JEAN CHRETIEN TRIES TO POLISH HIS IMAGE WITH A HIGH-PROFILE VISIT TO THE UNITED STATES
THE ‘LITTLE GUY’S’ TRIP
JEAN CHRETIEN TRIES TO POLISH HIS IMAGE WITH A HIGH-PROFILE VISIT TO THE UNITED STATES
The 25-minute private meeting between President George Bush and Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien was intended strictly as a get-acquainted session. As Bush and Chrétien settled down on couches in the White House Oval Office late last week, they traded anecdotes about mutual acquaintances and jokes about their political futures. Said Chrétien, referring to Bush’s candidacy in the Feb. 18 presidential primary in New Hampshire: “I have lots of relatives living there, and they will help if you want.” Bush responded that he hoped “that will not be necessary.” But along with the smiles and pleasantries, the two men also discussed the sometimes rocky relationship between their countries. “I told him that, like most Canadians, I think Americans are our best friends,” Chrétien told Maclean’s later. “But while friendship is friendship, business is business— and some things need to change.”
Chrétien delivered that message bluntly, and often, during his five-day U.S. visit. In separate sessions with Bush, Senate majority leader George Mitchell and a series of key unelected government officials, the Liberal leader cited a series of disagreements between the two countries over the terms of the threeyear-old Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, along with polls showing growing Canadian dissatisfaction with the deal. His goal, he said, was to make clear to the Americans that if the Liberals win the next federal election, “we will push to reopen this deal, because that is what Canadians want.” But Chrétien’s trip also ap-
peared to have a more subtle purpose: to establish him at home as a leader who is comfortable dealing in international affairs.
By that standard, the trip was clearly a success. In fact, Chrétien’s public and private manner throughout the visit to New York City and Washington underscored the extent to which he has changed since capturing the Liberal leadership in June, 1990. Since then, some party insiders have criticized him for appearing stiff and mechanical in public and uncertain of what position to take on issues. He has also been dogged by rumors that he is ill with an unspecified disease—a fact that he vigorously denies. Even his spoken English— which in earlier times was described as charmingly fractured—seemed to have become more heavily accented, and sometimes indecipherable.
Those factors have influenced the electoral strategies of both the Liberals and Conservatives. Although the Liberals have been leading in the polls for well over a year, some party organizers acknowledge privately that much of their support is soft. Surveys also suggest that an unusually high proportion of respondents— often more than a third—are undecided or do not support any of the existing party leaders.
A similar mood of discontent surfaced recently in the Liberal party. Last year, some Liberals in Ottawa privately speculated that Chrétien—who had undergone surgery in February to remove a non-cancerous nodule from his right lung—might face pressure to step down before the next election because of his health, as well as suggestions that he had performed poorly as leader. Among those mentioned as potential successors: MPs and former leadership contenders Paul Martin Jr. and Sheila Copps, former Ontario premier David Peterson and Yves Fortier, whose term as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations ended in January. But those rumors subsided when Chrétien returned to full health.
Still, Chrétien faces numerous external challenges. Indeed, advisers to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney say that one of their principal aims in the next federal election campaign— which is expected in 1993—will be to portray Chrétien as being “not dignified enough” to represent Canada. In a Maclean’s interview
published earlier this year, Mulroney himself asked sarcastically: “Is Jean Chrétien the man you want to represent you internationally?”
But few of those problems were in evidence during Chrétien’s meetings last week. In private sessions with small groups, Chrétien speaks comfortably, and often eloquently, in both French and English. In public, his traditional problems with English syntax are compounded by the fact that he is partially deaf. To help him speak English better in public, he has been taking weekly private lessons.
During a 90-minute session hosted by Washington’s Center for Canadian Studies, Chrétien spoke easily and without notes to an audience of 100 students and bureaucrats from the U.S. state department. Conceded a political-science
professor: “We were concerned that his English might be hard to understand.” But the only uncertain moment came when Chrétien, during a discussion about energy costs, declared: “I understand this because I have to ’eat my house like everyone else.” That error in pronunciation, the official added, “was the only time people were at all confused. Overall, he just charmed them.”
The improvement in Chrétien’s performance has occurred despite several jarring personal setbacks. The most significant is a trial in Montreal involving his 22-year-old son, Michel, who is accused of sexual assault, sodomy and illegal confinement in a case involving a Mon-
treal woman. Chrétien was in court during the five days of testimony earlier this month; a verdict is expected in March. By common but unspoken consent between Chrétien and the media, he has not been asked to comment on the case. But, says one longtime friend, “He is like any father would be— this case is eating him up inside.”
In addition, Chrétien acknowledges that it took him a long time to recover from the wave of vitriol that greeted him in Quebec in the summer of 1990 after the failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, which Quebecers thought Chrétien opposed. Former Liberal MP Gilles Rocheleau, who quit to join the pro-sovereigntist Bloc Québécois, publicly labelled Chrétien “Quebec’s Judas Iscariot,” and some of the Liberal leader’s former friends snubbed him. Chrétien, accustomed to being one of the most popular political figures in Ottawa, found it especially painful to be rejected in his home province. “It is not easy to see people you have known for a long time turning against you,” he told Maclean ’s. But he now insists that his fortunes in Quebec are improving. Declared Chrétien: “I do not say things are like they used to be, but they are getting a lot better.” Indeed, a Gallup poll published last month showed the Liberals’ popular standing in that province at 38 per cent, compared with 32 per cent for the I Bloc Québécois, 15 per cent I for the Conservatives and 12 I per cent for the New Democratic Party.
At the same time, Chrétien
bristles at suggestions that
his manner has changed since his return to politics. “People talk about me reading from scripts, as though it is something I never used to do,” he says. “But it is something I always did. When you are finance minister, as I was, you do not make up a budget off the top of your head.” In fact, he adds, the changes in his public manner are the inevitable results of assuming the role of leader. Declared Chrétien: “I have been a servant of other people for all of my political life. Suddenly, that is now different, and I had to change.”
In fact, even some of Chrétien’s supporters acknowledge that he has not changed at all in several respects. He is notorious for his impa-
tience during private briefing sessions on complex policy issues. Like former president Ronald Reagan, he usually prefers it when his advisers explain issues to him in simple, anecdotal terms. Some Liberals also privately criticize his habit of relying heavily on longtime friends and colleagues for guidance at the expense of newer faces and ideas. Indeed, Chrétien receives much of his advice from, and fills many of the party’s senior positions with, people closely associated with former prime minister Pierre Trudeau—including Senator Keith Davey, Senator Allan MacEachen and Senator Joyce Fairbairn, all veteran members of the party. He is particularly sensitive about allegations that he has allowed himself to be controlled by a small circle of advisers—including his principal secretary and longtime friend Edward Goldenberg.
Perhaps more seriously, some Liberal MPs are privately dismayed by reports that even more Trudeau-era Liberals may resurface as candidates in the next election, including former cabinet ministers Eugene Whelan, 67, Barnett Danson, 70, and Trudeau’s former principal secretary, James Coutts, 53 (who flatly denies he wants to run). Complained one Liberal MP, who took office in 1988: “Bringing back a bunch of people from the 1970s is hardly a good way to enter the 1990s.”
Chrétien’s fondness for improvising solutions—which served him well as a minister in several high-profile cabinet portfolios—has clearly become a disadvantage now that he is the party leader. His most costly political errors include his indecision about whether
he would revoke the federal Goods and Services Tax if elected prime minister and his hastily decided call to withdraw Canadian military forces at the start of last year’s Persian Gulf War.
As a result, Chrétien’s advisers now say that they are encouraging him to focus on a small number of policy areas on which he holds strong feelings. More policies are likely to emerge from a general convention slated for Feb. 19 to 23 in Hull, Que., the Liberals’ first national gathering since he was elected leader. In the meantime, two themes that Chrétien emphasized last week
were his vow to reopen the FTA and his determination to protect the principle of universality in Canada’s health-care system. Senior Liberals say that position will be a cornerstone of efforts to stem the popularity of the Reform party, which proposes wide changes to the country’s health-care system. And despite Chrétien’s initial opposition to the FTA, he now says that it would be “unrealistic” simply to abrogate the agreement.
That sentiment reflects a growing sense among Chrétien’s people of the importance of forging a closer relationship with Washington.
For their part, U.S. officials stressed that there was no special significance to Bush’s meeting with Chrétien. But, said one, “We would not do this if we felt he had no chance of becoming prime minister.” Chrétien, on the other hand, said that he wanted “to make clear that I speak the same way at home and abroad.” He added: “I do not pretend to speak for Canada now—but I say that I believe that the day when I do is coming soon.” It is a message Chrétien clearly hopes to repeat with increasing authority back home.
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