The day after the Twin Towers collapsed, Robert Fulford’s columns gained a new urgency.Through his forceful, controversial views, he proved why newspapers need fearless public intellectuals
Men in suits and ties quietly converse in the hallway outside a library. Every once in a while a polite chuckle can be heard. Looking on is a lady in pearls, who sits on one of the dark wood chairs that are arranged in a dozen neat rows. Behind the white linen-covered table at the head of the room, a man dressed in a blazer and sweater, the first of several guest speakers this afternoon, is slouched on the edge of a navy leather couch, peering at his sheaf of papers and attempting to ignore the crowd. As he reviews his speech, he faces the dark wood shutters that block out the afternoon sunlight. Today the tiny Upper Library of the University of Toronto’s Massey College is the setting for a Robertson Davies symposium, a tribute to the famed Canadian novelist and journalist (and founding master of the college), who died in 1995.
As the room fills, the man on the couch stands up and ambles over to the head table. A few minutes later the event’s host, John Fraser, the current master of Massey College and a longtime friend, introduces the audience to Robert Fulford, and then begins to list his many accomplishments, one of which is that the former editor of Saturday Night and columnist for the National Post since 1999 has worked for all of Toronto’s major newspaper
“He didn’t do the Sun,” an audience member jokes.
“So far,” quips Fulford, without missing a beat.
It’s exactly the kind of comeback one expects from Fulford, who looks like a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and Mr. Weatherbee of “Archie” comics (a colleague describes him as “eggplant-shaped”; others have called him “Wedgie”). At 75, he’s remarkably sharp and quick-witted, a man who scoffs at the idea of retirement (“I don’t see why you would do that”). He’s been hailed as one of the most influential cultural critics in Canada. He’s also one of a rare breed in this country: the fearless public intellectual. It’s a term Janny Scott of The New York Timesdefines as “a person [who] uses both deep knowledge and broad speculative ability to speak with authority on a wide range of issues of the day.” For much of his 50- plus-year career, Fulford has done just that, commenting on the arts in particular, which are his passion. Over the years he’s collected 15 National Magazine Awards (more than anyone), become an Officer of the Order of Canada and had his byline printed in nearly every major publication in the country. Although his work is less widespread and influential today than it was earlier in his career — when at one point in the 1970s he simultaneously edited Saturday Night, wrote a weekly column for the Toronto Starand had a radio show on the CBC — his writing is far from stale. In fact, 9/11 and its aftermath seems to have initiated a new phase in his career. Call it his “lion in winter” period, for the roar of urgent criticism in his columns after those hijacked planes slammed into the Twin Towers.
“September 11 was a turning point in my life,” he explains during one of our interviews “It changed my view on a million things.” He began writing more and more on the topic of the Middle East and Islam, a subject he has previously touched on, but only from a cultural perspective (like his December 1999 column on the history of Muslim culture). He has since shared his strong, and at times negative, views on the issue. “Perhaps apologists for Islam are insisting that their militants are no worse than, say, the Spaniards who killed their way across Central America during the Renaissance. If that’s the argument, it’s cold comfort,” he wrote at the end of September 2001.
At the Massey College podium, Fulford looks perfectly calm. This is not the time for a trenchant, politically incorrect perspective on world events. Rather, Fulford reflects on how Davies, for whom he had great affection, was a leading public intellectual of his era. “He came into journalism much like the rest of us,” says Fulford. “He knew how to write and couldn’t figure out what else to do.” Interestingly, both men were born into families headed by newspapermen, spent their childhoods avidly reading and hold multiple honorary degrees at various universities (Davies with a whopping 26, so far Fulford has five). However, while Davies received his education at a variety of prestigious institutions — Upper Canada College, then Queen’s University, followed by Oxford — Fulford failed to graduate from high school.
“The biggest misconception about Bob is that he’s some wooly-headed academic,” says his friend andToronto Life editor John Macfarlane. In fact, Fulford’s intellect has been shaped by books and by living through the events, developments and ideological struggles of the 20th century: he was born into the Great Depression, was a child during the Second World War, a young adult through McCarthyism in America and a writer in the time of the Cold War, Vietnam protests, feminism, Watergate, computers and the Internet and more.
“[Fulford] is a freelance intellectual,” wrote George Fetherling. “He has never lost his fascination with being alive, with being part of the spectacle that he finds himself in the middle of.” Then came September 11 and the public intellect let loose a torrent of disdain for Muslims who failed to protest terrorism, George W. Bush-haters and anti-Israelis, surprising many with the force of his beliefs and angering many more, which bothers Fulford not one bit.
In times of crisis, what happens to newspaper readership?” asked the Canadian Newspaper Association in a report. “It goes up! Everyone wants to make sense of what has happened. They want the depth and understanding.” And what they want in the post-9/11 era is analyses and commentary on foreign affairs, a request that Fulford happily obliged: “I wanted very badly to comment after September 11.” A few examples:
“Why are Muslims not lined up at U.S. embassies to sign books of condolence for the crimes of their co-religionists (and, while there, seizing the occasion to offer belated thanks to the Americans for saving Muslim lives by risking American lives in Desert Storm, Bosnia and Kosovo)?”
As for the unpopular and often mocked Bush, Fulford has called the current U.S. president a “dedicated and poised captain of the West.”
In addition, in a September 2001 column in the Post, Fulford addressed what he saw to be escalating negative feelings toward the U.S. by Canadians: “Reflexive anti-Americanism… is a poison afflicting large parts of the world, a poison we should purge from our own system.” That article, he says, generated more reader response than anything he’s ever written.
Fulford’s reputation for blunt speaking and strong views has me somewhat intimidated as I approach the downtown condo he shares with his wife, Geraldine Sherman, a writer and former CBC producer. He is, after all, a man who over the years has had harsh words for, among others, writers Margaret Atwood, Ian Brown, Scott Symons, The Walrus, film director David Cronenberg and even the journalism school I attend. In fact,Toro published “Robert Fulford’s Greatest Hits,” a partial inventory of his literary bashing, in its March 2006 issue. “Some people believe… Robert Fulford is one of the geniuses of Canadian letters,” writes Micah Toub in the piece. “Others think he’s an old crank with a mile-long green streak and a giant chip on his shoulder.”
It’s about six weeks before his scheduled talk on Davies and on the door of his home is a goldcoloured knocker in the shape of a menacinglooking lion. Gulp.
I knock and Fulford, clad in an orange dress shirt and black corduroy pants, shakes my hand and shyly introduces himself: “Hi, I’m Bob.” He leads me to the living room.
The first thing I notice is a red gumball machine sitting atop an end table. Though his wife had to search hard to find a place that made the correct peanutsized candy to fit the machine’s narrow slots, it functions perfectly, costing a penny per turn. The dispenser, an old gift from his father-in-law, looks out of place in the otherwise elegantly decorated condo. His front foyer boasts shiny, black and white marble floors and every piece of furniture looks expensive, from the stiff, beige, living room chairs to the gleaming silver platter his housekeeper sets down on the spotless glass coffee table. I timidly request sugar in my tea and Fulford jumps up and dashes to the kitchen to retrieve it. The bookshelf that rests on the floor behind me is stocked with impressive leather-bound encyclopedias, six volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and his own 1988 autobiography, Best Seat in the House. At one point he owned about 4,000 books, but sold or gave most of them away when he moved into his current condo two years ago.
When he returns, we discuss his work schedule. Like most columnists, he works from his home office. Rising daily at 5 a.m., he reads four newspapers (the Toronto dailies, plus The New York Times), then writes and reports for most of the morning before taking a nap in the afternoon. I am surprised to see that he is reserved and that only occasionally will his boyish, crooked smile appear and his hazel eyes leave the floor. “He’s very shy,” explains Fraser later. “You wouldn’t know that from reading him.”
Over the course of two hours Fulford tells me about his time at Saturday Night (“we got along with very little money but amazing writers”), his love of travelling, especially to Japan, and his fondness for the Toronto Transit Commission (“A very nice way to travel”). The one area that was off limits: questions about his family. “He’s a private man,” explains Gary Ross, editor-in-chief of Vancouver magazine, who worked with him atSaturday Night. He’s been married to Sherman, his second wife, since 1970, and he has four grown children and one newborn grandson, Elijah Robert, child of his youngest daughter, Sarah, an editor at Toronto Life. One-year-old Elijah, boasts his grandfather, is the “perfect” little boy. “Being a grandparent is emotionally evolving,” says Fulford. “You get all the joy of having a small child and not the stress.” He grabs a black and gold frame off an end table and shows me a summer photo of a beaming Sherman, sitting on a porch holding Elijah. Slightly out of focus in the background, perched on a chair and absorbed in a book, is Fulford. “In many ways Bob is unsentimental,” says Fraser. “But concerning his grandchild he’s gooey.”
After his gushing, I feel braveenough to ask about September 11. On that particular Tuesday morning, he was planning to go to Queen’s Quay to write a story about the waterfront. He was getting ready, flicked on the TV, and was stunned by what he saw. “I never did write that story on the docks. Every time I pass by there now…” he says wistfully. “It was a beautiful day, weatherwise.” We talk a bit more about politics until I notice the pitch-black sky outside his living room window. It’s getting late. He walks me to the door, where we shake hands and politely thank each other for the conversation.
Just how does one become a public intellectual? What is the career path? Where does one get his or her start? Everyone from Stéphane Dion to Pope Benedict xvi to Jean-Paul Sartre has been given the label, but in Fulford’s case, the path begins in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood, at 34 Southwood Drive to be precise. On a tree-lined street, next door to his family home, lived a young Glenn Gould, the renowned musician about whom Fulford wrote in his class newspaper, the 9-D Bugle: “He is a confirmed bachelor at 13 and thinks popular music is terrible.” Back then, the area was much different than the trendy place of today, with its million-dollar homes and upscale retail outlets.
When Fulford grew up, he wrote that most of the residents were poor and inhabited “dumpy little houses.” He stayed in the district with his mom, dad, grandmother and three siblings until age 24, when he married for the first time.
“During my childhood people in the Beach talked little about politics and cared less,” Fulford once wrote. “We saw nothing of importance in the actions of Canadians and we never dreamt that our own corner of the Empire could do anything worth noting.” Politics only became more than an afterthought during the Second World War, when he declared himself a liberal.
The respect Fulford currently commands for being “in the business of public enlightenment” was still decades away in his childhood and he was seen as unequivocally normal, especially next to child prodigy Gould, who was relentlessly praised and celebrated for his musical talent. Fulford branded Gould a “born intellectual” when the two were only nine.
Today, freelance writer David Hayes describes Fulford this way: “If he were a cartoon character, his head would be giant and his body would be two inches tall.” It’s a reference to what must be a huge storehouse in Fulford’s brain that holds the millions of words and ideas he has been exposed to since he started reading in the Beach’s tiny library as a teen. The man is always reading and seldom leaves home without a book or, often, when he goes to lunch at a restaurant, a stack of newly purchased magazines.
But from a young age, Fulford had great difficulty focusing while in school. “… I took Latin because my father (who had none) assured me it would help my English; in June my mark was 12 out of 100, which may have reflected generosity on the teacher’s part,” he wrote. It was because of a condition he now vaguely attributes to Attention Deficit Disorder, then unheard of. He believes it is the reason he was never motivated to study anything but English or history. “Who knows why I liked reading? It seemed natural,” says Fulford when I ask how he sustained the hobby while having ADD. “It’s almost chemical.” Coming from a family of journalists — his father worked for The Canadian Press and his great-grandfather was a newspaper editor — his house was never short on reading material.
Fulford was motivated to work through his ADD, or laziness as it was thought of at the time, by his intense desire to become a journalist. In his mind, there was no other career and he made sure he excelled at typing (he had seen newspaper reporters frantically pounding away at their typewriters and so felt it was an essential skill to learn). “I knew a lot of people who were unhappy in their jobs,” he says. “Journalism seemed like a way to sustain my interest. It was always something different.”
Through his father’s connections he secured a part-time job as a copy boy at The Globe and Mail at age 16. Two years later, he dropped out of Malvern Collegiate Institute in Grade 12. At the time, he was a year older than the other students, having repeated the tenth grade.
Eventually Fulford worked his way to sports writer, “the lowliest employee above copy boy,” and then to general reporter, where he usually found he was the youngest person covering an event. Whatever ambition he lacked as a teenager, he made up for in his work as a journalist.
During his early career he also worked for Canadian Homes and Gardens and Mayfair. In 1962, he became an editor at Maclean’s. Just two years into the job came an early example of him acting on principle: along with six other editors, he resigned from the magazine after a Maclean-Hunter vice-president killed a story at the printing stage without consulting the editor. “If a vice-president could kill an article on a whim, the editors were no longer in charge,” he wrote about the incident.
After Maclean’s, Fulford began writing regularly for Saturday Night, producing daily columns for the Star and hosting a CBC radio show, This Is Robert Fulford, which was created by his future wife, Sherman, whom he married in 1970. At Saturday Night his pieces were written under a pseudonym (first name Marshall, taken from his middle name; last name Delaney, an homage to a deceased relative) because the Star editorial board felt it owned his image and suggested the use of an alias. “…I found myself shedding at least some of the impersonal quality that dominated my early writing,” Fulford wrote of the freedom that came with writing under a different identity.
In 1968, the editorship of Saturday Night opened and Fulford got the job. Known for its long-form journalism and talented writers, when it ceased publication in 2005, Bert Archer from the Star remarked that issues ofSaturday Night under Fulford were among the best in the magazine’s century-plus history.
Fulford left Saturday Night in 1987, after the magazine was sold to media tycoon Conrad Black. Fulford sensed that Black would interfere with the editorial content, something he passionately opposed, and decided to quit. “Mr. Fulford’s resignation caused an uproar in Canada’s cultural community…” wrote the Globe. But Fulford’s commitment to free speech shouldn’t have shocked anyone. Decades before, in the ’60s, he testified at a string of obscenity trials, which loosened censorship laws.
There have been numerous instances throughout his career when Fulford has unfailingly demonstrated his willingness to be a lone, contradictory voice. For example, when Princess Diana died in 1997, Fulford ignored the natural urge to canonize her, unlike many contemporaries. He wrote, “Like all celebrities, she passionately sought publicity but wanted it on her own terms. She believed, mistakenly, thatshe could control it. On Saturday night, seeking privacy, she had dinner at the Ritz.” The power of the public intellectual,” wrote Michael Higgins in the Globe in October 2006 following the death of another respected and sometimes controversial man of ideas, Lister Sinclair, “resides in the genius of detachment, in the capacity to critique ideas, conventions and orthodoxies employing the tools of public intelligibility and public visibility.”
After 9/11, Fulford was invited to speak at several conferences and lectures on terrorism, primarily due to the steady stream of critiques in his Post column, such as this one: “In recent weeks, several thousand commentators, most of whom are in no position to know, have earnestlyinformed us that terrorists constitute at most the tiniest, tiniest minority of Muslims. That’s what we all want to believe, but the evidence remains slim.”
Or, following a CBC forum that discussed Toronto’s Muslim community after September 11, he wrote of the Muslim participants: “They reflected a sharp ambivalence that may be characteristic of many Muslims living in the West. Whenever condemning terrorism, they also felt called upon to attack American policy in the Gulf, the Middle East, etc.”
Comments like these led the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) to nominate Fulford in 2002 to its “Who’s Who of Anti-Islam at the National Post,” which the CIC considers the worst newspaper in Canada in terms of its treatment of Muslims in the media. More recently, the national president of the CIC, Mohamed Elmasry, wrote to the Post in response to Fulford’s column on the Danish Muhammad cartoons: “Mr. Fulford was anti-Islam, lacking balance and fairness… [He] neglected to tell readers why he thinks the Muhammad cartoons are a ‘bogus controversy.’”
Others, too, have lambasted him for his blunt columns. After he wrote that Muslims have a higher inclination for war than other “disputatious civilizations now competing,” the Globe’s Rick Salutin replied in his column: “A propensity for war? Among 1.3 billion different people?” One Post reader in Victoria wrote in an October 2001 letter to the newspaper: “Mr. Fulford… seems to be preaching a division between Islam and the West. Does this mean we should declare war on states such as Egypt and Indonesia?”
In response to these critiques of his articles, Fulford insisted during our conversations that he’s not anti-Islam. But he feels strongly that the most important thing to remember is “the people who were killed on September 11.” He thinks Muslims are focusing too much on their potential to be targets of discrimination.
On the day of the 2005 London bombings, the president of the CIC issued a bulletin: “Islamic Congress condemns London terrorist bombings and hopes Canadian Muslims do not pay the guilty-by-association price.” Fulford wrote, “Couldn’t he have waited until, say, the end of the day?” The next day, after being “soundly ridiculed” by Fulford, according to the Post’s Jonathan Kay, the CIC issued a new statement, solely expressing condolences and omitting any reference to the discrimination.
If Fulford seems abrupt in his columns, it’s because he has little patience for political correctness, which, as he explained to Canadian Jewish News, is a “condition that lives on the fear of giving offence.”
He never flinches at the idea of upsetting anyone with his writing. “I hope I’m not writing things everyone agrees with,” he says. “If there’s nothing that anyone disagrees with, why bother?” That’s not to say that he’s immune to reacting negatively toward other writers’ columns. He’s always spoken out against anti-Americanism, which he equates with other forms of racism and anti-Semitism. In fact, his admiration for liberalism waned after Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson’s 1963-’68 administration, which he respected because “they never thought for a moment the Americans were our enemies.” In 1968, he wrote this sharp analogy: “Inside our own heads, we Canadians relate to Americans as poor white southerners relate to Negroes… We at least see ourselves as morally superior to Americans.” He’s never lived in the U.S. but has always loved the country. When the Globe’s Ray Conlogue wrote, “America, as many observers have noticed, is a country which does not recognize the tragic dimension of life,” Fulford hit back with this response: “But it takes a very particular kind of arrogance to deliver such a judgment from Toronto at a moment in history such as this one.” Both pieces appeared shortly after September 11. American-born writer Bob Levin scoffs at Fulford’s unyielding admiration for the U.S.: “Who doesn’t resent the richest guy on the block, just a little?” There is also the matter of the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about which Fulford is vehemently pro-Israel. This makes any writers who sympathize with the Palestinian side a bit of a punching bag for Fulford. “I’m as certain as I am of anything on Earth that the Star routinely gives the benefit of the doubt to Israel’s enemies and denounces every flaw it finds in Israel’s policy.” He’s visited Israel twice since 9/11 and so strongly does he side with the Israeli people that he says, “An anti-Israeli bias is a mask for anti-Semitism. I often find they go together.”
Critics think that it is only in recent years that Fulford has moved to the right politically. In fact, for most of his career, it has been difficult to pinpoint his place on the political spectrum. And he admits to casting “a few Liberal, Conservative and NDP votes” in his time. Still, it’s clear there’s been a rightward shift since 9/11 and there are several views on why. A few friends, like Ross and Fraser, say it’s a natural progression of getting older. Hayes points out that Fulford was never a strong leftist to begin with. Star media critic Antonia Zerbisias says his conservative politics became much more apparent once he joined the Post. Lorne Gunter from the Post says the political spectrum has moved while he remained the same. Fulford himself acknowledges his shift to the right but does not have a clear answer as to why. While 9/11 was a significant moment in his life, he says, he had become increasingly conservative long before that—when “liberalism became oppressive.” Fulford has disliked the past few Liberal prime ministers and their policies and has written wickedly funny critiques of Jean Chrétien (“inarticulate in both languages”), among others. Another source of his long-standing dissatisfaction with Liberals was Trudeau’s controversial use of the War Measures Act in 1970 during the October Crisis, which Fulford believes he handled badly. He has also called Paul Martin a “caricature of a prime minister.” However, he adds: “If the Conservatives had been in government for the past 40 years, I might be critical of them now.”
My last face-to-face interview with Fulford takes place on a chilly day at the Yonge and Bloor Starbucks. The man who knows a thing or two about magazine writing and no doubt has struggled numerous times with trying to capture the perfect symbol to encapsulate a profile subject has either deliberately or inadvertently given me my closing image. He breezes past the counter toward me, his cheeks still pink from the bitter wind outside. On his head, a symbol of the start of his career in the ’40s: a black and white cap, the kind newspaper boys once wore. Around his neck, a symbol of today: white headphones connected to a small silver iPod, which plays podcasts, classical music and jazz. It’s the perfect blend of old-school newspaperman and contemporary commentator.
Fulford would later explain to me that he has fond memories of what used to be housed in this Starbucks: Albert Britnell’s bookstore. During much of Fulford’s life, Britnell’s was probably Toronto’s most celebrated book shop, a haven for readers and intellects, like Davies, who was a frequent shopper. Fulford recalls the strict “Rosedale ladies of incredible manners” who served as clerks and had little patience for browsing teenagers who they assumed stole books and caused trouble. “They were so nasty.” It’s an adjective many of his critics would use to describe Fulford, the public intellectual who is unafraid to take the heat on issues large and small, like the fading away of a historic bookstore, at which he bought more than a few of that library of 4,000 books, to become yet another link in a huge U.S. chain that anti-Americans often loathe. Not one to resist change, Fulford wasn’t bothered at all by the conversion. In fact, he says, “I was the only one who didn’t mind.”
Amanda Pereira was the Director of Circulation for the Spring 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.