Columns

The moral of the microphone

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 21 1997
Columns

The moral of the microphone

Anthony Wilson-Smith July 21 1997

The moral of the microphone

Columns

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

When it comes to private talks between the leaders of Canada and the United States, the traditional policy of American presidents has been that it is far better to give than to receive. Which is to say they would rather dish it out than take it. Examples are legion—and legendary. In a May, 1961, memorandum, John E Kennedy described John Diefenbaker as “an s.o.b.” The relations between Lyndon B. Johnson and Lester Pearson went one better, as author Lawrence Martin recounted in his 1982 book, The Presidents and the Prime Ministers. Johnson, enraged at a speech that Pearson gave criticizing American actions in Vietnam in 1965, harangued him for more than an hour during a meeting at Camp David while aides watched. Finally, Martin wrote, Johnson “pinned the much smaller Pearson against the railing... grabbed him by the shirt collar, twisted it and lifted the shaken prime minister by the neck”—while continuing to berate him. Richard Nixon was so exasperated after being lectured once by Pierre Trudeau that he used an anatomically crude seven-letter word to describe him.

Score one, then, for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien last week—even though Bill Clinton was not present when Chrétien made his blunt remarks about American politics at the NATO summit in Madrid. Chrétien, who often lectures his staff that “punctuality is the politeness of princes,” was miffed that Clinton was more than 20 minutes late, and used the time to expound to the leaders of Luxembourg and Belgium on shortcomings in American politics. He suggested American opposition to NATO expansion, for one, was “not for reasons of security” but “for short-term political reasons to win elections.” And Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, treated Chrétien in a hugely deferential manner: Chrétien, proving vulnerability to a bit of obsequiousness, responded with beaming enthusiasm, his chest puffed out, arms waving.

The only real surprise about Chrétien’s remarks was that anyone was surprised at all. Most politicians, like other people, speak one way for public consumption and another way in private. At home, neighbors smile at each other on the street and curse one another in private for such crimes as not trimming their hedges. In business, there does not live an employee who has never thought they could do something more effectively than their boss—even as they praise him or her in public. In sports, general managers prepare to fire coaches even as they give them “full votes of confidence” in public. And for real skilled political smear jobs, visit the faculty room on any university campus—where, as someone once said, “the infighting is so bitter because the stakes are so low.”

But politicians are usually much more skilled than the average

The only real surprise in Jean Chrétien’s remarks about Bill Clinton was that anyone was surprised at all

person at glibly skipping over the inconsistencies between their public and private behavior. Jean Charest, for example, is the perfect politician for the multimedia age: with his practised ease in front of a camera, he sounds as though he is engaging in an intimate, oneto-one conversation—even when giving a speech in front of 5,000 people. Ditto the deliberately anti-charismatic Preston Manning, who never shouts, carries few notes, eschews theatrical gestures, and always sounds as though he is making every speech up as he goes along (he usually gives the same one to different audiences several times a day). He sounds exactly the same in private. Lucien Bouchard still expounds in a private situation with the air of a public orator. Before he learned to speak English, he used to brag that he was bilingual because he spoke Latin as well as French—and would converse in both to friends. As head of the Bloc Québécois, he used to pepper his caucus with impromptu history lessons on, for example, the history of homosexuality in early Greece. Paul Martin has learned to suppress his famous temper in public: within the finance department, his verbal tirades are called simply “The Beatings.” Prime ministers function on different levels. Joe Clark sounded pompous in public in his early years, but was very sociable in private. Over the years, even as he learned to be more relaxed and self-mocking in public, he could be irritable and demanding in private. Trudeau appeared more open in public than in private, and almost never revealed his inner thoughts to anyone. Kim Campbell, on the other hand, left nothing to reveal in private because she was so eager to discuss her every thought about herself in public. Brian Mulroney considered any public speech incomplete unless it had arcane eight-syllable words in it, while his private talk was often peppered with words of the four-letter variety.

Chrétien’s obsession is the art of the deal. Like Trudeau, he appears open while remaining inscrutable, and impenetrable, about his private thoughts. Trudeau set goals that challenged circumstances, while Chrétien works within them. His assertion that American foreign policies are driven by domestic interests is about as shocking as the reality that the same is true for Canada. The manner in which Chrétien explained that is exactly the way he explains his own government’s policies in caucus—and in more restrained fashion, in some public speeches. True, Chrétien, who says it is “unbelievable” that American politicians barter their votes in return for favors for their constituents, is the same man who over the years has acquired a federal park, taxation centre and museum on the history of industry for his thrice-blessed St-Maurice riding. But overall, on the issue of reconciling his public and private personas, Chrétien’s old joke about his own disability is true: for the most part, he only speaks out of one side of his mouth.