I’m standing at rec-eption in The Drake Hotel, a posh Toronto haunt for artists, authors, and alternative scenesters, waiting for Paul Wells. He’s flown in from Ottawa to hear Branford Marsalis. The show was “absurdly sold out,” he said in the email, but the first set was an industry showcase, so he might have some pull. The Maclean’s back-page columnist suggested I meet him at his hotel around 5:30 and then we could catch a cab to the Top O’ the Senator, where the quartet is performing. The receptionist lets me use the house phone, and moments later a five-foot-nine man in a black suit appears at the top of the main stairs, adjusting his cuffs. “Amber!” he booms, pausing to point at me.
“P-paul!” I stutter, pointing back, as he bounds down the stairs.
“Nice to meet you.” He extends his hand on the third – last step.
“All right, let’s go hang out.”
The cab ride is quiet. I ask Wells if he plays an instrument. He grins and looks out the window, his face turning red. “I own a trumpet….” When we pull up beside the Senator, there is a line of people waiting. Wells perks up as lingering thoughts of Parliament Hill fade.
“Hey, Paul, how are you?” calls out a young man rushing over to shake his hand.
“Hey!” Wells smiles, returning the greeting. “That’s David Virelles, a Cuban jazz pianist,” he says to me. “I wrote a piece about him.”
As we head to the door, several people greet Wells. Like Virelles, most are in their 20s and wear toothy grins. Some older people stop Wells, too, and entering the pre-show party on the third floor, Marsalis himself puts an arm around Wells. “This guy is all good,” he says, laughing and hugging.
Back on the second floor, the lights dim and the quartet takes the stage. Wells and I sit near the front at a reserved table. In front of him is a Labatt Blue Light that he’s brought down from upstairs, a Diet Pepsi he ordered the first time around, the Maker’s Mark bourbon whisky he ordered when the waiter forgot our original order, and a glass of water to go with his tomato soup and caesar salad. Bobbing his head and tapping his feet, he swigs from the beer, sips the soup and the whisky, gulps down some water, and finishes off with a slurp of Diet Pepsi. The salad sits untouched until later. He shouts, “Yeah!” and “Uh” when the tempo changes.
Like Marsalis, the 38-year-old Wells is a seasoned improviser. Over the years, he’s developed his repertoire from jazz to politics, delivering stinging, swaggering, and sniggering commentary on federal government policy, politicians, and peers alike. He’s not only a marquee columnist at Maclean’s magazine – a place he calls a “great fixer-upper that you’d probably have to kill yourself to make great”- he’s a harbinger of change.
And now that Wells’s former editor and mentor Ken Whyte has replaced Anthony Wilson-Smith at the top, the century-old publication’s formula of repackaging the week’s news and running mind-numbing surveys is almost certainly due for a major overhaul. When Wilson-Smith hired Wells in June 2003, the question was how Wells’s verve might be used as a change agent to transform the moribund weekly. Now the question is how much.
Shaking up the established journalistic order was not exactly what Wells had in mind when he attended high school. As a teenager, he played trumpet in the school band and listened to jazz incessantly. He did show an interest in politics, but wanted to become a doctor because he thought they made the most money.
In 1984, Wells planned to major in chemistry at the University of Western Ontario. He laboured through first year and started flunking out in second. Around that point, the prime minister’s secretary quit at Western’s model student parliament, and a couple of guys from the dormitory asked Wells to fill in. Eager for any excuse to avoid chemistry, he went that night. He did little, but found the model parliament fascinating.
That same year, bebop giant Dizzy Gillespie came to town. Wells couldn’t scare up the $17 admission for one of his favourite trumpeters – he was living off Diet Coke and microwaved cheese towers, dubbed Cheesehenge (which he later wrote about in a Maclean’s university issue), but he discovered he could get in free if he wrote a review for The Gazette, the university newspaper. Wells then wrote another piece because he had a crush on the arts editor. He realized two things: one, everyone had a crush on the arts editor, so he might as well give up; and two, he could write. “I’d come in and say, ‘Hey, this is a draft article,’ and they’d be like, ‘This is a draft? This is better than most of what we see!'” The Gazette became his life – he dropped out of chemistry and transferred to political science, and spent more time at the paper than in class. He also freelanced for The London Free Press, landing a summer internship there before final year.
Upon graduation, Wells interned at Montreal’s The Gazette. As a general reporter, he struggled. He wrote smartly about jazz and covered various general stories, but really he needed a change of scenery. He took a year off to study politics in France and brush up his French. When he returned, he wrote more features and community stories, and “waited for them to notice I had spent a year studying politics.” In 1993, editor-in-chief Joan Fraser assigned Wells to the education beat so he could maintain focus. Determined to prove himself, he lasted a year.
During this period, Wells took three weeks off and introduced himself to Whyte, then the new editor ofSaturday Night. Wells had spent seven years “working up his courage” to talk to the previous editor, John Fraser, only to watch him leave. He figured, “Hey, I could blow another seven years, or I can catch the new guy before he finds the bathroom.” Whyte wanted new voices and was impressed by Wells’s passion for both music and politics. He was also desperate to find someone to profile Jacques Parizeau, and after discussing Quebec politics with Wells, he assigned it to him. “Finding somebody who could be equally fluent at both politics and art made me think that there might be an unusual talent there,” Whyte says. He eventually made Wells a contributing editor, assigning him a dozen more pieces.
In October 1994, the Gazette had an opening in Ottawa, and there weren’t a lot of star candidates for the job. The paper had reassigned Brian Kappler as the national editor, and the timing was perfect for Wells to make his Hill debut. Lucien Bouchard’s newly elected Parti Québécois government was planning a referendum on sovereignty association, national unity was at the top of the agenda, and Wells had spent two years in university studying the topics. His role began to shift. “As we got closer to the referendum,” he says, “I became less of a typical Ottawa correspondent chasing the press conference of the day and more of a political analyst.” He began writing longer pieces about public figures, and got angry at the prospect of the country splitting up, based on what he considered Bloc Québécois lies. “I had a dog in this race,” he says.
National exposure for Wells was limited to readers of the Gazette and Saturday Night, but editors and political writers took notice. Edward Greenspon, then The Globe and Mail‘s Ottawa bureau chief and associate editor, respected his “intelligence, confidence, and wit.” He and Wilson-Smith, then Ottawa bureau chief forMaclean’s, both tried to nab Wells to write for their respective publications. But Wells didn’t budge from his political columnist perch at the Gazette, one of North America’s oldest newspapers – he wanted to test the ground.
Then, in 1997, the ground shifted underneath everyone. Conrad Black wanted a national paper and held a secret meeting in Hamilton to discuss the possibility. Among the attendees were Whyte, Kappler, and Kirk LaPointe, who ran the Ottawa branch of the now-defunct Southam News operation and saw Wells every day. When discussion of a political columnist came up, their lists had Wells in common. They assumed – correctly – that he would join the paper. Wells had been at the Gazette for eight years by that point. Not wanting to “shut his brain off and go to sleep,” he figured, “what the hell. It’s Ken Whyte, it’s Conrad Black – you gotta die of something.”
It’s a cold November Tuesday in Ottawa. On the fourth floor of the National Press Gallery, Wells lounges at his desk, staring at his Apple laptop. He’s wearing faded blue jeans, a pumpkin-orange sweater, and gleaming black dress shoes. An online version of the latest Rick Mercer’s Monday Report is rolling. Mercer is arguing that Paul Martin cheated Newfoundland out of an election promise to hand over its offshore oil profits. As the clip ends, Wells hikes up his crooked glasses with his index finger, jumps up, and walks five steps to the only other occupied office in Suite 406. “Hey, have you heard Rick Mercer’s Monday Report?” Wells asks John Geddes, Maclean’s Ottawa bureau chief.
Geddes looks up and raises his eyebrow. “Well, no, I haven’t had a chance.”
“Come here,” Wells beckons with a wave of his hand and marches back to his desk, Geddes in pursuit. For the fourth time that morning, Mercer’s voice fills the tiny office, where the only window faces the side of a sandstone wall. Geddes hunches over as Wells taps his foot, arms crossed, ignoring the screen as he stares up at Geddes, eyes blazing, smirking.
“So, come on, Paul, honour the original deal,” Mercer wraps up his rant. “A deal’s a deal. Newfoundlanders know that. We’ve seen enough bad ones to last a lifetime.”
“Well,” says Geddes, “that’s a very… interesting interpretation of equalization.”
“I have to rebut that in my column,” Wells says. “Rick’s a sweetheart, but he can’t say stuff that’s just ridiculous. Newfoundland didn’t get screwed. I think this is the first time I’m actually going to have to agree with Paul Martin on something.”
Wells’s disagreements with the prime minister date to the beginning of the Martin era in Ottawa. In the fall of 2003, Wells went against the press coronation, and his criticism bordered on derision. In December 2003, he attacked the new government’s “findings” that the Chrétien administration played fast and loose with taxpayers’ money: “Half the cabinet ministers of the new government were members of the old government. What – did none of them notice the crisis until today? Crap lot of ministers they must be. Fire ’em, I say! Including the layabout who delivered nine of the last 10 federal budgets, whose name escapes.”
While it was rumoured in the press gallery that the Prime Minister’s Office handpicked reporters to receive the scoops of the day, Wells maintained an analytical approach in his columns. “The details must await Pettigrew’s big speech,” he wrote in April 2004. “But his boss gave a great big curtain-raiser on Friday, and this corner would be remiss if I did not give a major Martin speech the attention it deserves. (pause) There, that didn’t take long. Now let me give the speech more attention than it deserves, by analyzing it as though it were the expression of an organized government, rather than a random collection of syllables.” Despite the columnist’s sniping, the PMO has nothing but good things to say about Wells. Scott Reid, Martin’s director of communications, comes closest. “It’s not my place to say where I agree or disagree with journalists about what they write,” he says. “Wells is a remarkably gifted writer, has a good wit, a sharp mind, and that makes him entertaining to read even when I don’t really agree with what I’m reading.” Then again, who wouldn’t be entertained by the firecracker sarcasm imbedded in the anti-Martin rants?
At the Post, Wells created a new kind of column in Canada, something like the kind Matthew Parris and Quentin Letts wrote in Britain. It was more of a parliamentary sketch, following political figures in the Commons and writing about their characters in theatre-like fashion. Not only was it novel for this country, Wells combined his passion for art and politics, gained a national readership, and forced the Globe to compete. “It took an unusual talent,” says Whyte. “Somebody who not only understood the issues, and understood politics – but had a good eye for character and for the human dimension of stories.” Whyte began to hear a common refrain: “Because politicians knew their performance was being watched, they actually put more care, or caution, into what they were doing.”
Wells became one of the paper’s bulldogs, along with Christie Blatchford and David Frum. Within the first two weeks of the Post‘s October 27, 1998, debut, he attacked journalists: “After an hour, the witnesses left. Nobody had disagreed with anybody about anything. Useful work had been done. Interesting ideas discussed. No wonder I was the only journalist in the room. We hate this kind of stuff.” He attacked party leaders: “Yesterday Ms. McDonough was back, apparently at least somewhat repentant. She asked her first question in her lousy French, which seemed a bit cruel. Why make the rest of us suffer for her sins?” And he attacked the intelligence of a Member of Parliament: “Mr. Epp, you can use the word epitome anywhere you want. But next time, you might want to pronounce it ‘a pit o’ me,’ instead of ‘Eppy tohm.’ You need a break too.”
Wells kept his rhythm when the Aspers’ CanWest Global Communications Corp. bought the Post from Conrad Black in the summer of 2001, but might have missed a beat or two when new management laid off approximately 130 people on September 17, 2001. His buddies and fellow political writers Joan Bryden and Susan Delacourt were victims of the massive downsizing. Wells wasn’t canned and stayed on out of respect for Whyte.
Then, on May 1, 2003, Whyte, along with publisher Martin Newland, was fired. Wells became noticeably subdued around the office. A week before he left, in May 2003, he placed a picture of Whyte and Newland on top of his computer screen. Wells snapped the photo as he was arriving at a Blatchford house party, just after the Aspers took over. Whyte and Newland were escaping from the crowd on the patio, and when Newland saw Wells taking the shot, he grinned and gave him the finger.
Coworkers saw the display as a form of protest and could tell Wells was ready to bolt. “I thought I’d do what Ken hadn’t,” he says. “When Black sold to the Aspers, Ken considered quitting right there. He said, ‘If I left now, I wouldn’t have any bad memories. I could walk away. Every single day on the job would be a memory that I treasured.’ He stuck around, and they fired him.” Wells laughs now and says, “So I decided to take his earlier advice and leave while I was ahead.”
Wells made several calls. Within three days, Wilson-Smith offered him the vacant spot on the back editorial page of Maclean’s – Allan Fotheringham’s real estate for 27 years. “There were only two or three established voices in the country with the range and chops,” Wilson-Smith says. “Wells was one of them.” There were other offers, but none as “cool” as the back page of a weekly magazine with a national readership of close to three million people. “The point,” says Wells, “was to try something that might not work and go someplace good where it might be noticed.”
Some people have noticed Wells might care too much for his subjects. In a Post article dated October 19, 2004, Don Martin wrote that Wells had spent a weekend at Liberal MP Scott Brison’s summer house. According to Martin, when he asked Wells why he went, the Maclean’s columnist said: “Basically, I’m guilty as charged. If you’re going after that as an ethical thing, I deserve it.” Martin wasn’t sure he was going to use the incident in his column until, winding down the conversation, Wells said, “The short answer is because I felt like it.”
Wells rebutted Martin’s column on his blog, Inkless Wells. He and his girlfriend, Christina Lopes, visited the MP while they were vacationing in Nova Scotia, he explained. Brison “was not a Liberal cabinet minister but the heavily-indebted fourth-place washout candidate for the leadership of the fifth-place party.” He wrote that the underlying assumption in Martin’s column was that the biggest danger in political reporting is excessive sympathy for subjects. Wells countered that a comparable danger would be to assume all subjects are liars and scoundrels. Chantal Hébert, a Star columnist who has covered politics for 25 years, agrees – to a point. “There is a difference between compassion and building your social life around politicians,” she says. “You should get to know and understand the people that you cover – we are not part of the opposition. But I don’t think that involves me going on a canoe trip with Stephen Harper.”
“My line on schmoozing with politicians is pretty damned relaxed,” Wells admits, but he’s tried to keep his distance from those who have power – or are likely to get it. When he does, he tries to remain critical. Ask the prime minister, who twice has had Wells to his farm in the Eastern Townships.
But for someone who dishes it out, Wells occasionally has a hard time taking it. As a part of his Inkless Wellsrebuttal of the Brison incident, Wells asked readers for their opinions. When he received little response, he went after the Post. “Mostly what I heard today about Don Martin’s column in the Post,” he wrote, “is that a large number of my readers couldn’t be bothered to read it because they refuse to pay for a subscription to a newspaper’s website.” Martin sees it differently: “Maybe what wasn’t being read was his blog.”
Earlier, in 2001, Wells had a skirmish with Warren Kinsella, the Toronto-based lawyer and self-styled attack dog of Canadian politics. Wells went after Kinsella in a Post column over the blurb on his book jacket ofKicking Ass in Canadian Politics. In return, Kinsella posted a cartoon of Wells with horns on his website, calling him a “girl-crazy macrocephalic.”
According to Kinsella’s blog, he received a call from Scott Anderson, his editor at the Ottawa Citizen, asking him to take the picture down. Kinsella claims to have received a letter from Anderson’s boss, CanWest vice president Gordon Fisher, disapproving of “girl-crazy macrocephalic” line. Kinsella wrote that he was worried Wells might complain about him to someone else: “Like God.”
In 2005, a new shot of Wells with horns is on Kinsella’s site. It’s his response to a post on Inkless Wellsmaking fun of a recent email threat from Kinsella to Norman Spector, political writer and former chief of staff for Brian Mulroney. This time, Wells couldn’t be bothered: “If Kinsella is my biggest problem, I can look forward to meeting my maker in peace.”
Some say once a week is a poor frequency for a writer of Wells’s stature. Greenspon says “a weekly venue lessens Wells’s impact because Maclean’s isn’t as influential or widely read in circles of power.” Wells has tried to address the issue by posting regular updates on Inkless Wells. Lopes, an ex-CTV producer, gave him the idea to start blogging. After listening to him rant about issues for hours on end, she suggested he take it to his readers online. Wells posts on average eight times a week on politics, pop culture, and, of course, jazz – and 10 per cent of the magazine’s site visitors link directly to Inkless Wells. “There’s a real fearlessness about him,” says former colleague Bryden. “He’s willing to go out on a limb.”
In November 2003, for example, when there was much speculation about Chrétien’s retirement date, Wells devoted blogging space to his “only contribution to the non-stop parade of idiotic speculation.” He was critical of the lack of proper political reporting: “If the Parliamentary press gallery had devoted one-thousandth the energy it has committed to sterile guessing about Chrétien’s exit date to even one or two topics of actual interest to Canadians, our readers would know a hell of a lot more about the country than they do.”
Two paragraphs later, Wells joined the chorus: “End of rant. Sadly, I live here too, so my conditioned response to a month-long orgy of journalistic idiocy is to add to it. Here, then, is my two cents. Chrétien will be gone within weeks.” Four weeks later, Paul Martin became prime minister.
For all the exposure, Wells still receives emails wondering why he hasn’t written for the Post lately. He doesn’t see himself staying at the magazine as long as Fotheringham, but now that Whyte has arrived, all bets are off. He’s working on delivering more like a magazine writer and less like a newspaper writer, buying random magazines off the rack to study. The last time he and Lopes were in Montreal, Wells left her to go to the convenience store. “When he got back,” she jokes, “he had a stack of magazines. He was like, ‘Look! I got this, and this, and this.'” Lopes imitates him throwing down magazines. “‘And this… and Der Spiegel!’ He doesn’t even know German!”
Wells finishes his salad and leans back, listening intently as Marsalis wraps up. “Yeah!” he shouts. As the crowd gives a standing ovation, Wells remains seated and turns to me, “So what did you think?”
“Great!” I reply, clueless.
Wells pushes his glasses up on his nose and considers my comment. “Yeah, it was really good.” He stands up. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to kick you out for the second set. There are other people waiting to get in.”
I look out the door and, sure enough, a new lineup has formed. We shake hands. I ask him how he feels about Whyte – the man who gave a young reporter his first chance to write about politics at the national level – taking over Maclean’s. “I might be coming down to Toronto more often,” he says, a grin spreading across his face. “We’re going to have some fun.”