The Back Page


PAUL WELLS December 22 2003
The Back Page


PAUL WELLS December 22 2003


Chrétien’s definition of what makes a good politican is no surprise

The Back Page


“HEY BRUCE!” one of Jean Chrétien’s helpers shouted to another, across the length of a groaning table at a restaurant on the Champs Élysées. “What time are we wheels-up for Ottawa on Wednesday?” The guy at the other end of the table pondered the question, then shrugged. “Sometime between noon and six.” Great hilarity at this breakdown in careful planning. A chant went up around the table. “Four more days! Four more days!”

So began Jean Chrétien’s last week in politics.

There was a time when it would have been impossible to imagine he would spend it in Paris with Jacques Chirac. They got off to a frosty start. In 1995 Chirac was campaigning for the French presidency. He said some things that sounded too supportive of Quebec separatism. Chrétien dismissed the comments with contempt: at any rate, he said, Quebecers were no likelier to vote for independence than Chirac is to become president of France.

Oops. Chirac did win, and to say the least, he has it in him to

carry a grudge. But something odd happened. The two leaders, one patrician and eloquent, the other rough-hewn and incoherent, became the closest of friends.

There is a school of thought that credits Jean Pelletier, the former Chrétien chief of staff who has known Chirac since Pelletier was the mayor of Quebec City and Chirac was the mayor of Paris. Another theory credits George W. Bush, whose Iraq adventure gave Chirac and Chrétien something big to oppose together.

I think it’s simpler. After a while, Chirac and Chrétien realized they were two of a kind. Both can be perfect scoundrels. Both believe nothing in politics matters more than victory, because nothing can be done after defeat.

At any rate, there has hardly ever been a love-in like the one Chirac threw for Chrétien. At the opening ceremony for an exhibit on Canada at an immense science museum,

Chirac threw out all the “vous” in his prepared text and addressed Chrétien with the intimate pronoun “tu.” Relations between France and Canada “have never been better,” he said. “Never.” He called Canada “an invitation to hope for the future.”

There was more, then more of the same a few hours later at a state dinner. Afterward, most of Chrétien’s travelling staff convened in somebody’s hotel room and danced until dawn. And sometime between noon and six on Thursday, Chrétien’s Challenger jet began heading home.

On such airplanes, prime minister and staff sit up front. Journalists sit in the back. As soon as the seatbelt lights came off, Chrétien came back to dish. What would he do after Paul Martin took over? “I plan to work. And harder, rather than not-so-hard, because I don’t think Aline wants me to become her assistant chef,” he said. “That would pretty much be a disaster.”

Where would he work? He wouldn’t say, but we would not have to wait long to find out. “Between Christmas and New Year’s, will ski. And the first week of January I will go to work.”

The relationship with Chirac, he said, deepened and solidified during a 1999 visit to a summit of la Francophonie at Moncton, followed by a trip to Iqaluit to explore Inuit art and culture. “He was very, very moved when he arrived in Iqaluit,” Chrétien said. He smiled. “He and I were lucky: there were incredible northern lights. I said, ‘Jacques, I arranged it all for you.’ ”

We pressed him for legacy stuff, for anecdotes that would sum up his career. He resisted. “You know, the memories you have are not always the big things.”

Finally he offered an example. “A moment that touched me enormously.” Typically, the moment had to do with controversy.

This summer Chrétien and the National Gallery brought a huge art show to an abandoned factory in his hometown of Shawinigan. Pure ward-heeler pork, many called it. Chrétien will have none of it. “You know,” he said, Shawinigan “was a very prosperous city because of hydro power. It became one of the poorest cities in Quebec. Five thousand jobs were lost. And people lost their courage. More than anything, they’d kind of lost their pride.”

Then, in Shawinigan, “somebody said to me, ‘Thanks for inviting to our town Rodin, Dégas, Picasso. I’m so proud.’”

He paused to savour the memory again. “That was the word: invite. ‘Thank you for inviting Rodin.’ It was nice.”

He turned to head back to the front the plane. He’d be back yet again to trade still more yarns, but the formal scrum was over. Almost. A reporter called a last question: What’s a good politician?

He answered over his shoulder. “The one who wins.”