Came to bed but couldn’t sleep, my thoughts filled with Jim Travers, the terrific journalist from the Toronto Star, whose sudden passing today infused Ottawa with a sense of tragedy. So many wonderful things are being said about him that my thoughts will pale in comparison. But my insights are those of a struggling politician whose load became more defined and lightened by the man we have just lost.
Jim was accompanying my wife and I on our trip to Sudan this past January until the sudden death of his mother forced him to remain behind to settle her estate. Many never knew he had actually lived in Juba, south Sudan earlier in his career and that his fascination, and sometimes tribulation, over the continent’s fate often preoccupied his thoughts. We would share a lunch at the Parliament Pub together every few weeks and his questions were all about Africa and the state of affairs in Ottawa itself. Our last meal together was just three weeks ago.
This noted journalist had first asked me to lunch two years ago to see if, in his own words, “you are real.” I was, as was he, and our relationship sprang from that moment. It was never a deep friendship – others knew him far better than I – but I was always aware that he took this novice politician under his wing for a reason. He instinctively sensed when I was struggling and inevitably there would come the call asking for lunch. In my four years in Parliament, he was the only journalist I knew who understood international development and bemoaned with deep sincerity the decline of CIDA as a powerful instrument of Canada’s collective compassion. Whereas others often queried me about the Agency, looking for a story, Jim would convey what he had heard from some good contacts within the organization and continued to encourage me to stay on the path I was on of defending CIDA against the naysayers. He never pressed me for an angle or an exclusive story because, in truth, he possessed far greater contacts for that. No, in many ways he was trying to make government better through his encouragement of my efforts, meagre though they have been.
In many ways, Jim Travers reminded me of Mario Lague, the Liberal communications staffer who did so much to bring not just a sense of order to Michael Ignatieff’s office, but a sense of respect, professionalism and a firm belief that honesty was the best way forward. They were both straight-up and there was some kind of strength resident in them. They could have switched roles and the result would have been the same: fair play, integrity, wit and a sense of public responsibility. My wife and I, along with Susan Delacourt, Jim’s associate, had dinner with Mario three days before he died tragically in a motorcycle accident last summer. I was devastated then, as I am now, three weeks after dining with Jim.
I have to be truthful and state that I worried about his growing skepticism about the political order in Canada. Something was stirring deep with him in these last few years that was troubling his spirit. And I think I know what it was, at least in part. He expected politics to at least be real. Seasoned though he was in the hypocrisy and vanity of much that can come to define Parliament, he always believed that there was decency and a sense of public purpose running through its hallowed halls. But as he experienced more and more difficulty locating the better angels of the House, and Ottawa in general, he grew increasingly agitated and I could sense the frustration in his writings.
He was also impatient with his own industry. When a year ago Christmas an article appeared in his own paper with erroneous facts about a meeting I had with some other MPs, he phoned me the next day, livid that no sources had been quoted or that the MPs were never given a chance to respond. I never forgot that. When he apologized for the treatment we had received, it was enough. My anger at the worst of journalism had been totally transcended by the best of it. As he witnessed Ottawa descend into a kind of endless lunacy, he laid much of the blame on the shallowness of a media that was more interested in a story than what it really meant.
Every time I wanted to move on from politics, this gracious man wouldn’t hear of it. He reminded me that politics and journalism required real people, humans of intellect and understanding. “You must stay,” he would assert, “you got elected to serve, just keep at it honestly.” For all my ineffectiveness, I am still in my role in large part because a very special journalist didn’t just believe in me but in the best of Parliament.
As we parted three weeks ago, he gave me a copy of a book he treasured and we shook hands. “Don’t let them break you, Glen. Just stay on your path.” We parted and I’ll never see him again in this life. But I couldn’t sleep tonight because I was realizing that the journalistic integrity housed in Jim Travers is the rock upon which politics and journalism alike will break themselves unless both strive for a new dynamic of respect, transparency and honesty. He might be gone, but that legacy remains and much of the future will be judged by its influence.