In 1962, during his first semester at Ottawa’s Carleton University, 18-year-old Conrad Black spent more time in the House of Commons visitors’ gallery than in the classroom. And at night, he continued his Canadian political education over poker games with five senators at a residential hotel where they all lived.
Over the years, Black’s interest—and involvement— with politicians have not abated. He was active in two Conservative leadership campaigns and calls one former prime minister, Brian Mulroney, a “friend,” despite his “smarminess.” Another prime minister,
Pierre Trudeau, once tried to entice him into his government. And, on behalf of Mulroney, he offered a third, John Turner, the ambassadorship to the Vatican. But Black’s familiarity with leading politicians of the past three decades is by no means limited to Canada. In the following excerpts from his autobiography, A Life in Progress, to be published on Nov. 1 by Key Porter Books Ltd., Black reveals his impressions of some of the leaders he has known and befriended.
In the spring of 1982,1 was also receiving some attention from the most prominent of all Canadian politicians, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. My friends Jim Coutts and Tom Axworthy, successive principal secretaries to the prime minister and ever fecund political schemers, determined that I, like Brian Mul-
roney and Jack Homer and a few other prominent ostensible Conservatives, should become a Liberal government minister. Trudeau invited me to dinner
at his home, following a meeting with leading businessmen on the federal government’s plan to reduce inflation with compensation increases of six and five per cent.
I was reasonably supportive of Trudeau, despite his extravagant liberal economic policies and his vulnerability to almost any fad that surfaced in the world.
His incitement of ethnic, occupational, regional, and sexual groups debased public policy and ultimately almost bankmpted the country. He, more than anyone, turned Canada into a people of whining politically conformist welfare addicts.
I was able to assimilate what I considered Trudeau’s appalling policy shortcomings, because on the greatest issue he had to face, relations between Englishand French-Canadians, he was creative, tenacious, and, for many years, indispensable.
He lived like a Benedictine monk in 24 Sussex Drive. There was very little furniture in the house, except for the dining room, which had to have a table and chairs to function at all.
His was the most brilliant star in the country; he was better qualified than anyone to know that the destructive fixation of the envious
Reprinted with permission fromH Life in Progress, copyright Conrad Black, published by Key Porter Books, Toronto.
English-Canadian mind required that the highest, happiest, most agile flyers be laid low, as a cat, faced with a garden of birds, pursued the most swiftly flying and brightly feathered, the one whose destruction would most frighten the others.
It was, I suggested, a sadistic desire, corroded by soul-destroying envy, to intimidate all those who might aspire to anything in the slightest exceptional. Trudeau added that he was well familiar with the phenomenon and invoked a sports metaphor to say that what made Canada especially difficult to govern was that French-Canadians “like a winner and mercilessly boo a loser, and English-Canadians indulge a loser and, for reasons I have never understood, lustily boo a winner.” (He obviously meant himself, but it was an insightful comment.)
In any event, it was clear that I was not enthusiastic about seeking political office, but it was, as always with Pierre Trudeau, a most stimulating discussion.
Brian Mulroney did the honorable, as well as the expedient thing, by retiring in the spring of 1993. Despite his unsuccessful attempts to give away much of the federal jurisdiction, he was in policy terms the best Canada has had since Louis Saint-Laurent. Not overburdened with convictions, seeking always to conciliate the most persistent lobbyists, Brian had shortly fallen victim to the pitfalls of unappeasable public expectations we had foreseen when he visited me in Palm Beach ten years before. Free trade was his triumph, but he left his office as he came to it, an indistinct personality.
As many of his friends had feared, after a lifetime of ardent pursuit of Canada’s highest political office, Brian was unable to build a real constituency based on a community of national goals. It would be a political injustice as well as inept sociology to consign his public record to Death of a Salesman, but there are a few sad traces of just such a political fate. Shortly after leaving office, Brian was rather embittered, reproachful of his compatriots and unconvinced that they really want Canada to work.
Apart from his real shortcomings and being grossly underappreciated by his countrymen for his genuine attainments, Brian always conveyed to me the impression of greatly exaggerating the importance of his office. The Canadian political system is so jurisdictionally fragmented and the population so regionally fractious, the federal prime minister’s role consists chiefly of endless debates with his provincial analogues. By the time Brian convened such conferences, the whole Canadian political system had become a ludicrous and demeaning talking shop, massaging borrowed money around a population composed almost entirely of self-proclaimed geographic, ethnic, behavioral, and physiological victims. Democratic countries normally get the governments they deserve, but I am not convinced that such an envious, whingeing people as Canada had become in the mid1980s really deserved so fundamentally well-intentioned a political chameleon as Brian Mulroney.
I encountered John fairly often through his years in cabinet. He took me to a performance of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in Ottawa’s Capital Theatre in 1964 and participated in the final ovation by bellowing, “Attaboy, Zube,” in reference to the conductor, Zubin Mehta. He
always combined a sort of locker-room exuberance with real intellectual gifts. At the time of his wedding, he was a Canadian Kennedy, intelligent, well-educated, attractive, Catholic. John Turner was deemed to have a brilliant future. So he would have, had he not been unkindly confined to only a few months at centre stage between a Trudeau who was reluctant to leave it and a Mulroney who was implacably determined to ascend. John went almost overnight from tomorrow’s man to yesterday’s without ever enjoying the day in which he actually lived.
[After Turner announced his retirement in 1989], Brian Mul-
roney called me and asked me to offer John the post of ambassador to the Vatican, in absolute confidence and retaining the ability to deny the offer if it were treated indiscreetly. It wasn’t, but John declined the offer somewhat peremptorily, implying he had expected better but wouldn’t have accepted it anyway. It was a generous gesture by the prime minister.
She impressed me as having little historical perspective before the time of Churchill, but a powerful sense of how to make contemporary Britain prosperous and internationally influential. In pursuit of these goals, neither her courage nor her stamina could be eroded by even the sternest or most enervating challenges. Although fiercely determined and forceful with a tendency to be overbearing, she was not at all arrogant, sensed her own vulnerability almost to the point of exaggerating it—and was unfailingly courteous towards the household staff.
She was extraordinarily purposeful, but had no discernible interest in holding her great office for enjoyment of incumbency only, unlike most politicians I have known. She liked power, but only for the perfection of her idea of Britain, as a strong, pivotal, transatlantic linchpin with a world vocation. And she was obviously feminine, a very strong woman but not at all a mannish one, almost Elizabethan in her cunning, courage, and in the feasts and famines of her likes and dislikes.
His intellect is not unlimited, but in his prime he was far from being unintelligent. Ronald Reagan impressed me as a man of astonishing self-confidence and patriotic optimism: courageous, decisive, and positive.
His vague countenance, imprecision, and anecdotal response to almost everything could be disconcerting, but he was a shaman, a magician as talented, if not as intelligent or knowledgeable of his own powers, as Roosevelt or Disraeli. However he did it, he redeemed America: the combination of the 600-ship navy, 19 million net new jobs, virtual elimination of inflation, victory in the Cold War, and a 28per-cent top personal income-tax rate qualified him in my estimation for Mount Rushmore.
As Henry Kissinger said, he was “not a chess player, but a poker player and a brilliant one,” and he kept raising the ante until his Soviet opponent was bankrupt. The Reagan Revolution won the Cold War, the greatest, most bloodless, most benign strategic victory since the rise of the nation-state; it re-industrialized America, reestablished the presidency’s place in the American system, and removed two fingers of the state’s hand from the pockets of the people. □
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