The great Rahim Jaffer phone-in hoax
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, March 21, 2001)

Some said it was a hoax, others called it a gaffe, and those who were sympathetic suggested it was a lapse. Astonishingly, no one seemed delighted to learn that Matthew Johnston had impersonated his boss, Rahim Jaffer, MP, in an interview on a Vancouver radio station last weekend. In fact, the Ottawa faces appearing on TV were so long that you might almost think something bad had happened. The 800-odd words in the National Post's main piece yesterday included apologize, disgraced, lying, tearful, devastated, imbroglio, resign, investigating, abhorrent and shocked, more baleful language than you find in most murder coverage. The Vancouver radio station's listeners were reported to be angry, which can only mean they were desperate for something to be angry about.

Has the country lost its sense of humour? Do these people --politicians, TV reporters, editorial writers, callers to phone-in shows, etc. -- imagine that Canada is such a laff riot that we can afford to be ungrateful when something genuinely funny happens? Rather than obloquy, the two gentlemen involved deserve praise for wit and originality.

What Mr. Johnston pulled off, and Mr. Jaffer briefly lied to cover up, was applied satire.

Because the MP was double-booked (so the story goes), the assistant stepped in like an understudy and took over his role. It must have seemed logical. If Mr. Johnston is like most assistants, he probably thinks he understands the material better than his boss and could expect to do at least as well on the air.

But as things worked out, the incident focused attention on two more or less serious issues. It reminded us, first, that most politicians say only what we expect anyway, and usually serve as mouthpieces for assistants and speech writers. So why not have journalists interview the speechwriters and cut out (as they say in business) the middleman? The other point is that the Alliance is so weak and unfocused in Opposition that it might as well not be there, a comment often made in Ottawa these days. Mr. Johnston simply turned this widespread perception into a literal fact.

Why did he do it? Perhaps only his subconscious knows. In any case, he spontaneously constructed what the art world used to call a "Happening," an event that was partly staged and partly unpredictable. Here, the unpredictable part was the aftermath.

The precedent was set decades ago by Andy Warhol, when he was invited to lecture at universities. Warhol couldn't speak, or wouldn't. An audience or a microphone terrified him, and he answered most questions with one or two syllables, his longer responses consisting of "Uh ... no, I don't think so, probably." So he sent out to the universities a mock-Andy, someone who looked like him, in a fright wig just like his, to show a couple of Warhol movies and take questions. To Warhol, using a doppelg„nger seemed as logical as the Vancouver substitution did to Mr. Johnston. The student audiences could enjoy gawking at a reasonable facsimile, the colleges could enjoy the reflection of his fame, and the impersonator would be, at a minimum, as articulate as Warhol.

Unfortunately, the ruse was exposed when a gossip column reported Andy's appearance at a party in New York just as the impersonator was performing at a university in the Midwest. But Warhol, always ahead of his time, had done his part to invent virtual reality.

The "lie" that Mr. Jaffer briefly told (he first claimed he had actually done the interview, then quickly changed his story) was easily the most innocent fib exposed in Ottawa in years. Even so, he was relieved of his post as chair of the Alliance's small business committee and sent in disgrace to the backbenches. Yesterday morning he stood up in the House and apologized, looking like a penitent schoolboy who had been told to take it like a man. He will no doubt be back in a while, cleansed by time and contrition. He will not be the first politician denigrated for what should be considered his finest hour. As for Mr. Johnston, the scapegoat aide, he will no doubt soon find work with an employer who appreciates his comic sense.

Together, they did more for the gaiety of the nation than most of our paid TV clowns. They also reminded us that if politicians can't organize the health system or protect the dollar (and they can't), then they can at least earn their pay by amusing us.

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