This must be Mike Duffy’s finest hour. He finally is what he always falsely claimed to be: a little guy standing up to the gasbags of power. His career was spent providing cover for the powerful while pretending to bravely challenge their hypocrisy. Now he’s genuinely doing it.

His journalistic dishonour stretches back decades. In the early ’90s, I wrote that he’d effectively become press secretary for the Mulroney government. One of Duffy’s cronies told another: Duff should sue that guy, all he has to do is quote something critical he said about Mulroney. If he can find it, said the other. His weekly Sun columns read like government press releases. (“We’re on the verge of what economists dream about: sustained non-inflationary growth.”) He promoted pro-Tory anti-tax rallies “coming soon to a hall near you.” His ugly effort during the 2009 election to whack an exhausted Stéphane Dion for stumbling in English embarrassed even colleagues at CTV.

He never sued over that poke but he did sue the under-resourced Frank magazine which called him a fat-faced liar for claiming to be at Duke University lecturing on Canada when he was really there for the fat farm. That’s actually funny but Duffy’s never shown a sense of humour, just a veneer of joviality. But beneath, he yearned for higher signs of respectability: especially the Order of Canada and a Senate seat. He pressed relentlessly for both.

He said during the Frank suit that Jean Chrétien told him he wouldn’t receive the Order because of Frank’s ridicule. That’s either more fat-faced lying, or Chrétien brushing off an irritant. Same for the Senate. Like Falstaff at Henry V’s coronation procession, the king kept passing him by.

Then five years ago, the king paused and named Duffy to the Senate. It must have felt blissful. He had the prize and he dug in at the trough. Then fate, of course, having smiled, crushed him. It’s what happened next that’s shocking.

Everyone in Ottawa knows the drill. The PM must be protected. Harper surely knew the problems of residency; Duffy didn’t live in P.E.I. (or Pam Wallin in Saskatchewan). Senators routinely expense lavishly, there are few rules. But if it slips out, you hang your head and accept blame. So long as it doesn’t tarnish the boss. In Duffy’s case, the deal involved Nigel Wright, Harper’s chief of staff, writing a personal cheque to cover Duffy’s overreach. All Duffy had to do was say “My bad” and belt up. Yet it rankled. He bought it but found he couldn’t wear it.

This wasn’t about honour but it was about dishonour among thieves. It was less that he cheated than he wasn’t alone. He mightn’t have minded getting off the hook but he still wanted some respect. Why should the big boss stay clean at the cost of the old Duff (or Puffster, pace Frank) being totally smeared. Hey, this really had become about the little guy taking the fall for the high and mighty.

Ostensibly he sent emails around Ottawa outing his own story, as if he couldn’t bottle it up. Then CTV’s Robert Fife broke it. I think it’s as likely Duffy went straight to Fife; otherwise why wouldn’t others break it? It hardly matters.

The odium then backed up onto Wright, who doughtily claimed the boss knew nothing. Wright has been highly praised for this but I think he’s far less morally admirable than Duffy, who’s ready to go down as long as other villains do too. It’s as if he’s finally become the character he was playing — and he likes it. That’s less odd than it sounds. Many people spend their lives giving a decent imitation of themselves — as a shrink I know says — without ever quite getting there.

Why now? A sense of mortality? (Duffy has serious heart problems.) Confessor’s remorse? Sheer ego but at a higher level? Whatever. He got what he aimed, connived and grovelled for, then had it snatched away. Not a fate he’d have chosen. But the decision to now stand tall, as it were, and strike back at the mighty power that abandoned him, is really his. And it’s a far, far better thing — publicly anyway — than he has ever done.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Raj Taneja/flickr


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.

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