Thursday, August 21, 2014
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Andrew Coyne: the pundit who won’t be typecast

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“I’ll tell you a funny story. I think I can tell you this story.”

So begins Andrew Coyne, the national editor of Maclean’s magazine, when asked about being threatened with a lawsuit by the prime minister’s chief of staff in 2005.

“The first I heard about it was on the front page of The Globe and Mail,” says Coyne. According to the story, Tim Murphy was going to sue him and the National Post.

This came in the wake of the so-called Grewal tape scandal, when Murphy had been recorded in vague discussions about what it would hypothetically take for Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal to cross over to Paul Martin’s Liberals.

Soon after the story appeared, Coyne got two offers of legal representation. The first was from Warren Kinsella, the fiercely competitive Chrétien strategist who despised everyone around Martin. A year earlier, Kinsella had threatened to sue Coyne over a previous column. “Well, Warren,” responded Coyne, “I do think we’d be setting legal history to have counsel that would be defending me in one case, suing me in another.” (Kinsella never did sue him.)

Coyne’s second offer came from Ezra Levant, the conservative firebrand and current Sun News anchor, who leapt at the chance to get the Liberals in a courtroom.

“Talk about your dream team!” says Coyne. “To go into court, to be sued by the prime minister’s chief of staff, and to have Warren Kinsella and Ezra Levant as your lawyers—I think would have made the O.J. trial look like a routine proceeding.”

Alas, it never came to be. “I can only guess that cooler heads prevailed,” Coyne says with a laugh. “Because [Murphy] didn’t have a legal leg to stand on.”

Stories like this set Coyne apart as a political commentator. His enemies and allies shift from topic to topic, depending on the issue at stake. Leftist activists label him as a heartless neoliberal economist and trigger-happy neoconservative hawk. Dogmatic rightwingers are infuriated when Coyne turns his deadly aim on the Conservatives. In September, after having endorsed the ill-fated Liberals in the spring election, he wrote a moving tribute to Jack Layton’s courage and dignity.

At 50 years old, Coyne has written columns for almost every major Canadian newspaper and holds a regular spot on CBC’s At Issue panel. Provocative, combative and witty, and known for a commanding use of economic statistics, Coyne has become the dean of Canadian pundits.

Yet despite his prominence and popularity, his political constituency may be smaller than any other columnist. No other Canadian writer has such an iconoclastic collection of views. Coyne is pro-monarchy, pro-gay marriage, pro-Iraq war and pro-Kyoto Protocol. He rails against government spending and argues that the arts, including the CBC, shouldn’t be publicly subsidized. He wants the decriminalization of polygamy (but opposes the practice) and a parliamentary debate on Canada’s lack of abortion laws (but is pro-choice).*

You may disagree with him, but don’t expect to win an argument. Coyne’s intellect, memory and polite charm make him a formidable debater on almost any given topic, as UBC witnessed on November 5. He was here to give a speech on democracy and freedom, hosted by the Vancouver Institute and sponsored by the BC Civil Liberties Association.

Coyne warmly accepted an interview request from The Ubyssey and sat down the next morning for a long conversation over breakfast.

“If he used that word around my daughter, I’d come and beat him up.”

Andrew Coyne can be described in many ways.

Son of James Elliott Coyne, a Bank of Canada Governor who fought Diefenbaker’s economic policies, stubbornly resisted attempts to be fired and then resigned on his own terms. Cousin of Deborah Coyne, a constitutional lawyer who led opposition against the Meech Lake Accord and bore a child with Pierre Trudeau. Proud inventor of the widely-used moniker “Adscam” for the 2004 scandal that ultimately brought down the Liberals. Champion of the right to say “cunt.”

That last one may need to be explained.

It should be noted that Coyne has likely never even used the word himself. “I value politeness and decorum,” he says, “and I try to cut back my swearing because I think it’s a silly thing to do.” Yet his commitment to free speech almost got him fired as editor of the University of Manitoba student newspaper.

Coyne was 19 when he was editor of The Manitoban. At the time, it had a section called “Messaging” that allowed students to pay 25 cents to get a few lines in the paper. One student decided to satirize the prominent evangelical group Campus Crusade for Christ.

“Their not particularly clever or funny way of doing it,” says Coyne, “was Campus Crusade for…you can pick another word that starts with ‘C.’

“And so they put this ad in, and some prudent employee of the paper had taken it out. And I had put it back in, feeling this was offensive to the spirit of free speech or something. I’m sure there was some kind of high-minded reason for it.”

And then came what Coyne calls an example of how a few determined people can build something up into a fever. Outraged, a group of students decided Coyne had to be fired as editor. Soon the Winnipeg Free Press had written a column on the subject, which was sent out nationally on the Canadian Press wire. Then the local talk radio station, CJOB, devoted a two-hour call-in show to Coyne’s actions.

“They had truck drivers calling in saying, ‘If he ever used that word around my daughter I’d come and beat him up.’ And I’m listening to this two hours of character assassination, and I grabbed my roommate and I said, ‘Phone him up! Say something nice about me!’ Which he dutifully did. It didn’t make a whole lot of difference.”

Eventually Coyne was called before the publication board of the newspaper and came within a vote of being fired. This was the beginning of his journalism career.

He spent a couple summers working typewriters at the Winnipeg Sun, but was unable to follow in his father’s footsteps by winning a Rhodes scholarship (“a clerical error,” he assures us). After a stint at the London School of Economics, Coyne worked a connection he had with the son of the editor of the Financial Post to get a job as an editorial writer.

When the Financial Post started publishing daily, up from weekly, Coyne was given his own column. Then he got another job writing editorials at The Globe and Mail, which also turned into a column. And then a job as a columnist at the Southam newspaper chain. And then a job at the brand new National Post.

“It was an absolutely amazing time,” Coyne says of joining the nascent Post. “To be part of a start-up of anything is fun, and the start-up of a newspaper is so special because it rarely happens in today’s age.

“The first couple years at the Post were as much fun as a body could have. They had hired all of these incredibly talented people who were putting out this amazing paper every day. We had hired all of these sharp, shrewd Brits who had been working in newspapers all their lives. I look back on it with enormous fondness. We were good, and we knew it.”

Today, working for Maclean’s, his title is national editor but he mostly writes. “I wouldn’t exaggerate my editorial role. They mostly hired me for the writing.”

The Canadian “New Right”

In 1995, This Magazine, a Toronto publication born of the 60s left, was being edited by Naomi Klein. That summer they did an issue profiling the “New Right” in Canada, which pegged Coyne along with David Frum, Michael Coren and Ken Whyte.

“More than anything else, the New Right is about the meta-morphosis of rebellion,” wrote Klein in the issue’s introduction. “From Preston Manning’s populist posturing to Neil Bissoondath’s attack on multiculturalism, it is clear that if you want to adopt the persona of an iconoclast, the place to do it these days is on the right.”

Coyne was profiled by a young Doug Saunders, who today works as the Europe bureau chief for The Globe and Mail. The profile was titled “For Andrew Coyne, downsizing the nation and stripping workers of their rights isn’t a necessary evil, it’s a damn good idea.”

You can guess its tenor.

Yet, amidst Saunders’ contempt for Coyne’s deficit-slashing prescriptions, one detects admiration. He notes that Coyne likes to ask deep, even revolutionary questions about why our government works the way it does. Saunders challenges his readers: “Why isn’t that question being asked by anyone on the left?”

Frum has a theory for why these four writers were included in the issue, despite the significant ideological differences between them. “We had a very common generational experience. The people in that group all became adults during the Trudeau years, during the terrible economic crisis of 1982-83, a singularly deep recession in Canada. We had grown up facing a common set of political, economic, cultural problems. And we had reacted to them in much the same way.”

“You really do see a generational imprint on groups of people,” Frum says. “We came of age during the crisis, a failure of the statist model.”

More than anything else, it’s Coyne’s economic advice that has caused him to be sequestered as a rightwing pundit. “It’s an occupational hazard in this business,” says Coyne, “because people are always going to want to pigeonhole you, whether they’re for you or against you.

“I’ll confess to being a conservative on deficits. Yeah, I’m a hawk.”

But anyone who reads Coyne closely, particularly on politics, will see the futility in trying to typecast him. “I say only one-quarter jokingly, I am a conservative liberal socialist libertarian, or whatever order you want to put those words,” Coyne says. “Each of the traditions has something to teach us. Why would you want to cut yourself off from the nugget of wisdom that might be in each of those traditions?”

Coyne’s influence, particularly among conservatives, rocketed upward in 2004 when the sponsorship scandal hit the Liberal Party. Coyne had started keeping a blog on his website. “I couldn’t not write about this,” he says. “And it’s amazing how fast these things can pick up, you know, once you start linking to things, they start linking to you. And the whole multiplier thing kicks in pretty rapidly.”

Soon Coyne had one of the highest-traffic political blogs in the country, and his comment section had become an incubator for rightwing activism.

“They weren’t really there to read me, they were there to read each other. I was just a convenor. And it shows you this network effect, that, you know, the buyers are there because the sellers are there, and the sellers are there because the buyers are there. It’s the same idea, right? It became a place where you could gather and discuss these things.”

Yet before long he had to shut down the comments section completely. He returned from a weekend trip to find a long comment thread about gay conspiracy theories and guesses at which former prime ministers were gay. “I just looked at this and went, ‘Oh, Christ.’ I’m a big free speecher, but at some point it starts to reflect on me.”

When asked whether his blog would have been as popular if he was covering a Conservative scandal rather than a Liberal one, Coyne demurs. But as soon as Harper became prime minister, many of Coyne’s devotees ditched him over his attacks on the Conservative Party. “Those are the people to whom I have been a constant disappointment. And I often get them emailing me or posting things saying, ‘I used to think you were okay, but now I think you’re just a complete idiot.’”

At the time of writing, his blog can’t be found anymore. The site has been hijacked by anti-Israel activists (who have hit Coyne’s Twitter and email accounts before) and links to a propaganda site. “Yeah, I have to block off some time to deal with that,” he sighs.

“It’s the same values you look for in a friend.”

Today Coyne writes for one of the few examples of a major media outlet making bucket-loads of money. Coyne credits Maclean’s publisher and editor Ken Whyte—one of his co-stars in the “New Right”—for guiding the magazine with a steady hand. “Ken has a real understanding of both a commitment to substance and quality, and an understanding that you’ve gotta sell it. He’s always had a little P.T. Barnum to him, and I think that’s a big part of his success.”

Coyne’s thoughts on journalism, as with almost every subject he weighs in on, are informed by his economic philosophy.

“I think you get the most vigorous, not only journalism but literature, when you have a commercial relationship between the writer and the reader. The reader doesn’t owe you the time to read your column. What you want is, readers willingly parting with their money because they’re just so eager to read what you have to write.”

A few writers and editors inspired Coyne during his time in grad school in London. “Michael Kinsley had an enormous influence on me. Just in terms of his sense of humour, and I generally agreed with his political take. But I also liked the way he was unpredictable. When he was editing Harper’s, in the early 80s, it’s the best magazine I’ve ever seen. You wanted to read every article, literally. It just had that sense of what will grab and hold people’s attention.”

Samuel Brittan at the Financial Times and Ferdinand Mount at The Spectator were also must-reads for Coyne. Brittan, because “he was very free market but also had a strong sense of the particular social obligations of the state.” Mount, because “he was such pleasant company to read.”

“As a columnist you’re asking people to spend time with you,” says Coyne, “and a big part of writing is to make that time pleasurable. And it’s more or less the same values that you look for in a friend. You’re not going to spend time with someone who is hectoring you or lecturing you, or is angry, or is always just flippant.”

James Coyne, his father, is still alive and well at 101 years old. “He’s a moral and intellectual hero to me,” says Coyne. His father was more of an economic nationalist than Coyne himself has ever been, but for the most part, their views are very similar—especially around inflation and free market economics. “I’m sure that must have been partly because of the conversations we had around the dinner table.”

Coyne is very active on Twitter, where his quirky humour shines through; he periodically retweets Paris Hilton and recently composed a Kim Kardashian poem that was retweeted by Salman Rushdie.

“It’s kind of like a public notebook,” he says. “You’re throwing thoughts out there and seeing how people react. Or just putting them down so that you put them down somewhere. It’s more like a collaborative conversational thing.”

It also allows readers to express their frustrations whenever Coyne takes another unpopular position.

Ten years after the “New Right” issue, Andrew Potter was blogging for This Magazine in 2004 and decided to grade the pundits. He gave Coyne a B+, calling him “consistently the smartest writer on constitutional issues.” But, as with so many readers over the years, a few things held Coyne back in Potter’s estimation; in this case, it was “his inexplicable support for Bush.”

Since then, Potter has been a colleague of Coyne’s at Maclean’s and is now the editor of the Ottawa Citizen.

“What makes Andrew Coyne so valuable to Canadian public commentary is that he has never lost his capacity to be angered by the behaviour of those in power,” says Potter. “Most pundits—myself included—quickly accept that politics is the way it is, and will probably never change. But Coyne is relentless in his desire to flag inconsistencies, to expose political pandering, and to rage against political bad faith. His refusal to be cynical is his greatest asset.”

And so the same thing that can make Coyne so hard to get behind—his ruthless pursuit of principle, regardless of the political climate—is also what makes him indispensable to our national discourse.

“I wanted to be Andrew Coyne when I grew up,” says Potter. “I still do.”


Editor’s Note: Coyne wrote in to clarify his stance on abortion. “Hope this complicates things,” he said.

“I favour a ban on third-trimester abortions, as is the rule in most democratic countries: they are almost never performed, anyway. But short of that, I just want to establish that the fetus has some rights in law, even if we decide that the mother’s rights are trumps. As things stand the courts often tie themselves up in knots trying to avoid ascribing rights to the fetus, which is why we get cases like the “glue-sniffer” case in Manitoba: addicted to solvents, she’d given birth to two severely deformed children and was pregnant with a third, but could not be ordered into treatment, even for a few weeks, to save it from the same fate as its elder siblings.”

His 2008 Maclean’s essay on abortion laws can be seen here.