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Ottawa Citizen, August 26, 2000

Bashing Clark is the new national sport for Canada's media

by Marjaleena Repo

The media recently heralded an Angus Reid poll and declared "a long-awaited change in the structure of Canadian politics." The essence of that change appears to be the collapse of the PC Party and the "unprecedentedly high" (51%) disapproval rate of its leader, Joe Clark.

Clark has for months on end been the target of virulent attacks by the media. From the fury, one would think that he is the leader of an unpopular governing party rather than a 5th ranked party.

Reporters, columnists and cartoonists have raced to heap abuse on Clark. The Globe and Mail's Paul Sullivan dredged up the old canard of Clark "losing his luggage" on a foreign tour – probably the only Canadian blamed for an airline losing his baggage! Also, according to Sullivan, Clark "grins foolishly" while wearing" a dorky cowboy hat" — again the only person ridiculed for wearing de rigeur attire at the Calgary Stampede. Sullivan refers to Clark's "foolish grin" no less than five times in his column, indicating at least the need for a thesaurus.)

Citizen columnist Rosa Harris-Adler could barely contain herself in name-calling: "loser of baggage," "awkward," "class nerd," she spits out. She ends up demanding -- one can almost hear the stomping of the feet – that Clark step down, immediately. (Sorry, Madam Columnist, but political leaders take their marching orders from party members and voters, not from irate scribes.)

Lysiane Gagnon of La Presse likewise threw everything but the kitchen sink at Clark, while pining for previous leader Jean Charest. After criticizing Clark for his past political errors, she petulantly attacks him for not being present at a recent event where "Mr. Mulroney launched a spirited attack against the Alliance." Had Clark been present, Gagnon and other journalists would undoubtedly have mocked him for riding on Mulroney's coat tails.

The Globe's Margaret Wente also brimmed with contempt for Clark's looks. He's not enough of an alpha male in her books, (unlike Stockwell Day, who the journalistic hordes instantly declared photogenic and bursting with charisma). Wente even called Clark a Pillsbury Doughboy. Would a rotund Winston Churchill, or a Ralph Klein, only three years younger than Clark, with chins and belly to show for his lack of alpha-male activities, also qualify? (And if Clark is a "geezer," as declared by more than one cartoonist -- a contemptible label for anyone over 50 -- he is in good company with many other accomplished over-50-year-olds in media and politics.) Lookism and ageism are carelessly combined into the ultimate insult, as if looks ("good") and age (youngish) would automatically translate into competence.

Clark's fatal flaw in the eyes of the media is that he didn't succumb to the unite-the right- movement and wouldn't run for a seat in a by-election at the drop of (many) a hat.

Those heaping scorn on Clark for not joining the Alliance, would be well advised to listen to another Conservative, former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed: "I was asked why I didn’t support the United Alternative, to unite the right," he said recently. "The easy answer to that is I’m not on the right. I’ve never been on the right -- I’ve been in the centre. I’m a Progressive Conservative. And that’s where I want to be and that’s where the people are. Don’t get on the right, because the people aren’t there."

If Lougheed can take this stand, why can't Clark -- particularly when the party's convention last fall enshrined in its constitution no less the position of NOT uniting with the Reform?

As for Clark not running for a seat when so prompted (pushed and shoved) by the media, he may have other priorities -- and may see unnecessary risks in jumping into by-elections. (Preston Manning ran for a seat in 1993, four years after the first Reform member was elected.).

Of course, the get-a seat-Joe chorus fails to explain what difference it would have made for Clark to have been in the house for the last year or so. He would have only shared the fate of near invisibility with the fourth party leader, Alexa McDonough, who would have to run naked in the streets to get any media attention.

But in the end, none of the attacks on Clark are based on rationality. They are located in the mentality of pack journalism in search of subjects to scapegoat and demonize. Too lazy to explore issues in depth, it settles for cheap shots and ad hominems. When the media tire of ridiculing Clark, we will wait with bated breath for the next target to be revealed.

While we wait, can we at least stop hearing about Joe Clark's lost luggage?


Marjaleena Repo was campaign manager for David Orchard's 1998 PC leadership campaign. She is the president of Saskatoon Blackstrap PC Riding Association (2000).

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