BETWEEN COVERS

Portraits of power

A biographer focuses on the men of the hour

LAWRENCE MARTIN June 23 1997
BETWEEN COVERS

Portraits of power

A biographer focuses on the men of the hour

LAWRENCE MARTIN June 23 1997

Portraits of power

BETWEEN COVERS

A biographer focuses on the men of the hour

LAWRENCE MARTIN

While writing a book on Lucien Bouchard as a follow-up to one on Jean Chrétien, I’ve been asked the question a few times: “So, how come you get to do both?” The answer has been easy: “Because no one else was doing them.” Among nonQuebecers, there were no other takers. The field, as far as I could tell, was open. The two men who held the fate of Canada in their hands were there for the picking.

Their cases were hardly unique. When it comes to political biography, we have a tradition of tardiness. We wait until our political leaders are down deep in the boneyard, or at least out of office, before taking up the pen to do the big books. The long wait brings broader perspective, access to private papers and other advantages. But what about the downside? What good does it do to know our leaders when they have already come and gone, when they have already done their damage or, in rarer cases, their good?

In Canada, we waited more than a half-century for a ma-

jor study of Sir John A Macdonald. Donald Creighton wrote his twovolume epic on him in the 1950s. For a sound treatment of Robert L. Borden, our leader in the First World War, the wait was equally long. Some good works on him finally appeared in the late 1970s. R. B. Bennett presided over the dreadful years of the Great Depression, yet, unbelievably, no substantial biographical work on his years in power was done until this decade. On Louis Saint-Laurent, we’ve had but one snoozer of a biography. John English’s chronicle of Lester Pearson’s life appeared more than 20 years after he left office. Pierre Trudeau fared better with at least three major studies, but Brian Mulroney’s eight-plus years in power have yet to be explored in biographical or broad perspective.

It is not just the life stories that are overlooked for so long. The gaps in our history extend to other important areas. Initially, I had no intention of doing Chrétien’s story. Instead, I wanted to do a book on the sensational 1993 election campaign that made him Prime Minister. The governing Conservatives dropped to two seats in that campaign, and the Bloc Québécois, dedicated to the death of the country, became the official Opposition. The Reform party took wing. It was a seminal moment in Canadian political history. But publishers weren’t keen on a book, and no major account of the campaign has yet been written. When students go to the library to study it, they will find the shelves bare.

Finding little support for the campaign book, I became intrigued by Chrétien, the little guy from Shawinigan who had written a high-

ly successful autobiography, Straight from the Heart, almost a decade earlier. Since he was now Prime Minister, I was concerned other authors would be lining up to do him. Not to worry: nothing else was forthcoming. This was Canada.

With volume 1 of the Chrétien story completed, I wanted to wait until he had spent more time in office before embarking on part 2. In the meantime, in a cliff-hanger of a referendum, Bouchard came within a few sneezes of breaking up the country. “Cliff-hanger” could have made a great book. But this wrenching moment in Canadian history has also been overlooked. No one has written a blow-byblow, behind-the-scenes account of what exactly happened.

Bouchard interested me more from the biographical perspective. His autobiography had appeared in French in 1992 and the English version, On the Record, in 1994. Quebec journalist Michel Vastel produced a French-language portrait in 1996. But I was amazed that no other book about Bouchard was being planned, at least not by anyone outside Quebec. Could something like this be imagined south of the border? How many books would likely be published about a secessionist? The number of biographies of U.S. President Bill Clinton and the Bill-Hillary relationship—as well as accounts of Clinton’s time in office—have swelled to double digits. It’s an industry.

In Canada, publishers are hesitant to invest heavily in political books, which have not been selling very well in recent years. Authors are reluctant because writing biography requires time—and the financial rewards are minimal. A lack of bilingual authors is another problem. So is libel chill. So is the problem of access to sources.

In this country, the field is dominated by academics, who have the financial means and time to devote to such large projects. As political biographers, they can be cautious and conventional. We don’t often find academics with the aggression of a Bob Woodward, or the rip of a Peter C. Newman, whose 1973 account of John Diefenbaker, Renegade in Power, helped take the trade out of the ivory tower. The interview-intensive, newsworthy biography is still largely the domain of journalists.

Former Globe and Mail reporter Lawrence Martin is the author of seven books on politics and sports, including the best-selling Chrétien: The Will to Win (1995) and The Antagonist, a biography of Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, to be published by Penguin in September.

I felt it was important to write a timely biography of Bouchard, arguably the most dangerous man the country has produced in this century. But it was a tougher challenge than doing the unmysterious Prime Minister. Chrétien is a straight-shooting, nuts-and-bolts commoner, Bouchard a seething, intellectual mass of brilliance, bitterness and bile. Few other Quebec leaders have possessed his enormous demagogic appeal, his trenchant charisma, his rich leadership skills. Few have been subject to the fits of emotional upheaval and impulsiveness that are characteristic of him.

Both men were propelled from the earliest days by anger. Chrétien’s flowed from personal handicaps. He was small, deaf in one ear, stricken by Bell’s palsy around the mouth, semi-dyslexic and not intellectually gifted. Life for him was proving himself in the face of the handicaps.

Bouchard’s is a far different kind of hurt, one born of perceived injustice and severely wounded pride. He has the thinnest skin imaginable. Beginning as a boy, Bouchard was burning inside, “always burning,” according to his brother Gérard. And he frequently lost his temper over the slightest thing. A college roommate was also struck by Bouchard’s abiding, internal anger, but was confounded as to its genesis. He recommended I talk to psychologists.

Bouchard is very protective of his privacy, so getting a psychological perspective was not easy. In his autobiography, he relegated two of the most significant forces in his life—his mother, Alice, and his first wife, to whom he was married for 20 years, Jocelyn Côté—to virtual oblivion. Neither of them got even a page. (He has been married for eight years to Audrey Best, with whom he has two sons.) A further warning about his extreme sensitivity to personal matters had come during an election campaign when a reporter mentioned in a story that Bouchard’s late father, truck driver Philippe, had had a drinking problem.

Bouchard went into near-hysterics. He stopped his campaign, huddled with family, demanded retractions.

I thought Bouchard was tough until I dealt with Côté. Her marriage to Lucien had foundered in the mid-1980s. He had said publicly that one of the reasons was their lack of children, without explaining whether it had been a choice or dictated by biology. When Côté declined my telephone request for an interview, I subsequently sent her a letter. In it, I acknowledged her desire for privacy, but asked her the marriage—instead of leaving it public speculation. Her response was a threatening, cease-and-desist letter from her lawyer. It demanded I immediately

send my file on Côté over to the lawyer’s office. Otherwise, I could be subject to legal action for invasion of privacy. (Nothing happened after I wrote back a polite letter stating that I had no such file and that my requests had been made out of professional courtesy.)

Yet more surprises were in store for me. I was correct in suspecting Bouchard would not consent to be interviewed for a book authored by a federalist. But I didn’t suspect sources would become available that I considered just as good as the subject himself: Bouchard’s two brothers, Gérard and Roch. They talked for hours and, especially in the case of Roch, a philosophy professor at the University of Ottawa, were frank and forthcoming. Through an indirect channel, I heard that the premier was hardly thrilled they had done this. But Bouchard did not try to block others from talking. Of his 30 former classmates at Le Collège de Jonquière, 20 made themselves available for interviews.

I was thankful. Progress was being made. I felt that if there was one person in the country whom we could not afford to leave to the tradition of post-mortem biographies, it was Lucien Bouchard. By the time we got the post-mortems on him, it could well be post-mortem time for us all.