OTTAWA – Mike Duffy has always been a larger-than-life character in political Ottawa, a chortling bundle of affable good cheer, prodigious appetites, nudge-wink insider gossip, political acumen, relentless name-dropping and unvarnished ambition.
He’s also been an unapologetic bridge-burner.
The 66-year-old, who cultivated his title as Senator Duffy as early as the 1980s when still a working a journalist, always aspired to a seat in the upper chamber.
He told CBC’s Peter Gzowski in a 1985 radio interview that some newly appointed Liberal senators bedevilling then-Finance minister Michael Wilson “haven’t learned that this is a place where you’re supposed to sip scotch quietly and not cause too much of a ruckus.”
“Unfortunately, some of these new people appointed in the last year and a half actually seem to think they should take this seriously and they run the risk of getting the place abolished before I’m old and grey enough ever to be considered for an appointment,” he said, before quickly adding: “that’s a joke.”
Thursday evening the jokes all came crashing down, less than five years after Prime Minister Stephen Harper handed Duffy the brass ring he’d always sought. Duffy has caused another ruckus, and this one proved costly.
It’s just the latest chapter in a colourful story that no one should consider over, given Duffy’s tenacity in rebounding.
The one-time disc jockey in Charlottetown made it to the big leagues when he moved to the capital in the 1970s, where he built a reputation with the biggest news radio station in town as a hard-nosed digger who relentlessly pursued his political adversaries and friends alike. Within two years he’d landed a job with CBC Radio, which he soon parlayed into a CBC TV gig.
A brilliant decade on Parliament Hill prompted Duffy to jump to Baton Broadcasting where he could establish himself as the top dog as the first host of a new Sunday morning news program.
Duffy cultivated an image as an Ottawa insider with a layman’s sensibilities, an odd combination of Machiavelli cunning and Prince Edward Island back-slapping ingenue.
He attracted the most important interviews and attended all the right parties.
Duffy became a member of the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
But he also left in the wings a trail of embittered producers, technicians and other co-workers unamused by his high-handed off-camera persona.
Old Duff. The Duffinator. The Puffster, to the satirical press – which he sued, claiming Frank Magazine’s lampooning had cost him the Order of Canada.
His journalism career effectively came to an end during the 2008 election, when Duffy gleefully took to the airwaves exhorting his CTV viewers to set their VCRs and PVRs because they’d want to watch the coming train wreck over and over. He then aired the outtakes of a disastrous interview with Liberal leader Stephane Dion, in which the English-challenged Quebecer stumbled repeatedly over an oddly worded question by a CTV interviewer in Halifax.
Conservative insiders widely credited the interview as the fatal torpedo in Dion’s listing Liberal campaign. In February 2009 the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled Duffy had violated journalist ethics by airing an interview that “was not fair, balanced or even-handed.”
But by then Duffy had left CTV for life as a Conservative senator, which he took to with partisan gusto.
He’s been a fixture on the Conservative fundraising circuit ever since, bolstering the coffers of everyone from top cabinet ministers such as Diane Finley to back-benchers like Mark Warwara.
And he’s dodged years of questions about his P.E.I. residency, telling a reporter in 2009 he was “beneath contempt” for even asking about Duffy’s longstanding Ottawa address.
When the scandal first broke last winter over allegations of inappropriate housing allowance claims, Duffy was indignant.
In February, tracked down by a reporter with Charlottetown Guardian newspaper, Duffy was at his imperious best.
“It’s none of your business. I’ve said too much already. When it’s all over, you all will be very embarrassed,” he told the young reporter.
There may be Duffy’s political epitaph somewhere in those words. Just don’t write it yet. He’s a survivor.