I worked with Peter Naglik between 1997 and 2001 at Queen’s Park in what was then called Government Members’ Services, in the research and communications shop.
Though our team included people who had worked in the Premier’s Office, in ministers’ offices, and the former top civil servant in an Atlantic province, we suspected that we were looked upon with a mixture of pity and derision by many of our colleagues who got paid by the Government of Ontario, and not by the Legislative Assembly.
In opposition, caucus service bureaus face huge demands and are relied upon heavily by leaders and members. But in government -- free of the inertia of the bureaucracy, and largely ignored by the media -- they are able to devote much of their resources to pure, unadulterated politics, i.e. F-U-N. Opposition research. Attack releases. Recording, transcribing and regurgitating the careless bluster of hapless critics and MPPs.
Prudence and modesty preclude me from detailing our exploits more fully. Suffice to say our boss liked to inspire us with this quote from “Conan the Barbarian:”
Mongol General: Conan, what is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!
With Conan’s bloodlust as our credo, we hardly missed the turgid briefing notes, endless meetings, Question Period, or angry calls from the Premier’s Office (though they knew they could count on us when needed) – the quicksand that pushed at both ends of every government staffer’s day. Why would we?
One of Peter’s moments of glory came during the 1999 general election, when he was doing media monitoring late one night. He spotted a new Liberal ad, one featuring a clip of the Premier describing himself as “mean, mad Mike Harris.” Peter thought he recognized it from an old Focus Ontario broadcast. By morning, the tape had been located, reviewed and our war room was all over the fact that the Liberals had taken Harris’s quote wildly out of context. Harris had in fact been hypothesizing about what his reaction would be if the federal Liberals were to waste the money they cut from transfer payments to the provinces on a new program, instead of balancing the budget. (As history and Gomery have recorded, they ended up doing both.)
There are few bigger coups during an election than having your opponent’s paid media blow up in his face. Peter could have bragged about having bagged that rarest of election game, but didn’t. The thrill of nailing the Liberals was reward enough.
Peter not only had a sharp eye, and an even sharper pen, but a gift for the invented word and pointed phrase. Caribbana was, in his view, “Scary-bana.” He referred to gay conservatives – some of whom were genuine friends – as “homo-cons.” The PC-DRC alliance was the “Tory Dorks.” Commenting on the personal hygiene of a certain member of the Queen’s Park Press Gallery, he remarked that said reporter always looked like a “glazed donut.” He occasionally referred to one of our MPPs, Carl De Faria, as “Count Chocula.” There was no malice in any of this – it was merely Peter’s mischievous yet accurate shorthand.
Peter was an exacting writer, but it amused him to see others hammer perfectly innocent words into ungainly shapes to fit their political ends. He particularly enjoyed the way the word “community” was seized upon by any group grasping for political, societal or professional legitimacy, such as the “actuarial community” – a real example. He would have been tickled that the Ottawa Citizen report of his death included not one, but two quotes featuring the phrase “political community.”
Peter’s and my time at GMS was concurrent with a turbulent yet seemingly hopeless era in federal politics. How far away now seem the passions that surrounded Reform’s reinvention as the Canadian Alliance, the leadership of Stockwell Day, and the futile attempts to merge with the broke-but-proud PCs. Peter had respect for many of us PCs, even the ones who opposed merger – though he did try to rile me with offhand remarks about how the PC party was really being run by David Orchard.
Working on the CA’s 2000 election campaign left him slightly bruised, but unbowed. When he went to work in the leader’s office for Day in 2001, I told him I thought what he was doing was honourable, though the truth unacknowledged between us was that it was probably a lost cause. Day, already wounded by his own mistakes, was besieged by a cabal that had never accepted his wresting of the leadership from Preston Manning.
But Peter went anyway. For all of his respect for strategy and tactics, focus and discipline, Peter still believed that substance matters. That politics is about more than being with the winner, or a $25,000 cheque for two months’ work on a leadership campaign. Sometimes it’s about helping a friend who’s in a tougher race than he expected. Sometimes it’s helping someone track down a report or quote they can’t remember the title or date of. To turn Vince Lombardi on his head: in politics, winning may be everything, but to Peter it wasn’t the only thing.
When I took Peter for a farewell lunch at the Hart House Gallery Club, then councillor Tom Jakobek and former councillor Dennis Fotinos recognized him and greeted him warmly. That was typical of the “Naglik knows” myth that was 5 per cent myth and 95 per cent reality. Once he participated in a “dead pool” at Queen’s Park and predicted that then Globe and Mail editor William Thorsell would meet his maker sometime in the following year. A Queen’s Park columnist immediately e-mailed Peter, demanding “What do you know?” Nothing, as it turned out. But Peter relished having set the cat among the pigeons.
Peter had a strong faith, which I envied desperately. He respected most religions, but scoffed at those that seemed determined to sand down all their surfaces until only a toothpick remained. When we attended a Canadian Club luncheon, he expressed sarcastic astonishment that the United Church minister who said grace actually uttered the word “Jesus.”
I have no doubt that Peter’s faith was the soil from which his general cheer and equanimity grew. Once during a conversation we were having about the state of the world, he said that he believed we were living in the “end times” (I wasn’t always sure when he was pulling my leg). I responded with something forgettable – which I have forgotten – to which he chuckled, threw up his hands and replied, “I gotta go sometime.”
That his sometime has come now, has broken my heart in a way that I thought it could never be broken again. But I will not begrudge him the break. He deserves that and more.
Rest in peace, unique one. Or as you would say, “Bye for now.”