SPECIAL REPORT

Bonding in the air

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 22 1996
SPECIAL REPORT

Bonding in the air

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 22 1996

Bonding in the air

SPECIAL REPORT

BACKSTAGE OTTAWA

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

"Travel,” wrote the talented American author Paul Theroux, “is a vanishing act a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography to oblivion.” Almost certainly, Theroux never took to the road with political leaders and their assorted handlers, spinners, journalists and other malcontents. Otherwise, he would have likely concluded that travel is the most public, least solitary act a politician can commit Away from home, with a minute-by-minute agenda detailing his or her every appearance and “spontaneous scrum” utterance, some things are surefire

tickets to media immortality. Pierre Trudeau, ever the showman, profited for years in the esteem of news-hungry reporters from the pirouette he performed at Buckingham Palace in 1977. For a sadder kind of proof, look no further than Joe Clark’s disastrous 1979 world trip, in which his earnest query to an Indian farmer of “how old are the chickens” was lampooned so much it almost cost him the next election.

For better and worse, it is time together on the road that shapes the crucial relationship between political leaders and the journalists who follow them. In the hours travelling by plane between cities and continents, file two sides take their respective measures in informal conversations that take place when leaders visit reporters at the back of the plane. In the days of Brian Mulroney, it was one chance to see the “real” Mulroney that friends always talked about sometimes vulgar, often charming, and so shrewd about the strengths and weaknesses of political foes. On a trip to Africa in 1991, Mulroney held court for more than half an hour with a series of affectionate anecdotes about his favorite opposition parliamentarians, including liberals George Baker and Paul Martin and the

NDfts Svend Robinson. “I don’t agree with a damn thing Svend stands for but I sure do admire the son of a bitch,” he said several times, shaking his head as if bewildered by his own sentiment. But Mulroney usually wore a wary look on such occasions. Perhaps that was the result of the time during the 1984 election campaign when his cutting remark about his old friend Bryce Mackasey—“there’s no whore like an old whore”—was quoted after a conversation that Mulroney thought was off the record.

Mulroney’s successor, Kim Campbell, never looked comfortable at the back of the plane. On the odd occasion when she would visit during the 1993 campaign, she bore the disgusted look of a socialite who finds herself seated for dinner with the sort of people who eat soup with a fork. After a while, she simply stayed up front with her staff, with a cabin curtain drawn primly behind. Many members of the Ottawa press gallery, more fond of such sessions than they like to admit, never forgave her.

And then there is Jean Chrétien. No prime minister since Lester (“call me Mike”) Pearson has spent so much time and, perhaps, effort on appearing down to earth. Very early in his incarnation as prime minister, Chrétien earned the undying affection of his bodyguards by taking three of them golfing with him during a trip to British Columbia. While in foreign countries, he sometimes takes members of the security detail for a beer. On long flights, the surest way to engage his attention is to ask him about his golf game. Conversely, the fastest way to chase Chrétien away is to ask about anything related to a policy decision. He is most content on such occasions telling anecdotes to an attentive group of reporters. All of the stories are well told and each, while sounding spontaneous, is related in such a way to be interesting but completely innocuous.

That skill allowed Chrétien to spend more than half an hour damage-free with reporters last week, alternately musing on his 62nd birthday that day Gan. 11), recalling a very cold trip many years previously to Siberia and relating a mildly rude story about an elephant and an MP that he made everyone promise would be off the record. “Speak softly, but carry a big stick,” Theodore Roosevelt famously said. To which Chrétien, ever more cautious than he appears, might amend: “Speak carefully and have no need for a big stick.” Small wonder he is relatively unscarred more than 30 years after entering politics.