Politics Chatter
Politics Chatter

POLITICS CHATTER: Remembering when the politics in this town resembled an episode of Mad Men — booze flowed freely and secrets were secrets

Speaking of Mad Men…. Contributing editor Mark Bourrie remembers the good old days of political reporting — with drunken tales from the Rideau Club and National Press Club 

Those of us who are fans of Mad Men are often shocked at the amount of booze that executives of the Madison Avenue ad firm Sterling Cooper guzzled in their fictional world of 1960.

The entire company seems to have floated on hard liquor. There were liquor cabinets in the partners’ offices and bottles in everyone else’s desks. The show has taken some criticism for the amount of boozing that’s portrayed.

I suspect Mad Men’s producers have pretty much nailed the zeitgeist on the early 1960s ad trade. Certainly, Ottawa, in those years, floated on booze.

Our changing attitudes toward liquor have changed the way Ottawa works. Before it burned down just over 30 years ago, the Rideau Club, which was at the corner of Wellington and Metcalfe, was the scene of boozy lunches and liquor-soaked afternoons where the political and media elite swapped stories.

Just down the street, the National Press Club, on the second floor of the Press Building across from the West Block, was a sort of no-man’s-land where the rules required everyone to keep their mouths shut about what went on inside.

This rule was strictly enforced. And it had some very interesting consequences. Some of the nastiest marital meltdowns and most blatant adulteries happened at the press club, in full view of dozens of reporters. When Pierre Trudeau showed up looking for his wife, reporters tut-tutted but didn’t file their stories.

And, across the street, one of the biggest bootlegging rackets in town was being run out of the Press Gallery newsroom on the third floor of the Centre Block.

Booze was sold out of the Press Gallery in shots and 26-ounce bottles. The chief steward used his staff as messengers to carry bottles to the offices of MPs and Senators. Cleaning staff and clerks showed up for 50-cent shots of rye. Reporters didn’t have to leave their desks. Tumblers were kept full through the day, and into late-night sittings.

Erik Nielsen, a deputy prime minister in Brian Mulroney’s government and one of the toughest partisans ever to climb the hill, warned in his autobiography The House is Not a Home that new MPs should beware “the bottle and the 19-year-old.” The outrageously high divorce rates of MPs and the Vikileaks revelation that Public Safety minister Vic Toews left his wife and family after an affair with the babysitter show the peril of the (much) younger woman remains.

Booze? Not so much.

The Press Gallery booze racket was shut down years ago. The liquor disappeared in the last century, and the beer machine was wheeled out a few years back. By then, it was covered with dust.

One by one, the clubs — the Laurentian, the Chelsea, the National Press Club — folded, leaving just the Rideau Club. Ottawans do their drinking at home or in bars, just like mortals across the country.

Maybe it’s for the best. Certainly, it’s helped reduce the number of drunks on the road and the number of wives who have had to deal with drunken husbands rolling in after midnight.

But I wonder if it hasn’t had a negative effect on politics. Booze did break down the inhibitions of politicians, political staffers, civil servants and journalists. A vibrant party and private club scene probably went a long way toward breaking the ice between groups of people who are naturally suspicious of each other.

Today’s bar scene is a poor replacement. It takes a lot of nerve to walk up to strangers at a table and try to join them. And the art of introduction seems to be lost.

Maybe the town’s too big for the kind of intimacy of official Ottawa 50 years ago. Maybe people kept too many secrets, to the detriment of the voters and taxpayers. On the other hand, there’s no buddy like a drinking buddy.

But booze could be the answer for the paranoia, anger, distrust, and dysfunction that haunts this town now. Or perhaps we should just replace the fluoride in this city’s water with Prozac and Xanax.

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