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by Maureen Scott
Peter has also interviewed the President of the United States, every sitting Canadian Prime Minister since Diefenbaker, Bill Gates, The Dalai Lama, he anchors CBC’s The National, hosts his own network TV show, Mansbridge One on One, he’s a best-selling author, an Order of Canada recipient, and the Stratford play he is seeing stars his wife, Cynthia Dale.
“People see me at the rink and then they see me on television that night,” says Peter. (He maintains a condo in downtown Toronto but goes home to Cynthia and their 10-year-old son Will on weekends).
“My real life is in Stratford and at our summer place in Thornbury. We love living in Stratford. It’s a great community. We don’t seem different from anyone else. Many celebrities, and I use that term loosely (he jokes), live here so people get used to seeing us (he and Cynthia) the same way they get used to seeing Colm Feore walking around town.”
While too humble to admit to being a celebrity, Peter does admit he got one heck of a lucky break at he start of his career.
“I think about it every day,” says Peter. “Somehow your fate is determined by luck. I got an amazing break, with no education or training, and then I had to work hard.”
The “break” Peter refers to is something right out of the pages of a fairy tale. It was 1968— Peter was 19, a “high-school dropout,” and working as a ticket agent for Transair in Churchill, Manitoba.
did just about every job possible from loading planes to keeping the
engines warm in Manitoba’s wintry north. Then one September day, fate
would change the course of Peter’s life. He was asked to “announce” the
flight… “Transair Flight 106 for Thompson, The Pas and Winnipeg is now
ready for boarding at Gate One. Passengers with small children…”
A passenger stepped out of the lineup and told Peter he had a great voice and asked if he had ever considered being on radio. The man was Gaston Charpentier, the Station Manager of CHFC, the CBC station in Churchill.
“That very night he had me doing the late-night two-hour music show at CHFC,” says Peter in his new book Peter Mansbridge One on One. “A one-hour training course, a quick tour…and that was that. My career in broadcasting had begun.”
He loved it and found his niche in news. The self teaching had also begun. It was on to CBC Radio and TV in Winnipeg, then became The National’s reporter in Saskatchewan, then one of the program’s parliamentary correspondents in Ottawa before becoming the chief correspondent and anchor of The National in 1988.
Two decades as a reporter, two more decades as a news anchor, Peter estimates he’s conducted over 10,000 interviews in his career. “Prime Minister Trudeau was always a challenge,” says Peter. “I interviewed him eight to ten times at the beginning and the end of his career. He was really on his game and he was smarter than everyone else. He had the potential to really make you look bad.”
Peter still shakes his head when asked about his interview with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “What I think you probably can’t print,” laughs Peter. It was 1993 and the then former Prime Minister of Britain was on a book tour promoting her memoirs. Peter had read the book and was keenly interested in discussing the Falklands War (he says he has a fascination with wartime leadership and the one person in history he wishes he could have interviewed was Winston Churchill). The “Iron Lady” accused Peter on air of not reading the book. “What I wish I had asked was ‘Did you actually write the book?’ I think for her it was part of the game – part of her defense. It wasn’t a good interview, not her fault really. I hadn’t figured out how to crack the interview.”
In February 2009, Peter found himself in the White House, sitting next to President Barack Obama. It was an exclusive interview - Obama’s first Canadian interview since taking office. “I was surprisingly calm that morning, but as I was walking across the hotel lobby before going to the White House, I glanced down and realized I was wearing the wrong pants to my suit,” says Peter. “I wasn’t upset but I realized I was nervous after all.”
And that, is a good thing, says Peter.
“It’s okay to be nervous; there is always some degree of that,” he explains. “I hoped for that when I first started in broadcasting. One night I was co-hosting election night coverage with Bill Guest, the local anchor in Winnipeg. He was the consummate performer. I was so nervous and I happened to look over at Bill and I saw that his hand was shaking. That surprised me. I said, ‘Bill, are you nervous?’ He said, ‘The day you are not nervous you should get out of this business.’”
Peter admits he still gets butterflies prior to going on air. “I’m still a bit nervous but it’s more like an adrenaline rush. It’s not like I’m about to vomit or anything. It’s good to be nervous because it helps get your energy up. This is what they pay you for – to deliver – so you need to be up to the task.”
Obviously he is, with 12 Gemini Awards for Excellence in broadcast journalism.
I mention that Barbara Walters seems to have earned a reputation as the interviewer who can make people cry. ‘What do you want people to say about your interviewing technique?”
“That I bring people back on track,” says Peter. “I challenge them to answer questions. People aren’t stupid; they know when someone is avoiding the question. The majority, 75% of people are looking for information and it upsets them when people are not honest and transparent. But you can only ask so many times. You can word it a different way like, ‘I’ll take that as a no—force them to reply and give them every opportunity to respond. What I believe in is being polite but firm.”
What’s the secret to a great interview? “Do your homework and be a good listener,” says Peter. “It’s not always easy. One of the ways I force myself to listen is to do the interview without notes. I used to go into an interview with tons of notes, but I haven’t done that in years. It’s meant to be a conversation.”
Aside from thanking his lucky stars, Peter says he is also thankful to his parents for giving him an interest in news from the time he was a young boy. “We openly discussed news at home and that was no small thing. At lunch, dinner – Dad always came home at lunchtime. We got into some lively debates around the dinner table.
Peter’s Dad, who he says is his hero, was the Assistant Deputy of Health for the Federal Government before becoming the Chief Deputy Minister of Health and Welfare in Alberta.
“Mom was a homemaker. She was always there for us—those were different times.”
In the most heart-wrenching chapter in his new book, Peter talks about the death of his mother after a long battle with cancer, tied into his interview with Dr. Devra Davis, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer. Family and friends are of key importance. At 61, Peter has two grown daughters from his first marriage; a banker and a teacher, and two grandchildren, all of whom live in Western Canada. His second marriage was to CBC journalist Wendy Mesley.
Peter met Cynthia Dale at CBC when she was starring in Street Legal and the two were volunteering for a literacy campaign with Peter Gzowski. (Cynthia grew up close to Mississauga and went to school in Etobicoke).
Considering that Peter is away from home most of the week, he tries to spend every minute possible with Cynthia and their son Willie on the weekends. Peter is one of three coaches for his son’s hockey team, which recently won the area championships. “We both love hockey. Willie went with me when I interviewed Sydney Crosby, so that was very exciting. We also golf together and Willie and I love to go to watch his Mom perform.”
Heads turn when Peter Mansbridge walks on to a golf course, and I suspect anywhere else he goes. He is after all one of the most recognizable faces in the country, coming into our living rooms every night at 10 p.m. on The National. Peter has a presence of greatness and a wonderful sense of humour. The day we teed up (pardon the pun) at Mississauga’s BraeBen Golf Course, we headed up to the 7th hole. Golfers stopped to come over to shake Peter’s hand. One foursome stopped their golf cart to find out what all the lights and cameras were about. A jovial good sport, Peter called over to them; “I just made three holes in ones so they had to take my picture!”
Peter says he has played with the same foursome for over 35 years.
“We became friends in Ottawa and grew up together. We take annual trips to Scotland to golf. None of us are any good!” he laughs. “We just love the game.”
I ask; “If you could have a dream foursome, who would they be?”
“My son, for one. I golf with him a lot,” says Peter without hesitation. “It’s going to be great when he is old enough to come with me to Scotland. It’s more important to me to golf with friends than to golf with celebrities.”
You can’t help but feel comfortable talking to Peter Mansbridge. It’s sort of like talking to a good neighbour over the fence but instead of discussing the merits of the latest lawn fertilizer, you are discussing Peter’s latest interview like it’s no biggie.
In One on One, Peter shares his up close and personal conversations with 40 of the who’s who in world politics, arts and entertainment, sports, and the newsmakers behind the biggest issues of our times.
He bookends each interview with candid recollections and anecdotes. It’s the kind of book that you can’t put down; each story more fascinating than the last. And Peter’s own fairy tale life story ranks right up there with the best of the best. GL
In February 2009, Peter Mansbridge
was the first Canadian to interview
United States President Barack Obama
at the White House.
Photo by Christopher Wall
On the set of
CBC's The National
Photo by Christopher Wall