Being John Ibbitson

Two powerful ideologies are battling for the Globe writer's mind, making him one of the most provocative — and respected — political columnists in the country

Barry Hertz
Summer, 2006 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

John Ibbitson's evening is spiralling out of control - and there's nothing he can do but sit back and smile. It's a cold November night at the University of Toronto's Innis College, and Ibbitson, The Globe and Mail's national political affairs columnist, is in the middle of a book-tour-turned-verbal-slug fest. Ibbitson grips his leather chair with one hand and rubs his left temple with the other as idealists throw accusation after accusation at him. The writer is here to promote his new book, The Polite Revolution: Perfecting the Canadian Dream, but the discussion instead resembles an uncensored episode of Activists Gone Wild! with the rabble assaulting Ibbitson's brand of right-casually-flirting-with- left politics at every turn.

"It's interesting that you say Canada is doing so well when ninety per cent of the population is poor!" one young man in tweed yells. I notice a tiny bead of sweat at the top of Ibbitson's brow. Before I met Ibbitson two months ago, I'd only seen the small, blurry photo on the Globe's website. It showed a squirrelly, middle-aged man with wire-rimmed glasses suggesting Revenge of the Nerds: Part III. Instead of a guy named Booger, though, he's an imposing, trim, five-foot-ten 50-year-old in a black suit, crisp white shirt and a gold and red tie.

Ibbitson adjusts his collar. "I don't know if there's a question in there, but I don't think we're poor, and I don't think you're familiar enough with the situation," Ibbitson tells the tweed-clad student coolly. "We need to limit the discussion to issues inside of Canada." The audience ignores him and continues throwing out questions laced with phrases such as "American gulags" and "the great Satan." Ibbitson sighs and stares at his untouched bottle of water. It's hopeless.

Afterwards, I walk up and lie to Ibbitson, telling him the event went rather well. "Well, the good thing is that politics is the only blood sport you get to walk away from when it's over," he replies, smiling. As I leave, I overhear departing audience members bashing Ibbitson's ideas as tired right-wing "bullshit." But while it's true he trumpets fiscally conservative causes such as smaller government, lower taxes and increased military spending, he also advocates same-sex marriage, increased immigration and aboriginal rights, while celebrating the rampant urbanization of Canada and mocking the Conservative Party - not typical positions for a right-wing columnist at the old grey Globe. But Ibbitson's far from typical.

His unorthodox views have made readers take notice, in part because Ibbitson has given the Globe something it has long needed: a columnist who actually surprises his readers. Unlike, say, David Frum or Mark Steyn - two of the more controversial conservative commentators who favour opinion over fact - he steers clear of the right-versus-left shouting matches smothering political journalism these days, preferring critical, reportage-heavy analysis. Most important, Ibbitson is a throwback to a time when Ottawa journalists weren't ideological hostages.

Writing a national column was never on Ibbitson's mind while growing up in Gravenhurst, Ontario, a small town in Muskoka cottage country. Ibbitson, who enjoyed the lakes, forests and "not much else," was desperate to move to Toronto. He read obsessively and wrote high school plays, dragging his 1974 Smith Corona typewriter to his part-time job at a shoe store. Although he studied English at the University of Toronto, politics began to tickle Ibbitson's mind as he listened to lectures by the conservative thinker Alan Bloom. "No one was interested in politics at university. I was confused," says Ibbitson, who was dismayed by the apathy among his colleagues. "I felt Canada was being betrayed."

After graduating, Ibbitson moved to London, England to write plays and returned to Canada in 1982 shortly before his comedy Mayonnaise was adapted for CBC-TV. The play - a Woody Allen-ish tale of two cartoonists trapped in an apartment by a snowstorm - received enthusiastic reviews. After churning out a few "wince-inducing" plays, he settled for a secretarial job with a publisher of novels for young adults. Soon Ibbitson tried writing one and eventually produced a series featuring a high school boy nicknamed "The Wimp." The thinly veiled alter ego becomes the most popular student in school.

When Ibbitson moved on to young adult historical fiction, he earned a Governor General's Award nomination for 1812: Jeremy's War. But after writing a dozen books, he felt lost and, in 1987, decided to enter the University of Western Ontario's master of arts in journalism program. Despite being a decade older than most of his classmates, Ibbitson quickly became the BMOC holding frequent poker nights in his apartment - games that still continue on an annual basis. Says former classmate Stephen Northfield, now the Globe's foreign editor, "The 'Ibber' knew why he was there and exactly what he was going to accomplish."

In 1988, Ibbitson landed an internship with the Ottawa Citizen and then, at 33, a job as cub reporter. "My first assignment was covering a young woman's murder in the Valley. I had to crash the funeral and ask the family if she had been raped," he recalls, cringing. "They really try to make you crack the first year." Instead of cracking, Ibbitson thrived. In 1995, he moved to Toronto to cover provincial politics first for the Citizen, then Southam News and finally, in 1998, for the just-launched National Post. At Queen's Park, Ibbitson whet his appetite for political journalism and wrote Promised Land: Inside the Mike Harris Revolution. His first non-fiction book praised Harris for making "enormous changes that, in many cases, were arguably long overdue." He also gushed that the Common Sense Revolution was "unquestionably the most ideologically innovative and politically successful manifesto in Ontario history." Richard Brennan, a Queen's Park reporter for The Toronto Star, respects Ibbitson but sometimes finds his views outlandish. "With John, you get the impression politics didn't even start until Harris rolled around," says Brennan. "Sometimes John was just off in la-la land."

By 1999 it was clear the Post was for real, so the Globe wanted to beef up its arsenal. Edward Greenspon, then the Globe's executive editor, noticed Ibbitson's focused, critical writing and offered him a job. "I saw how aggressively John was covering Queen's Park and we needed a general in our newsroom," recalls Greenspon, who became the paper's editor-in-chief in 2002. He convinced Ibbitson to join the paper over a lunch at Innocente, an Italian restaurant in downtown Toronto. Then, as now, Ibbitson was a bit intoxicated from his years drinking from the Post's water cooler. "It wasn't clear if the Globe would survive at the time, and the Post had all the life and energy the Globe lacked," says Ibbitson, who nonetheless jumped, as he heard it, from "Wal-Mart to Eaton's." He remained in Toronto until 2001, when he became the Washington bureau chief, arriving only a few weeks before September 11.

After only a year of hectic filing from the States, Ibbitson got a call from Greenspon telling him to pack his bags again. "John was noticed very quickly," says Drew Fagan, then the Globe's foreign editor. "Giving him a national column just made sense."

It's a blisteringly cold and miserable day in Ottawa. Hard to believe, I know. The rain pounds Ibbitson's black Acura and the windows fog up. I'm riding in the back seat while his partner Grant Burke sits in front, and as we inch through traffic-clogged roads, I wipe my sweaty palms on the mountain of blue, white and blue-on-white dress shirts destined for the drycleaners. As I try to note as many telling details as I can, Ibbitson suddenly speaks. "You're not going to be writing this whole article in first person, are you?" he asks as we drive from his house in the Glebe, a well-to-do neighbourhood just south of downtown. "I don't think a writer should ever refer to himself," says Ibbitson, hands gripping the steering wheel. "It's never good to get personal. It's just not professional."

What his columns lack in personal detail, he makes up for in research. He is one of the few columnists who actually reports rather than simply sitting back and spouting his opinions. He noticed a weakness of his colleagues - too much analysis, not enough research - and began to emulate his favourite drama critic, Nathan Cohen. "He offered a good recipe for analyzing public policy as he did for theatre, which was just asking three questions," explains Ibbitson. "What are you doing? How are you doing it? And, is it a good idea in the first place?" It was a strategy that won over many of the people he wrote about. "We've disagreed too many times to count, but John also included hard-news reporting in his columns," says Gerald Butts, policy secretary to Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty. "You didn't see that often because writers always had to feed the beast."

Political writing has changed dramatically since the late 1960s, when simply reporting a fact without looking at the context fell out of favour. Today, says the Post's Robert Fulford, the columnist has more legitimacy than the reporter. "Fifteen or twenty years ago, the papers were dominated by reports of the news, and now they're dominated by shaped opinions of the news." Indeed, Fulford argues that ideological analysis takes precedence over reportage. "Relatively anonymous reporting has changed to extremely writer-specific," he says. "The columnist is now a much larger part of the newspaper world in Canada."

There were few political pundits in the country when George Bain became the Globe's first Ottawa columnist in 1954. His critical reporting was fuelled by his desire to write from an outsider's perspective. "Bain would say whatever he wanted to say about anything, but he would also report the news," says Anthony Westell, the Globe's former Ottawa bureau chief. Bain set the standard for his paper and the competition.

Geoffrey Stevens succeeded Bain in 1973, and continued his critical approach. After Stevens left to become national editor in 1981, the position fell to the leftish Michael Valpy, who lasted less than two underwhelming years. Then, in 1984, Jeffrey Simpson - the inimitable Ottawa insider who still fashions himself an outsider - took over. Until a 1998 redesign, the Ottawa columnist owned the lower quarter of the Globe's editorial page - arguably the most valuable piece of real estate in the industry. David Hayes, author of Power and Influence, a book on the Globe, points out that while Simpson is still technically one of the two Ottawa columnists, Ibbitson now handles the bulk of the political affairs commentary. "Simpson likes to roam around," says Hayes. "He has a sort of lofty vision of things, but he's still the senior eminence of columnists at the Globe." Simpson admits he now pays less attention to the ins and outs of Ottawa. "I do much more travel. John's also in a different section of the paper than me most of the time." So while Simpson usually remains entrenched on the comment page, it's not rare to see Ibbitson on A1, A24 or anywhere in between.

Be it stories on the softwood lumber disputes, reports on aboriginal policies or Canadian waffling over missile defence, Ibbitson reports the news instead of merely analyzing it. "When I get a good story that comes my way, I'll write it as a news story," says Ibbitson. "If the story is important, why relegate it to the back and not put the column on A4?" Globe columnist Margaret Wente says Ibbitson is an essential read wherever he lands in the paper. "John's is a fact-driven column. He doesn't rant and rave, and he's not caught up in the pack journalism mentality," she says. "He's able to call it as he sees it, and he can let the dogs loose when he wants to."

While Ibbitson's column has a certain level of bite, it's his ability to come at issues from different political angles that makes his writing a surprising read. "He's a cross between a reporter and a columnist," says Westell. "It's very unusual." Though he walks a fine line between the reporter and the columnist, Ibbitson also stubbornly avoids using the first-person in his column. "I'm not interested in the personality of the writer," says Ibbitson. "Nor am I that interesting. I just deal with the issues."

It's a curious approach to take, especially with the topic of same-sex marriage. Since the fall of 2002, Ibbitson, who is gay, has made no secret of his support for Bill C-38, as well as his intense contempt for elements of the Conservative Party that, he wrote, have "a long way to go before it can hope to shed its image of backward-looking social intolerance." In February 2005, he bravely declared the issue would be Harper's downfall, and only got more incensed as the legislative process dragged along later that year: "The Conservatives would have us believe that their opposition to same-sex marriage is in no way influenced by an innate discomfort with the idea of full equality for homosexuals," wrote Ibbitson last June. "This would be easier to accept had Mr. Harper himself not characterized homosexuality as a behaviour, when it is in fact an orientation." Ibbitson's argument would have benefited from an injection of his own voice and life experience. For a writer who so feverishly defends controversial issues, his column's lack of intimacy and moral outrage - à la Steyn - can take the punch out of his arguments. It may also be one reason some find his writing dull and listless. "His columns tend to be a bit dour and severe for my tastes," says Stevens. "He's about as much fun as a Paul Martin or Stephen Harper speech."

Theere's no way around it: Ottawa has terrible weather. As we're driving through the rain, Ibbitson points to a glut of new condominium sites. "With increasing immigration levels, Ottawa will soon have a stronger economy, more jobs, everything," says Ibbitson, dreaming aloud about the cosmopolitan utopia he constantly talks of in his column. "We're getting there, you know." His vision is one of a socially progressive Canada that confronts the country's "exquisitely nursed... grudges of an imagined past" and he vigorously promotes it. "Somewhere out there, there may be another [hopeful] politician, someone who speaks to the aspirations of the young, diverse, urban, post-national state that Canada is becoming," wrote Ibbitson the day after the Liberal government fell, "someone impatient with, and willing to go beyond, the tired debates of the old men who captain us."

Ibbitson's celebratory idea of Canada is something he also ardently explores in The Polite Revolution, and his cheerleading starts with the opening line: "Sometime, not too long ago, while no one was watching, Canada became the world's most successful country." While he makes unapologetically progressive arguments for the success of immigration, ethnic and sexual diversity and urbanization, he argues that the federal government has been unable to keep pace with the changes, and singles out problems ranging from the government's obsession with public health care to Canada's under-funded military - all traditionally conservative gripes.

While some critics hailed the book as bright thinking for a new political era - Globe reviewer David Cameron called it a "cheeky, opinionated, well-informed review" - others have noticed that Ibbitson takes certain, more liberal ideas too seriously. In The Winnipeg Free Press, Tom Oleson wrote, in Ibbitson's "Canadian utopia we will all love one another, [will be] kind to our brother and will all get together real soon... it is difficult to share Ibbitson's conclusion that Canada is a country that works." Others noted the book's ideological back-and-forth can be jarring. According to Doug Firby in the Calgary Herald, "Two powerful ideologies, it appears, are battling for control of John Ibbitson's mind."

Inevitably, that struggle has sparked disagreement from all sides. Globe columnist Rick Salutin, the paper's lone ultra-left voice, has called Ibbitson "cranky," "inconclusive" and insinuated he was condescending to the poor. The Gazette's Peter Hadekel has criticized Ibbitson for ignoring Quebec. And the Toronto Sun's Lorrie Goldstein has targeted him for ostensibly supporting the Liberals with shoddy research in his late October 2000 column about the 1995 Ontario election.

But Ibbitson's refusal to stay loyal to one ideology has also won him admirers. "There is a real danger of partisan politics infecting political journalism," says David Halton, CBC's former chief correspondent in Ottawa and Washington, D.C. "One reason that columnists like Ibbitson are as credible as they are is precisely because they are not identified as supporters of one party or another." Here, even Salutin gives him credit: "He comforts the business readers of the Globe and challenges them at the same time." More than that, Ibbitson is the rarest of breeds: a columnist who comes up with unexpected views. "He goes out on a limb more than others," says Post columnist Andrew Coyne. "He's prepared to be that 'lone wolf' on an issue."

If it's hard to pin down Ibbitson's politics, he's in the right place. After all, the Globe is in the midst of its own political identity crisis. "I think the paper's more of a Liberal paper than fifteen years ago," says Fulford. "But it's complicated by the fact that Conservatives have been constantly changing the party themselves." From 1963 to 1983 editor-in-chief Dic Doyle - who kept a framed portrait of Queen Victoria in his office - led the Globe's staunchly Old Tory vision. But in 1989, with the arrival of William Thorsell, the paper swerved into neo-conservatism, though tempered by a liberal stance on social issues such as gay rights. After the Post launched in 1998, and Thorsell departed in 1999, Richard Addis took over and dropped the neo-con focus. That left readers with a choice between the Star on the left, the Post on the right, and the Globe waffling in between. Not much changed under Greenspon; Ibbitson's stature has only increased. "He's at the top, and very influential," says Greenspon. "It's a marriage made in heaven."

Finally, I'm indoors. I'm standing next to Ibbitson's office and just thankful that I'm out of the city's infinite cold. The only downside to the warmth is the bureau's dullas-toast atmosphere. Occasionally a random head pops up from one of the newsroom's cubicles like a gopher in a midway arcade game. There goes Bill Curry! Oh, and there's Jane Taber! Look at her go! The tedium is not usually disrupted by a news report, but by Ibbitson's baritone-deep renditions of Gilbert and Sullivan tunes. "It's a nose-to-the-grindstone place here," says Taber, the paper's senior political writer. "But John knows how to break the tension."

After checking his email, Ibbitson leans back in his chair. It's Friday and he has a day off from writing his column, a process he carefully schedules - research and phone interviews until early afternoon, start writing between two and three o'clock and have a draft in shape by four. His top shirt button is undone while a yellow tie hangs loosely.

Ibbitson rolls his eyes and announces that fellow Globe columnist Rex Murphy is going to slam him tomorrow. Hard. "He's got me fawning over Micha?lle Jean," says Ibbitson. A month earlier he derided the role of the Governor General and the selection process but had a change of heart after Jean's acceptance speech. "[Jean is the] promise of what we almost are, of what we want to be," he wrote on September 28 last year. "She is the becoming Canada... this is the Canada that Canada wants to be." In his column, Murphy accused Ibbitson, among others, of hyperbolic prose that "only stopped at reverential because, I suppose, there was no higher place to go." Ibbitson, who is no stranger to hyperbole - he's called Jack Layton "Mephistopheles," for example - takes it all in stride.

When I ask Ibbitson about his political affiliations, I know I won't get a black and white answer - though it's fun to watch him tap dance. After ten minutes of discussing 18th century classical liberalism and the other famous Johns (Adams, Locke and Quincy Adams), Ibbitson reveals a nugget: an underlying, libertarian heart. "I don't understand state interference at all," he explains. "How can you argue for a free economy but say morality should be restricted? It puzzles me that people hold these contradictory beliefs within themselves."

Of course, some of his critics accuse him of his own contradictions. But that hasn't hurt his career. His cozy office, stacked with telephone book?sized political biographies and Royal Commission reports, is just next door to Simpson's, whose office sits directly across from the bureau's mahogany-decked boardroom. I can't help but think that few in Ottawa would be surprised if, in the next couple of years, Ibbitson moved to the office closer to the boardroom.

Ibbitson's future is far from his mind as he drinks a glass of pulpy orange juice and sits back in one of the brown leather chairs in his living room. His house is all black-on-grey, postmodern architecture and sleek hardwood floors. The topic of conversation shifts from the impending Gomery report to the glory of South Park and Team America ("America, fuck yeah!" sings Ibbitson, his deep voice reciting the film's lyrics like an obscene, over-caffeinated child).

Suddenly, one of his two cats, the "hell on paws" Cleo, jumps up on him, demanding attention. Ibbitson tries to ignore her while explaining the technical aspects of his job. For all his writing and influence, the criticism and praise, Ibbitson sees himself as a journalist just trying to make sense of his country. "Political journalism matters because the stakes are so high," he says, a large map of the Muskoka Lakes hanging on the wall behind him. "What could you care about more than politics?"

I nod, sensing our time is up, and we start to head towards the door. "I love the game," he says, pausing for a second to smile. "I'm surprised I didn't get around to joining it sooner." For readers tired of the pundits with predictable politics, better late than never.

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