In the aftermath of their election victory, as most Liberals sat back to savor what they had won, Eddie Goldenberg set to work. Within 10 days, the longtime Liberal aide showed why he is Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s most powerful adviser—and one of Ottawa’s most influential unknowns. Only hours after the Oct. 25 vote, Goldenberg was assigned to handle Chrétien’s pledge to reopen or, if necessary, tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement. His job: turn campaign thunder into amicable negotiation. First, Goldenberg outlined to senior American trade negotiators in Washington what Chrétien needed to fulfil his promise. Afterwards, Chrétien called U.S. Ambassador James Blanchard to a private meeting on Parliament Hill, with Goldenberg hovering nearby. The compromise that emerged—giving Canada minor concessions on subsidies, water exports and energy—fell far short of Chrétien’s goals. But Goldenberg helped give the fledgling government what it needed: at the very least, an illusion of control. “Chrétien knows that when he sends Eddie on a mission, he may come back bloodied,” said one senior Liberal. “But the job is done.”
Just how many times the trusted aide has returned home from a Chrétien-ordered quest, battered but undeterred, is the stuff of Ottawa political legend. For 20 years, Goldenberg has served Chrétien with unflinching fealty, from lowly legislative assistant in 1973 to the lofty perch of senior policy adviser and confidant throughout eight cabinet portfolios, two
leadership campaigns and five federal elections. In times of trouble, Goldenberg is Chrétien’s lightning rod, the convenient scapegoat who implacably takes the heat. Many Liberals maintain that there is little he will not do, and likely has not done, to further Chrétien’s political career. Some who say they know him well assume, incorrectly, that the 45-year-old Montreal-born bachelor fashions his entire life around the schedule of the boss he considers to be one of his closest friends. “It is difficult to figure out exactly what Eddie’s role is,” said one veteran Liberal MP. “One moment, he is carrying Chrétien’s bags and the next he’s running up new deficit figures.” Much of that mystery is deliberate. The restructured Liberal government, with its trim cabinet of 23 and a reduced coterie of ministerial aides, is designed to deflect attention from the diminished ranks of unelected decision-makers. Not surprisingly, a reluctance by Goldenberg to promote himself publicly is matched by Chrétien’s strong disapproval of media articles that focus on the Liberal backrooms. That does not mean the backrooms are any less important. As senior policy adviser, Goldenberg is rarely in his corner office on the second floor of the Langevin Block, at the opposite end of the corridor from the Prime Minister’s suite. His 14-hour days are a series of back-to-back meetings, often with Chrétien in the Prime
BASHFUL EDDIE GOLDENBERG IS ONE OF OTTAWA’S TOP POWER BROKERS
Minister’s working office in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill. “I usually get involved either when there are problems,” says Goldenberg, “or when there is an issue in which the Prime Minister has a particular interest.”
In the new government’s first few weeks, that job description covered virtually everything—from the selection of cabinet to acting as a troubleshooter in trade talks, finessing the decision to cancel the privatization of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, and preparing the crucial Jan. 17 speech from the throne. Chrétien might say he wants an empowered frontline of cabinet ministers and bureaucrats. But he clearly depends on Goldenberg, as well as other seasoned personal advisers such as policy director Chaviva Hosek and chief of staff Jean Pelletier, to help him mould the government’s agenda to his liking. Says longtime Goldenberg friend Jerry Yanover, executive assistant to Liberal House leader Herb Gray: “Eddie has learned how to cut through the chaff and see his way to solutions.”
That ability is precisely why Chrétien is loath to rule without him—even when Goldenberg is cited as the reason, and at times the instigator, of his worst political headaches. During the first faltering years of Chrétien’s Liberal leadership, Goldenberg was a ubiquitous and highly visible sidekick, a five-foot, five-inch elfin figure with a balding pate and a brisk, perfunctory manner. Few people in Ottawa could match the McGill University law graduate’s almost encyclopedic grasp of constitutional minutiae; even detractors acknowledged his bookish talent for drafting complex policy issues into the clean, onepage scripts that Chrétien prefers. Encircled by the media, Chrétien’s instinctive search for his aide over the heads of his inquisitors once prompted a TV crew to bring a stepladder for Goldenberg to stand on. “Ask Eddie” became a refrain of both the media and Chrétien himself.
The Liberal leader’s apparent reliance on his then-principal secretary drove some members of the opposition Liberal caucus to near revolt in 1991. They resented Goldenberg’s unlimited access to Chrétien when they often had none at all. They questioned his advice, particularly the decision to have the leader avoid public comment during the stormiest moments of the constitutional debate. Most of all, they suspected that complaints funnelled through Goldenberg never reached their target. They were mostly right. At one point, when Chrétien vanished to Florida after an operation to remove a benign tumor from his lung, Goldenberg was the only one in the office who
knew where he was and when he was coming back. Such disruptions led to fears that Chrétien was floundering in his job. “It was a rough period because people were expecting stuff right away,” says Goldenberg. “Chrétien’s view was to get it done properly and not get thrown off a time line. It required being patient and tough. I guess I took a lot of the heat.”
In typical fashion, Chrétien reacted publicly—but privately looked the other way. To counter criticism, he expanded his office and appeared to downplay Goldenberg’s duties. Behind the scenes, though, little changed. The response reminded some Liberals of other instances when Chrétien appeared to distance himself from Goldenberg for public relations reasons, but in fact continued to put his full trust in him. In 1991, for example, Chrétien publicly upbraided Goldenberg for accusing the Ottawa-based Quebec media of being separatists. Few doubted, however, that Chrétien, frustrated by his unpopularity in Quebec, agreed.
Between 1986 and 1990, when he worked in private law practice, Chrétien used Goldenberg as an emissary in his covert leadership manoeuvres. Says one senior Liberal: ‘This is a working relationship in which Chrétien uses Eddie strategically. When you hear the MPs yapping, it’s ‘Jean is a good guy, but Eddie is just a son of a bitch.’ ” Goldenberg’s brusqueness often adds to the problem. Indeed, Goldenberg’s social skills are somewhat
like his skiing techniques. As one close friend admits: “Eddie makes up for a lack of style and grace with pure tenacity. He still has to learn how to shake hands.”
Despite their closeness, Chrétien and Goldenberg lead very different lives. Neither has convinced the other to take up his favorite sport. Unlike Chrétien, Goldenberg detests golf. And Chrétien has yet to join his adviser on Goldenberg’s annual expedition to remote rivers with fellow canoeists who have included the likes of Pierre Trudeau and CTV Ottawa correspondent Craig Oliver. On one trip up the northern reaches of the Pettawawa River in the summer of 1983, Goldenberg stunned his more experienced colleagues by shooting a dangerous stretch of rapids against all advice.
The canoe capsized and its semi-conscious occupant was fished out of the water and taken to hospital with a concussion and bruised ribs. But he returned the same day to finish the trip.
“You would think he’d be the last guy to take risks,” says a friend who was on the trip. “But Eddie’s psychology is that he needs to face his fears.”
Unlike Chrétiens rough-and-tumble upbringing in Shawinigan, Que., Goldenberg was raised in a handsome grey stone home on Roslyn Avenue in Montreal’s exclusive
Westmount neighborhood. Both men were shaped by deep roots of Quebec trade unionism, but from vastly different perspectives. Chrétien first learned politics in pool halls and union meetings along with his father, Wellie, a labor leader in the local paper mills. Goldenberg’s earliest influences were his mother, Shirley, a McGill University labor
economist, and his father, Senator Carl Goldenberg, one of Canada’s leading labor arbitrators and an expert on constitutional law.
Dinners at the Goldenbergs when Eddie was a teenager in the 1960s were intellectual feasts: among the guests were former Liberal trade minister Jean Marchand and his protégé, Trudeau, who in 1971 named the diminutive, pipe-smoking labor expert to the Senate. Conversations were steeped in more than Quebec and national politics. A friend of the late Liberal prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in the 1930s, Carl Goldenberg had a glittering list of friends that also included, among others, humorist Stephen Leacock. John Rae, a power broker in Liberal backrooms and executive vice-president of Power Corp., was a frequent Montreal guest before the Goldenbergs moved to Toronto in 1991 to be closer to their daughter, Ann, who died of cancer in 1992. Says Rae: “They are people who always tried to stay in touch with what is going on. You could not have had a more favorable climate in which to grow up.”
Similarly, the bond that Chrétien and Goldenberg have forged transcends the typical. It began in 1973, when Goldenberg was 25 and Rae introduced him to the then-Indian affairs minister. Asked to join Chrétien’s small staff, Goldenberg quickly became an indispensable member of the team. Chrétien said later that he was impressed by his aide’s uncanny ability to identify a problem and match it with a logical solution. By the time Chrétien became energy minister in 1982, Goldenberg was a frontline player, negotiating fine points of the ultimately unsuccessful deal with Newfoundland to develop the Hibernia project.
Lormer Manitoba Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs, a Chrétien friend, suggests that despite an age difference of just 14 years, Goldenberg is Chrétien’s political son. Still others half-jokingly say they are not unlike a long and comfortably married couple who communicate, and occasionally bicker, in their own private shorthand. Most often, those who witness a curt exchange conclude that Chrétien is rudely dismissive of his adviser. Lew realize that, in private, Goldenberg gives it back.
And while Chrétien may not always heed Goldenberg’s advice, he rarely ignores it. Declares former Liberal adviser Robert Rabinovitch, now executive vice-president of Montreal-based Claridge Inc., part of the Bronfman family empire: “Eddie has put in more time with Chrétien than anybody else. He doesn’t compete with him, and he doesn’t use him to get a leg up in either politics or the private sector. It really is a deep personal commitment.” A commitment that by all appearances is not about to change.
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.