In my days in the Ottawa press gallery, what I liked best about travelling with politicians was the chance to see them in an informal manner not possible at home. During a trade trip to southeast Asia in January, 1996, I was walking through the lobby of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel one night when a gruff voice called my name: it was Jean Chrétien, having coffee with a bodyguard. We spent close to an hour swapping stories about everything from the trip at hand to the Ottawa Senators to mutual acquaintances in Quebec. Later that night, I bumped into Mike Harris: we had a beer and talked federal politics. In a jazz bar in Shanghai in 1994, I listened to Roy Romanow dissect Quebec’s constitutional wars, while Bob Rae played piano and other premiers serenaded Manitoba’s Gary Filmon and his wife, Janice, on their anniversary. Similarly, en route to Africa in 1991, Brian Mulroney settled alongside somewhere over the Atlantic, and gave a spontaneous analysis of which MPs were the best House of Commons performers.
Any one of those exchanges revealed more about the character of the politician involved than a hundred prepared speeches. Most politicians, once they’re confident that every word won’t be parsed for hidden meaning or taken out of context, loosen up and become infinitely more human. The exception, in a nice way, is Ralph Klein: the public and private man are fully in sync. I had coffee with him one morning last May in his office in the Alberta legislative building in Edmonton, and he was as friendly and straightforward as he is on public occasions with voters, and as he has always been over latenight drinks with journalists.
That’s why, in some ways, it was surprising to hear Klein own up to an alcohol problem—even though his fondness for a
drink has been part of his image and the source of jokes, including his own, for years. Klein always seems easy in his skin, which is why people like him. But it’s also why it’s harder to pinpoint when and why things got away from him. It’s more understandable when you add him to a long list of public figures burdened with the challenge of living up to their reputation. You see that with, say, NHL tough guys who can’t enter a bar without some loudmouth wanting to take them on, or fashionistas who won’t even go grocery shopping unless perfectly groomed. In Kleins case, there was always a drink, or someone wanting him to have one, at every stop. And, as premier, there are a lot of public stops.
Overall, when it comes to politicians, I’m in the same camp as Toronto authorbroadcaster Steve Paikin, who confesses in his new book The Life: The Seductive Call of Politics to liking the “vast majority” of those he knows. Given the demands on their time, the periods away from their families when legislatures are in session, and the relentless scrutiny and frequent hostility they face, the wonder may be that more politicians don’t seek solace in a bottle. As they rise higher, to cabinet positions or a first minister’s office, the pressures simply get more intense. By acknowledging his problem publicly, Klein faced his demon in a way that deserved and received near-unanimous praise. And he shifted expectations so that, in future, the last thing anyone should want to do is buy him a drink. Good on you, Ralph: may the pride you feel this New Year’s Eve be all the buzz you need.
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