Chrétien has done many things—including an interview in a bathtub
A LOYAL LIEUTENANT AND MORE
Chrétien has done many things—including an interview in a bathtub
THE CHRETIEN LEGACY, it sifts through the fingers like silt. Rich silt, mind you, the stuff that real things grow in. But there is not a lot to get your hand around. There is no grand triumph to point to, like free trade for Brian Mulroney, or the patriation of the Constitution for Pierre Trudeau. Though for the latter, Jean Chrétien can share the glory. As Trudeau’s justice minister, he was the one who shouted himself hoarse in defence of Canada in the 1980 Quebec referendum; who nurtured the fledgling Charter of Rights through its many parliamentary incarnations; and who, in the steamy hours of constitutional deal-making, wielded every political muscle he had to haul that stone sled to its destination.
Summing up Chrétien’s career before his turn at the prime ministerial wheel is the easy part. He was the loyal lieutenant, the one who took on all the hard jobs: Indian affairs in the early years when the Trudeau government had ambitious plans to right a long history of wrongs; the constitutional file in 1980 when it needed a jolt of blue-collar passion; the National Energy Program, when the Liberals finally realized it needed to be dismantled. Chrétien was also the country’s first French-Canadian minister of finance in 1977. A remarkable achievement, though he was brought low when Trudeau humiliated him by imposing, on network TV, a national program of government cutbacks without telling him in advance.
A climber, no question. A street-fighter, too, but a happy warrior for the most part. Except for Quebec separatists, with whom he’d brook no truck nor trade, he could attack an opponent—Joe Clark comes to mind—in Parliament one day, then introduce him handsomely at a bipartisan rally a few weeks later with just the barest twinkle of irony in his eye.
The Chrétien legacy? The charitable will remember him as the very prototype of the apprentice prime minister. The politician from smallville Quebec who, for
nearly 30 years, learned his craft at the feet of far more worldly practitioners—Mike Pearson, Pierre Trudeau. And then when his chance came, surpassing expectations by taming, with Paul Martin’s stern help, the mountainous deficit that had bedevilled his predecessors; riding out the storm, just barely, of Quebec separatism; and, for the most part, settling a boring if relieved quietude on a land that had grown tired of government tumult.
A confession here. I’m inclined to be charitable. Chrétien was the only politician I ever interviewed in his bathtub.
That was in April, 1980, about three weeks before the first Quebec referendum on sovereignty. I was a 28-year-old, Ottawa-based reporter for the Globe and Mail. He was the 46-year-old minister of justice, tasked with coordinating Ottawa’s referendum forces. It was an ideal job for someone with leadership aspirations—he had his finger on all the Quebec patronage plums, and an open door to every Liberal organizer in the province. But it was one he had uncharacteristically tried to avoid. This was his third election-style campaign in less than a year: the 1979 Liberal defeat to Joe Clark, the 1980 Trudeau restoration and now this, René Lévesque’s challenge. He was starting to weary. But there was another reason for his reluctance, something he wouldn’t admit to until a few years later. “I was afraid of not succeeding,” he told me when the patriation battle was all but done. “And I hate to fail.”
At that time, though, all I saw was a remarkable political team. For two days I tagged along with Chrétien and his wife Aline as they inaugurated federalist committees from early morning to late evening all over the island of Montreal. The pace was gruelling, but they didn’t seem to mind. They’d enter a room and separate, each working a side, their antennae constantly attuned to each other: she’d seem to appear just when he needed a name or a reminder to get on with his speech or the
next event. Then we’d be bustled into a car, a new driver each time—Chrétien would instantly find something they had in common, some old political war story, a Quebec politician they mutually admired. After only two days of this I was almost dead on my feet and happy to be dropped off at their hotel in downtown Montreal around midnight. “Come up. We’ll talk now,” said Chrétien. And so we did.
First, though, he popped in the bath. I perched on the end of the bed with my tape recorder; in a mirror I could just see his face and an arm hanging over the side of the tub, like in that famous painting by Jacques-Louis David of the murder of French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat. Aline was at the desk writing thank-you notes to the local organizers they had met that day. I had known him for all of two days. We had barely spoken. But these were extraordinary times and he had a story to tell, maybe even to road-test.
He talked about what it was like to grow up in working-class Shawinigan, the second youngest of 19 kids, of whom just nine lived past infancy. About his poolhall fights, his tough-guy upbringing and the influence of his father, Wellie, a machinist and devout Liberal organizer. He spoke of how he had patterned his then fiery speaking style after rural politicians like the late Créditiste leader Réal Caouette; how difficult it had been to learn English when he arrived in Ottawa in 1963; and how he was paying a political price in Quebec for his “pea-souper” defence of Canada. But that it was all for a larger cause. Just what that cause was— Canada, the opportunity that allowed a small-town guy to reach some of the most responsible positions in the land, or personal ambition (Trudeau had been reelected in February promising it would be his last term)—was never entirely clear. “My family and politics are my life,” he said that night. “But that is all I want.”
This was Jean Chrétien at mid-life, tired, bruised but with the stamina of a horse and still shot full with ambition. Also incredibly open—and willing to take chances. In contrast, the prime ministerial Chrétien was infuriatingly pragmatic at times, almost Mackenzie King-ish in his determination not to get ahead of accepted opinion. Though after two legacyaddicted predecessors in Trudeau and Mulroney, perhaps this was what the country wanted.
Chrétien’s caution nearly failed him in the 1995 Quebec referendum, though who could have foreseen the messiahlike appeal of Lucien Bouchard for the sovereignty side. And his Liberal loyalty
let ministerial spending scandals fester. But his early prudence has returned Ottawa to a position of fiscal power, to the point where it has launched something of a stealth attack on nominally provincial areas like municipal funding and higher education. And there is talk now of even more legacy dollars for the environment and education—buildingblock stuff really—for this last 18 months in office.
There is irony in this, of course. Chrétien the effervescent deal-maker, now reduced to negotiating an extra 18 months in office, after three majority victories and
not an opposition party in hailing distance, to keep from being tossed out by his own party. The conventional wisdom is that the long goodbye is a last-ditch ploy to keep would-be successor Paul Martin from the leader’s chair. Perhaps. An activist agenda might steal some Martin thunder and time might tarnish his appeal but, of anyone, Chrétien knows that patience works in politics, and that the Liberal party loves a front-runner almost more than life itself. A year can be an eternity in politics. Forty years in office, 10 and change in the prime minister’s chair, is nothing to sneeze at either.
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