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Hello, Newman *

Peter C. Newman has had a long and storied career, but he continues to rack up new achievements. His latest? Getting Robert Fulford and Conrad Black on Jean Chretien’s side.

It all stems from Newman’s now-infamous Globe and Mail review of Chretien’s memoir, My Years As Prime Minister. That slam prompted the former PM’s publisher, Louise Dennys of Knopf Canada, to take out a pricey rebuttal ad in the Globe.

Then Fulford came out in support of Dennys and Chretien in his National Post column.

She made excellent points. Newman reviewed not the book but the Chrétien era, and discussed that subject in eccentric terms. He called it an “interregnum,” an odd term for a period lasting a decade. Against all evidence, he considers Chretien a Joe Clark-like figure on the margins of history.

Dennys hinted that Newman didn’t read the book, and his review, on the face of it, supports that idea. Naturally, Chretien boasts of bringing a dangerous deficit under control. A hostile critic might claim this was achieved by careless and harmful budget-cutting or perhaps should be credited to Paul Martin, Chretien’s finance minister and eventual usurper. But Newman doesn’t even mention the word “deficit.” He neglects many of the book’s other major topics but focuses on Chretien’s mangled English, not an issue in the book. His review is less than adequate.

(In passing, Fulford also mentions that Chretien ghostwriter Ron Graham helped Dennys write her ad.)

An even more unlikely defender, also writing in the National Post, is Conrad Black. Of course, Black has a long history with Newman – capped by the latter’s recent Toronto Life story on the Black trial – so there may be an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend feeling at work.

It is well-known that for some years there has been a lack of rapport between Jean Chretien and me. I have not read his recently published memoirs, and if there are references to me in them, I doubt if they are complimentary or even accurate. But Newman reviewed this book for The Globe and Mail so acidulously that the book’s publisher, the gracious and equable Louise Dennys, took a paid advertisement in that newspaper debunking Newman’s review.

Newman confers credit on Chretien for the Clarity Act, which contributed importantly to the resolution of Canada’s greatest problem in the preceding 30 years, Quebec separatism. Yet he fails to comment on Chretien’s 40-year battle against the separatists, not from a safe constituency as a parachuted notable, like Pierre Trudeau, but in the trenches of St. Maurice. He dismisses Chretien’s 10 years as prime minister as a “baleful interregnum” between Mulroney and Stephen Harper.

“Banal” perhaps, but the primary meanings of “baleful” are evil or calamitous or extremely sad. Chretien’s time wasn’t baleful and wasn’t an interregnum. Newman is often reckless with words, as he is with the truth.

And Black kicks it up a notch, going after Newman’s fashion choices. (Oh, and he’s also really old!)

Now 78, shambling about in his ridiculous sailor’s cap, bilious and at least verbally incontinent, Newman is pitiful, but not at all sympathetic. Canada and Canadian letters and journalism would benefit from his subsidence.

That led to more fighting, with Newman responding and Black responding again. Now all that’s left is for Brian Mulroney to weigh in and trash the offending review. But as much as there’s no love lost between Mulroney and Newman, that does seem like a longshot.

* (Yes, we’re aware that 1995 just called and wants its Seinfeld gag back.)