The Private Prime Minister

A day with Jean and Aline Chrétien provides personal glimpses of a man who has managed to keep faith with the habits of a long marriage and a small-town background despite rising to occupy the most powerful office in the land

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 24 1994

The Private Prime Minister

A day with Jean and Aline Chrétien provides personal glimpses of a man who has managed to keep faith with the habits of a long marriage and a small-town background despite rising to occupy the most powerful office in the land

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 24 1994

The Private Prime Minister


A day with Jean and Aline Chrétien provides personal glimpses of a man who has managed to keep faith with the habits of a long marriage and a small-town background despite rising to occupy the most powerful office in the land



By 8 a.m. most mornings, the Prime Minister of Canada has been up and about for more than an hour. If Jean Chrétien has his way, he rarely stays up past 10 p.m. and seldom sleeps in after 7. That way, he says, “I get a jump on all those sleepyheads out there.” Early to bed, early to rise: in those ways, Chrétien, who turned 60 on Jan. 11, keeps faith with the habits of a 36-year marriage and his small-town roots. Combined with his morning shower, shave and hurried breakfast, he follows a ritual familiar to many Canadians. But not completely: few others, for example, begin the day, as Chrétien does, with a 20to 25-minute swim in an indoor pool like the one at 24 Sussex Drive.

There is no typical day in the life of a prime minister: he—or she—has too many functions and responsibilities for that. Being prime minister also brings privileges—and problems—beyond the comprehension of most people. Almost three decades after he entered politics, Chrétien is still coming to grips with the changes in his life. Maclean’s got an opportunity to observe those changes up close when, on Dec. 15, the Prime Minister invited a reporter and photographer to accompany him for a day. “You think that over time you learn everything about public life,” he says, “but every day there is always something new.” Here is how he approached that day:

Chrétien begins work in a small, book-lined study on the ground floor of the prime ministerial residence at 24 Sussex. Wearing reading glasses, he studies three thick green binders that arrived the night before from Glen Shortliffe, the top civil service mandarin and Clerk of the Privy Council. Short-liffe usually sends at least half a dozen memos requiring attention. Chrétien likes memos to be short, with point-form summaries; he makes decisions quickly, and seldom holds on to documents for more than 24 hours. Since winning the Oct. 25 election, aides say, he has become far more willing to spend hours reading about policy issues—something he used to be notoriously reluctant to do. As Opposition leader “he felt like a bystander,” says one aide, “and he did not always do his homework. Now, he jumps into everything.”

At 8:30, Aline Chrétien returns from her morning walk, and the two move to the sun-room at the rear of the house for coffee. The most difficult adjustment to life at 24 Sussex, both say, is that they are almost never alone. Aline Chrétien, a shy, ineffably gracious woman, particularly bemoans the need for household staff. ‘We have never had so little privacy,” she says. In the first weeks after the election, people telephoning the house were often

startled to find one of the Chrétiens answering. Now, they leave that task to staff.

But on some weekends, when the wish for privacy overcomes all else, the Chrétiens sometimes dismiss the household staff so they can have 24 Sussex to themselves. That led to at least one memorable incident: when they were alone at the house one Sunday morning in November, Aline Chrétien awoke before her husband and went downstairs in search of the newspapers. Clad in night-robe and slippers, she did not realize until the front door closed behind her that it is self-locking— and she had no key. Too embarrassed to announce her predicament to the RCMP security guards at the front gate, and unwilling to wake up her husband, she recalls with a smile that “I sat on the front step for close to an hour reading the papers until I heard Jean coming downstairs and banged on the door.” Since then, she always carries her own key.

By 9 a.m., Chrétien has made the fiveminute drive in a blue, chauffeured Chevrolet to his third-floor office on Parliament Hill. He is accompanied by his executive assistant, Michael MacAdoo, a discreet, intense figure in his mid-30s who is seldom far from his boss’s side. MacAdoo sets Chrétien’s schedule and does his best to ensure that the Prime Minister adheres to it. He, like most of the inner circle, is fluently bilingual. In conversation, Chrétien and his staff regularly switch, often in mid-sentence, between English and French.

At 9:20, Chrétien has a brief meeting to discuss plans for the Dec. 21 first ministers’ meeting with his chief of staff, Jean Pelletier, and communications director Peter Donolo. As they settle into chairs, the three talk about the Liberals’ Christmas party the night before.

“Funny thing,” says Chrétien.

“Last year [while in Opposition] we had 600 people, but this year there were 2,500.” Pelletier smiles and taps his nose. “The smell of power,” he says. Pelletier,

58, is one of Chrétien’s oldest friends. The two men call each other by the more informal “tu” rather than “vous.” He and another senior adviser, Eddie Goldenberg, are virtually alone in being able to see Chrétien without appointments. One member of the Prime Minister’s staff refers to Pelletier as “the elegant executioner” because he wields power over the Prime Minister’s Office with a judicious mix of charm and terror.

At 10, another meeting, this time with Goldenberg, Heritage Minister Michel Dupuy and Penny Collenette—the PMO official in charge of government appointments. The topic is who will replace Gérard Veilleux as presi-

dent of the CBC. The four spend 30 minutes discussing a shortlist of candidates. In this setting, Chrétien is low-key. In all-male meetings, concedes one aide, “he can curse with the best of them.” In mixed company, he is more careful. Some ministers who do not know him well have been startled by Chrétien’s occasional mix of sharp temper and careful politeness. At a recent cabinet meeting, one minister was taken aback when the Prime Minister, while vigorously denouncing one of his proposals, rose from the table, poured a coffee—and without pausing, strode over to offer the cup to him.

During the relatively quiet, pre-Christmas period, Chrétien’s workload is lightened. On this day, he gives a 30-minute interview to a Canadian Press reporter, then meets with Dr. Michael Smith, the Canadian biochemist who co-won the 1993 Nobel Prize for chemistry. That is followed by a meeting with officials of the World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays, led by their Canadian chief executive officer, Paul Beeston. They present the Prime Minister with a memento—two bronzed baseballs autographed by the team. One Jays official jokes with Chrétien that “brass balls like this should be really useful here in Ottawa.” Chrétien responds that if he was to use a line like that publicly, “I could only get away with it if I blamed my bad English.”

At lunchtime, Chrétien goes home. He always calls Aline to say when he is on his way; when he is delayed, she calls his personal secretary, Monique Bondar, to ask his whereabouts. Today, Chrétien is joined by Donolo and press secretary Patrick Parisot. Donolo, an affable, baby-faced 34-year-old

from Montreal, is Chrétien’s “spin doctor,” advising him on how to present his policies to the press and public. From 1:30 to 4 p.m., Chrétien prepares for and tapes a CBC Prime Time News special in an auditorium at the nearby University of Ottawa. Facing an audience of about 100 people ranging from business executives to the unemployed, he speaks well but slumps in his chair too much for Donolo’s liking. During commercial breaks, Donolo sneaks over several times to ask his boss to sit up straight.

On other days when the House of Commons is not sitting, Chrétien would use the early afternoon to meet advisers and cabinet ministers. Unlike his predecessors, Brian Mulroney and John Turner, Chrétien does not like using the telephone and dislikes the practice of “stroking”—the age-old political art of building and maintaining a wide, informal network of contacts through frequent phone calls and notes. “He is not,” says one aide, “a back-slapping, schmoozing kind of guy.”

President Bill Clinton that began “Dear Bill.” Chrétien crossed out the “Bill” and wrote in “President Clinton.”

Chrétien, in fact, has few close friends: other than his long-standing friendships with Pelletier and Goldenberg, he prides himself on keeping politics and friendship separate. One example came when an aide brought him a draft of a letter to U.S.

Similarly, colleagues who seek praise may wait a long time, because Chrétien dispenses compliments sparingly. On the other hand, the same aide notes: “He is a very eventempered guy. You can argue with him, and he never takes it personally.”

Those qualities are in evidence when Chrétien returns to his office for a 4:30 meeting with Goldenberg and Agriculture Minister Ralph Goodale, who has just returned from Switzerland, where Canada and 115 other nations signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. After several minutes of small talk, International Trade Minister Roy MacLaren calls from Geneva and is put on the office speakerphone. “This is a great day for Canada, Prime Minister,” MacLaren, a businessman and longtime proponent of freer trade, says twice. But Chrétien cuts him off brusquely. “Canadian farmers do not think it is a great day,” says the Prime Minister, referring to unhappiness over the end of protection for them. ‘Tell me what I can tell them to make them feel better.”

At 5:15, Chrétien goes home to change into a tuxedo before returning to Parliament Hill to host a black-tie reception for diplomats. He and Aline arrive at 6:30 and meet with Senator

Roméo LeBlanc, his longtime friend and handpicked choice as the Senate’s new Speaker. In the opulent Speaker’s quarters, they and Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet toast LeBlanc’s appointment with mineral water in front of the fireplace. By 6:45, the Chrétiens are in the Hall of Honor, greeting the more than 600 guests. By 9 p.m., they are out the door, with one of their few major social events of the year behind them. “We are very private people,” Chrétien says, and their lives at 24 Sussex reflect that.

Chrétien seldom uses the Prime Minister’s residence for formal events, and the only regular visitors so far have been family. Perhaps the best measure of the couple’s deliberately down-home style came on the occasion of what they refer to as “their first formal dinner.” In honor of the 10th birthday of their grandson Maximilien, they hosted a dinner for him and a group of his friends. At Maximilien’s request, the menu consisted of hamburgers, hot dogs, fries and fried chicken. The dinner began, in appropriate fashion, with a toast to the guest of honor by a smiling Prime Minister, who observed merrily: “I guess this is it, my very first state dinner. So now, pass the ketchup.”

On this night, it is a more serious but still relaxed Chrétien who steps into the Chevrolet for the drive home. In his early days as Prime Minister he has liked the job, and most Canadians appear to like the way he is doing it. Now he faces more severe tests, including a new session of the Commons this week. But Chrétien, as he says of himself, “sleeps well” and is not given to dark nights of the soul. When he gets to bed, he will read a favorite new book—a biography of the French politician Antoine Pinay, whose political career extended from the 1930s through the 1970s. Chrétien is interested in Pinay because, he says, “I have been told that in many ways, Pinay was a politician very much like me.” The similarities include their shared small-town roots and lengthy service in a variety of portfolios. But Pinay, despite serving as premier of France for nine months in 1952 and continuing with distinction in politics for several more decades, never quite surpassed the role of faithful lieutenant to other leaders. Chrétien, as he closes the book and turns out the light in the bedroom at 24 Sussex, can go to sleep knowing that no one can ever again say the same about him. □