Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Book Review: Paikin and the Premier by Steve Paikin

Since Confederation there have only been twenty-five individuals who have served as the Premier of Ontario. It is a small and exclusive club. Steve Paikin has been a reporter at Queen's Park for decades now and has a rare perspective. As Paikin writes, the books origins were in an observation that he was the only journalist to interview every Premier since 1971.

Paikin and the Premiers: Personal Reflections on a Half Century of Ontario Leaders is a collection of interviews and connecting biographies and histories. The interviews mostly consist transcriptions of interviews conducted at TVO. I found this perhaps the most disappointing part of the book. Paikin might be the best poised journalist in Ontario (or Canada) to land high-profile, challenging interviews. Former-Premiers Bill Davis and Mike Harris will not sit down for anyone, nor will current Premier Kathleen Wynne. When I began this book I assumed these would be new dedicated interviews with the Premiers on topics related to being a leader, governing Ontario, etc. The transcripts are fine and offer insight into the men and woman who have led the province, but at times it feels a bit like a square peg in a round hole. I cannot help but think this book would be substantially better with fresh interviews. I will concede this format did not work as well with me as I watched many of these interviews originally on TVO.

While most of the text is the transcripts of interviews I think the best parts might be Paikin's interstitial writing. The setup and context for each interview and the brief windows into Ontario's political history might be the most interesting aspects. Some of this is predictable given the subjects of the interview. Most of the interviewees were sitting Premiers. Their honesty and forthrightness could be, let's say, limited. Going into an election that one seemed doomed to lose (Eves, Rae) they were talking like victory was around the corner. It would be more valuable to interview them today and reflect back on that time.

The interviews with the men I was least familiar with were the most interesting. In particular, John Robarts, Premier from 1961-1971, had a fascinating and difficult life and remarkable premiership. The personal histories might be the real strength here. Paikin has a well-known sympathy and interest in politicians.

This book has a niche appeal. If you're interested in Ontario politics and snapshots of the past it may be of interest to you. I know it did not meet what I was hoping to find, but that's not to say it isn't interesting or compelling at points. Paikin's earlier books The Life: The Seductive Call of Politics and The Dark Side: The Personal Price of a Political Life are far stronger case studies of political life. Sadly, these interview may best be explored through TVO's archive of interviews rather than in written form.


Andrew Baldwin said...

Steve Paikin is a Liberal shill and the transcripts of his interviews are testimony more to the incredible patience of PC premiers who were nonetheless willing to be interviewed by him rather than anything else. Mike Harris quite rightly objected to Paikin's characterization of his 1995 election win as going from "worst to first", quite correctly observing that he went from third to first in the legislature. So Paikin asked him if it would be better to say he went from the outhouse to the penthouse. I would have cancelled the interview right there. But Mike Harris actually went back to be interviewed by him again, both as premier and as ex-premier. I can well understand why Rob Ford and Stephen Harper both refused to be interviewed by Paikin. They knew what kind of an unfairly partisan twit they would be dealing with.

SJL said...

I don't see it the same way as you, but that's fine. Any bias I have picked up from Paikin would in favour of the Red Tories. That would explain distance to people like Premier Harris who was more to the right. Ford and Harper had an actively hostile relationship with the media so I'm not sure either offer a meaningful meter stick.