'So long for now'

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
National Post, Friday, June 19, 2009

Don Newman once ad libbed for 35 minutes of dead air on CBC Newsworld, filling while Jordan's King Hussein ran late for a joint address to Parliament. In the all-news equivalent of a baseball rain delay, he told every story he knew about speeches by visiting foreign leaders, including Winston Churchill's famous line, "some chicken, some neck," from his 1941 wartime address.

After the King arrived and delivered his speech, Newman went to lunch and didn't think anything more of it. But when he got back to the office, there was a rubber chicken sitting on his desk. "The crew," he recalls, "went out and bought it for me as an award."

This was back in the day when Newsworld was known as DNN, the Don Newman Network. "I was on all the time," he says. "It was practically all they had."

"Don has institutional memory like I've never seen," says CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge, his friend and colleague. "I quickly realized when I started anchoring back in the '80s that this is the guy you talk to."

"It started on the last day of July in 1989," Newman recalls, "and within a couple of months, Joan Donaldson who was then head of news said to me, 'we really need you to do a daily program, would you do it?' "

Twenty years on, Newman is relinquishing the chair at what he calls "the big table," in a studio essentially built for him at CBC's sprawling newsroom on Queen Street in downtown Ottawa. Today, when he opens Politics with Don Newman with his trademark salutation "welcome to the broadcast," it will be for the last time.

At 68, Newman is taking a buy-out and retiring, amid a gruelling round of tributes and receptions in his honour. "I'm only retiring once," he quips, "it's too much work."

Honour is due. His final show caps a 40-year career in Ottawa andWashington, beginning with the Globe and Mail in 1969. He moved to television in 1971 with CTV, opened its Washington bureau in 1972 and remained there for eight years before returning to Ottawa with CBC.

Along the way, he's en-du red mor e than his share of personal sorrows -- the loss of his only child, his son Linc, and later of his first wife, Audrey Ann. No one who was there to witness his eulogy for his son in 1992 has ever forgotten it. "There wasn't a dry eye in the church," says Mansbridge. "To this day, I don't know how he got through it." Newman has since happily remarried.

He's covered eight prime ministers, from Trudeau to Harper, and all the stories from the patriation of the Constitution in 1981, to the death of Meech Lake in 1990, to the 1995 referendum, to the Supreme Court reference on secession in 1998.

Best story? Meech Lake, he says. "Not only was it a compelling story, but the actors were all recognized."

Best prime minister? "Mulroney and Chretien together," he says. "Of course, they also occupied most of the time I was there."

Nicest prime minister? "I had more social interchange with Mulroney and Martin," Newman

says. Mulroney would sometimes call Newman during commercial breaks offering up tidbits or prime ministerial spin. "He's been an institution," the former prime minister says of Newman, who was once a dinner guest at Harrington Lake.

Best parliamentarian? "John Crosbie would have to be right up there," Newman says.

Most impressive international leader? "Margaret Thatcher."

Sitting in the makeup chair before going on the other day, Newman was kibbitizing with makeup artist Joan Hodgins.

"There are lots of nice things to say about him," she says. "But the nicest thing is he's got the temperament that doesn't go from one extreme to the other."

It's one of the reasons, says his senior producer Sharon Musgrave, "that people don't leave this unit. They stay. And from the point of view of someone sitting in the chair producing live TV, the thing that's so impressive is that he can respond to any situation. He's an Anglican, but when they last elected a Pope, he knew more about papal politics than anyone."

Newman will be around, writing and still very much a go-to resource for CBC. As Mansbridge says: "He will not be a stranger to our air. We would have to be out of our minds not to take advantage of it."

As the final edition of his show wraps tonight, will Newman have a special signoff?

"I always say at the end, 'So long for now,' and I plan to say, 'So long for now,' and people can read it into it what they want."

 
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