STILL THE BOSS: A CANDID LOOK AT BRIAN MULRONEY By Michel Gratton
(Prentice-Hall, 229 pages, $24.95)
Sequels seem to be an unavoidable fact of life in the high-powered Hollywood movie industry, but they are less common in the genteel world of Canadian book publishing. Judging from Michel Gratton’s new book, Still the Boss: A Candid Look at Brian Mulroney, that is probably as it should be. A former press secretary to the Prime Minister, Gratton earned considerable praise in 1987 for So, What Are the Boys Saying?, an uneven but generally entertaining account of the first 2xh years of the Conservative mandate. Regrettably, he appears to have fallen victim to the belief, pervasive in Hollywood, that success with one project is reason enough for a sequel. Like most movie spin-offs, Gratton’s new book exhibits virtually all of the flaws of its bestselling predecessor but few of its virtues.
The problems begin with the title. Although Still the Boss masquerades as a closeup look at Brian Mulroney, large chunks of the book have little or nothing to do with the Prime Minister. Lacking both a structure and a coherent theme, the book is a random collection of press-club yams, notes from the 1988 election campaign and previously unpublished anecdotes from Gratton’s years in the Prime Minister’s Office.
The real star of the book is Gratton himself. A columnist for The Toronto Sun and its sister tabloids in Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton, he devotes the first three chapters of Still the Boss to his decision to leave the PMO, the circumstances that surrounded the writing of the first book and the hostile response that it drew from his former friends and colleagues in Mulroney’s entourage. Although Gratton concedes that he is a heavy drinker, he accuses the Prime Minister’s supporters of trying to ruin his reputation by alleging that he had a drinking problem. But he consoles himself with the knowledge, as he puts it, that “I gave Mulroney a few good sideswipes myself.”
Unfortunately, Gratton returns all too often to the subject of his relationship with the man he calls the Boss. He describes being at news conferences given by the Prime Minister, covering him during the 1988 campaign and accompanying Mulroney abroad. But, for the most part, he glosses over the events them-
selves. Instead, Gratton displays inordinate concern, bordering on obsession, with the manner in which Mulroney treats him. Evidently, what matters to the author is not what the Prime Minister said or did, but whether he made eye contact with his former press secretary.
Gratton says that the turning point in his onagain-off-again relationship with the Prime Minister occurred during a news conference immediately following the 1988 Conservative election victory. He writes that Mulroney, bemused by another reporter’s question, “looked straight at me.” For Gratton, that simple gesture marked a breakthrough: “That was almost as good as talking to me. I sensed, at that moment, that my rehabilitation was under way.” Such episodes reveal as much about Gratton's concept of the role of a political columnist as they do about Mulroney.
At the same time, he devotes only a few lines to Mulroney’s 1989 meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, acknowledging, “I frankly did not pay much attention to what he was doing.” Indeed, the only truly significant moment of the trip, from Grafton’s standpoint, occurred during the flight back to Ottawa. The author offered Mulroney his considered opinion that the challenge facing Gorbachev “was beyond human abilities.” Recalling the conversation, Gratton writes, “He agreed with me totally.”
The book is also marred by the author’s overwrought prose and sophomoric sense of humor. When the publisher of The Toronto Sun offered him a job, Gratton was more than pleased—he was overwhelmed. “The scene was unreal, in slow motion, as when your senses react to some sudden event like a car accident,” he writes. And Gratton seems to find it funny that a television sound man proposed during a party on the Liberal campaign plane that party leader John Turner’s daughter and two of his assistants should “all take off their clothes and let the people decide,” a play on the Liberal campaign slogan. Describing the three women as “gorgeous,” the author considers this “an intriguing suggestion.”
Only in the book’s final pages does Gratton finally get down to a serious consideration of Mulroney’s character. But his conclusions are neither original nor insightful. His main point is that Mulroney “has confused short-lived public relations triumphs with widespread public approval.” But even if that was true in the past, it is doubtful whether it still applies: after all, why would a politician concerned only with his standing in the polls proceed with a measure as demonstrably unpopular as the Goods and Services Tax?
But such apparent contradictions hold little interest for Gratton. Instead, he ends the book by recounting that Mulroney telephoned him last February to offer his congratulations on the occasion of his remarriage. “I was touched,” Gratton writes. “Not so much that he thought of it, but that he had the guts to phone. One year before that, he wasn’t even talking to me.” The question is whether anybody else really cares.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.