservative for two reasons. One, because the conservative views he does hold are often radical. The other is because, like Certenig's young bucks, he is young and causing a stir.

In a quiet renovated house in the Annex neighbourhood, Coyne's rented office has the same reflective feel as the nearby University Of Toronto campus. He chose to be alone with his thoughts here instead of taking an office at The Toronto Star or Saturday Night.An imposing built-in china cabinet, and a fireplace with a servant's buzzer beside it on the floor, remain from the office's former role as a dining room.The green leather chair he finally bought for guests is buried under the week's newspapers.Two walls of shelving and cabinets are dedicated to files on the Constitution, the debt, immigration--a collection more complete than the average high school library's.

The setting echoes the academic air of Coyne himself: the faithful tweed jacket, not-the-quick-matching pants, the way his voice drops when he's asked about himself. Despite gossip that he likes to talk about himself, he is modest and self-conscious. To avoid the unknown of being interviewed, and to make sure his ideas are understood, he hauls out the meticulously filed paperwork-two big binders, plus several file flnders of columns and articles.

He thinks like an academic.The example colleagues use most is Coyne's stance on immigration. In a long article for The Next City that won an honourable mention for a National Magazine Award, Coyne argued that it is immoral to limit immigration and we should throw open our borders. But even Coyne's admirers including former Globe colleagues, say they don't think he has thought his argument through to its logical end-overcrowding and resource depletion-despite the fact that he has been making the same argument for open immigration since at least 1988. Globe and Mail editorial writer and friend Anthony Keller believes this is one of "many issues in which he sacrifices real-world workability for the sake of theoretical consistency."

For Coyne, opinion writing is more than just an exercise in theoretical consistence, its a sport-life is one long debate. Michael Valpy, husband to Andrew?s cousin Deborah Coyne, questions how much Coyne believes of what he writes. Despite having great respect for his writing, Valpy wonders "whether Andrew is just so clever and so quick that he gets off on the debate rather than the implications."

The art of the debate got the better of Coyne in a particularly sarcastic 1995 Globe column analyzing Linda McQuaig's book Shooting The Hippo. Having defended the Bank of Canada, he concluded, "Or it may be that these [things] are no longer much debated because-do I dare say it?-some things are not worth debating." Coyne stands by what he wrote- he was trying to say that we shouldn't worry if we sometimes reach consensus. But how can a man who has built his career on questioning others' sacred beliefs, such as the need to financially support the arts community, really mean some things aren't worth debating?

Intellectual combat is all-consuming for Coyne. Kenneth Whyte recalls covering the Tory convention with him in Winnipeg last summer. "It was like a three-day debating marathon. He was probably the only journalist there who'd read not only the summary and list of resolutions to be debated, but the all of the policy research, and all the background documents that had been provided as well. He'd not only read them but he'd absorbed them and argued it out in his mind. And he spent the whole weekend talking about first this resolution, then that resolution, exhaustively." And when other journalists sat in the sun debating over beer whether Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest should cut his hair, Coyne was still stuck on policy.

Peter C. Newman wrote much the same thing about Coyne's father, the former governor of the Baik of Canada. James Coyne gave "the impression of being much more concerned with ideas than with people," wrote Newman in his 1963 book Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years. The elder Coyne clashed with Diefenbaker in 1961 over the role of the Bank and the independence of the goveror. Despite repeated calls for Coyne's resignation, and a hearing into the affair, he stood his ground, telling the Senate that he "was fighting for important principles, and fighting very largely alone against an extremely powerful adversary." (Only after he was vindicated by the Senate did Coyne resign.)

The younger Coyne inherited this penchant for standing alone. The first public example came when he was 19 and editor of the University of Manitoba's newspaper, The Manitoban. He refused to remove the word "cunt" from a page on which students sent messages to one another for a quarter. The mainstream press grabbed hold of the story, thrilled that this was happening to James Coyne's son. His refusal to take the word out led him all the way to the provinicial publishing board,which came within one vote of firing Coyne. What he genuinely regrets about the incident is any embarrassment he may have caused his family

He opeNs up his personal life through boxes of mementos, tucked away in the back room of his student-like apartment, where he lives alone. He has saved everything.The nursery school report card (playing better with others; impatient with others' thoughts; moves well to music). The notebook from when he was 7 or 8, in which he hypothesized that the difference between Judaism and Christianity is that Christians read both the Old and New Testament.

On the wall beside us, tucked between a bookcase and the corner, hang the two National Newspaper Awards he won for editorial writing in 1992 and 1993. (He was a finalist again in 1994 and 1995.). Two small black-and-white photos, one of his father and one of his mother, Meribeth Riley, hang on an adjacent wall. His parents still live in Winnipeg, where he was raised with his two sisters and two brothers.

He takes out a contact sheet of studio photos from his short-lived acting career. In his last year at U of T's Trinity College he was approached by an agent who saw him in a performance there.After a few auditions and a bit of paid work (playing a Merry Man disguised as a bush on the TV show Rich Little's Robin Hood),exams came, and that was the end of it. "In another life," he says, "I would have liked to be an actor-in another life with a lot more talent. It still intrigues me that it's kind of like journalism by another means." How so? The stage is a place for him to express himself more. freely,. and this shows in the untempered opinion overflowing from sketches he has written and performed with friends.

The Under the Umbrella festival in the summer of 1993, for instance, featured Coyne and two friends in front of a small Toronto audience. Many of the Globe staff attended. One sketch particularly exemplified Coyne's ability to combine commentary with comedy. As one colleague who attended described it: "Thorsell was sitting right in the front row, and there was one skit about a newspaper editor who is very, very close with a certain minister, and the two of them are having lunch together, and they're just like way too chummy and incestuous, and all of are thinking-Holy Cow Thorsell's sitting in the front row. And I don?t know how much you know about the long history of Thorsell's very close relationship with Mulroney, but a lot people thought that was a direct swipe. It probably wasn't, it was probably written 12 years ago. But nevertheless... " Coyne flatly denies that the skit had any such implication. "With journalists in general, " he says, "there is always this difficulty that you get too close to your sources. "

He shocked the audience in another skit by running onto the stage apologizing for his lateness, saying his father had died. (In fact his father, now 86, is very much alive, and revered by his son.) In other skits he usedhis sarcasm to make his thoughts on political correctness and arts awards ceremonies funny.

Coyne is as much the performer off the stage. His friend Paul Kingston, now a U of T professor, points to a trip to the English countryside. Coming upon a flock of sheep in a meadow, Coyne addressed the group. "Think for yourselves! You are free sheep! Don?t just follow the flock! " But the sheep didn't respond. "It was not the last time, " Coyne says, laughing in recollection. "It was to set a pattern which was to be followed many times later in life. " It is this side of Coyne that his friends want to talk about. The fun, funny side.

His friends from U of T paint a picture of someone who was in the thick of it, one of the last people to leave a party. He began performing as soon as he transferred to Trinity College from the University of Manitoba in 1981, acting in A Winter's Tale, Measure for Measure and in Stained Glass, by fellow student and author Douglas Cooper. As Speaker of the Lit, the head of the social side of the Trinity government, he presided over debates, organized deejayed dances, and performed in cabarets.

It wasn't until 1984, when Coyne went to the London School of Economics for a master?s degree, that he started to concentrate on school instead of his extracurricular activities. Though he B.A. had been in economics and history, he says it was at LSE that he really began to think about economics and understand the principles that would guide his writing in later years. He spent much of his free time debating, reaching the semifinals in a national competition.

The opinions he developed at LSE, backed by his understanding of economics, now form the backbone of much of his writing. In his column, he tries to sway readers not just by giving his opinion, but by explaining the economic theory behind it. One December 1996 column explained how Statistics Canada measures poverty, and then showed why "it is almost mathematically impossible to make any headway against poverty." Another explained why he thinks those who say little inflation will lead to the creation of new jobs are wrong. And after a report on the post office was released, Coyne wrote two columns on the theory of natural monopolies, and why the post office monopoly should end."

He says column writing imitates academic writing by forcing him to sit down and consider an issue from all sides before deciding what he thinks. He tries to consider policy issues by answering the question, "If I were to design a system from scratch to achieve X, what would that system look like? " It is a process that has set Coyne apart from other columnists.

Despite his belief that Coyne's solutions are too theoretical, Globe writer Anthony Keller admires his style, "Just imagine you are chairman of the board," Keller says. "You've got 10 people sitting around the table and you ask them, 'So what should we do about this? You've got nine of them who can identify the problem and talk about the failing, and how badly it's going, and the other one goes, 'Well here's how we're going to fix it. Here's the plan.' Andrew might be wrong, but he actually has a plan. No one else seems to have any plan at all. "

The one thing Coyne hasn't planned is his career. And yet the path to Southam's pages has come rather easily. After a couple of summers chasing ambulances for The Winnipeg Sun, and a stint as the business editor at the CKO radio in Toronto, he got into The Financial Post in 1985. He used his friendship with editor Neville Nankivell's son Jeff as a door opener. His first story there was a forgettable piece on what CEOs were reading that summer. But soon he was writing editorials and, by age 27, a column. In 1991, he began freelancing, hoping he'd find more satisfaction with the length of magazine pieces. But the enticement of The Globe and Mail proved too strong, and by the end of 1991 he was writing editorials and, eventually, his own column. Along the way he has made television and radio appearances and has written for many magazines, including Canadian Business, Saturday Night, Profit Magazine and the now-defunct Idler.

He was lured away from the Globe by the Southam chain last spring with the promise of greater autonomy, a larger audience, more money and three columns a week. But co-workers say it wasn't just what Southam was offering, but also what was lacking at the Globe --respect. As one colleague put it, "The Globe is sort of filled with insults to its employees; and Andrew is a very proud person person, someone who feels he deserves a certain respect. And the Globe didn't give him that. " The biggest manifestation of this lack of respect, as several people confirmed was Coyne's tiny work space, which had neither room for his files nor room to turn around. Coyne confesses this began to irritate him. Now he has a carved wooden desk and walls of file-not to mention a shared research assistant and somewhere to park his car whick were also lacking at the Globe.

Coyne's success has created a palpable jealousy among fellow journalists, though no one says it directly. Instead they preface criticisms with "Others will say..." Others will say he talks over his readers' heads with his economic lessons. Others will say that Coyne doesn't have enough experience at straight reporting. Even Rick Salutin, who made this point in a column on what's wrong with the New Right, won't say it in person. He contrasts journalists with reporting experience, like Toronto Star columnist Claire Hoy, with people who "take graduate courses in monetarism and [move] straight into columns and editorials on how the world works." Salutin denies that this was a direct attack on Coyne.

These days Coyne doesn't seem to care too much what others say about him. Isolated in his office in the Annex, he's give up the daily debates with his friends at the Globe. He's often unsure of who his readers are because they are spread over more than 30 Southam papers, as well as The Daily News in Halifax and The Toronto Star. In general, their readers are less responsive than he's accustomed to. He views this as a challenge. Like William Thorsell, his ex-boss at the Globe, Coyne believes he's in the business of buying people's time-giving them a reason to read him. And he has potential of two million readers with whom to share his way of thinking. His goal? To get his new audience to rethink its basic assumptions and try things his way for a change. "I have a particular view of the world that I, you know, think is reasonably sensible, and I try to persuade people to look at the world the same way."

This reminds me of a comment he made last fall, en route to our second interview. Cutting through a parking lot, Coyne stops at the edge.He braces his foot against a low wooden fence His shoelaces are untied-they're always coming untied, he says, "I'm trying a new way of tying them. Someone told me the other day that all my life I've been doing it wrong.

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