Duffy, the consummate performer, shines in role as aggrieved patriot

OTTAWA – The story from an old hand at CTV sums up many Canadians’ long-running fascination with Mike Duffy — and the corresponding ambivalence of those closest to the powerful political orator from P.E.I.

“You work with Mike Duffy? What a great guy!” was once a common refrain from casual observers of Ottawa’s political scene.

“Well, he plays one on TV,” was the standard, deadpan response.

Late Tuesday afternoon in the Senate chamber, Duffy, 66, was back doing what he does best.

Duffy’s soaring, incendiary send-up of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his closest confidantes was the most riveting political theatre the capital has seen in years — and it wasn’t even televised.

Only the live audio of Senate proceedings is broadcast outside the chamber. Even so, when both CTV and CBC’s major all-news networks started airing Duffy’s distinctive tenor live, it was must-watch TV.

“Today you have an opportunity to stand strong and use your power to restrain the unaccountable power of the PMO,” Duffy, fighting for his Senate paycheque if not his reputation, told the chamber.

“That’s what this Senate’s about — sober second thought, not taking dictation from kids in short pants down the hall.”

He urged his Senate colleagues to reject “these outrageous motions” to expel him and two other former Conservative senators without pay.

“Tell the whips, my oath as a senator is to put Canada first — and that comes before my loyalty to any party or any leader,” Duffy said.

Love him or loathe him, it was stirring stuff: part wounded patriot, part comrade scorned, part righteous angel.

As he exited the Senate chamber following his virtuoso performance, Duffy was asked by reporters what message his bombshell revelations carried for the Canadian public.

“The message to Canadians is we should have TV in the Senate,” Duffy responded.

That too, was classic Ol’ Duff.

Duffy has always been an unlikely, larger-than-life character who used his voice and personality to project himself across a sparsely populated country using hard work, a gift for words, insider gossip, political acumen and unvarnished ambition.

He has also unapologetically burned bridges for decades.

From his teenage turn as a disc jockey in Charlottetown, he migrated to Ottawa in the 1970s and made a name for himself in radio news before moving to CBC TV.

He became a media mover on Parliament Hill, eventually jumping to Baton Broadcasting where he hosted a new Sunday morning news program.

One of his most memorable performances came late in the 2008 election campaign, when a chortling Duffy went to air exhorting his CTV viewers to set their VCRs and PVRs because they were about to witness a political train wreck of historic proportions.

The outtakes of a disastrous interview with Liberal leader Stephane Dion, in which the English-challenged Quebecer stumbled repeatedly over an oddly worded question, proved devastating. Conservative insiders widely credited the interview as an electoral boon.

And 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.”

Duffy, by then, was a Conservative senator, already hitting the circuit where his high public profile made him a big fundraising draw for the party faithful, especially in small-town Canada.

His stump speeches always left the partisans begging for more.

Even as Duffy’s whole world began crashing down last winter over allegations of inappropriate housing allowance claims and other expense jiggery-pokery, Duffy maintained a brave front — archly hinting on more than one occasion that he’d have much to say at the appropriate time.

Late Tuesday afternoon he made good.

“I rise here today against the orders of my doctors, who fear my heart condition has worsened after months of unrelenting stress,” the senator for P.E.I. said to open his address to the Senate.

During the riveting 20 minutes or so that followed, Duffy didn’t sound stressed. He sounded like he was in his element.

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