FINALLY, THE REAL BRIAN MULRONEY
His memoir is a surprise: riveting, often indiscreet, vindictive and unapologetic. Peter C. Newman examines the man who bugs us still.
Wading through Brian Mulroney’s weighty memoir is inevitably tinged by curiosity: what does Le Grand Fromage say about trousering that $300,000 in cash that he accepted from Karlheinz Schreiber, the alleged Bavarian Baron of Bribes, ostensibly seeking advice on his pasta business?
The answer to that puzzle—which will eternally haunt the Boyo from Baie-Comeau who became Canada’s 18th and most controversial prime minister—is that he mentions this not at all. This first volume of his reminiscences ends in the nick of time: two days after June 25,1993, when he officially stepped down as the prime minister who bugs us still. Weeks later he accepted the first in a series of envelopes stuffed with cash from the mysterious Schreiber in anonymous hotel rooms. A sequel to Memoirs, presumably containing Alfredo Mulroney’s recipe for spaghetti bolognese, is in the works. (Most likely the incident, as most of Brian Mulroney’s actions, will turn out to have benefited mankind. After all, in his pitch Herr Schreiber claimed that his brand of pasta was not only yummy but also reduced weight and cured cancer.)
Memoirs covers the former prime minister’s life, from growing up in the land that God gave Cain on the bleak north shore of the St. Lawrence to his nine turbulent years in power—a journey from masterful politician and reform-minded statesman to high-stakes international player, and constitutional dreamer who rolled the dice and lost. The book surprises: it is deliciously indiscreet, frequently riveting and terminally vindictive. This is a romp on the wild side of Canada’s porridge-flavoured politics that has seldom been equalled. It is the most revealing (not always intentionally) autobiography ever written by a Canadian prime minister.
A backwoods combination of Machiavelli, leprechaun and Dr. Phil, the Right Honourable Brian Mulroney was a pivotal figure in the global politics of the 20th century, as well as Canada’s most activist prime minister since Lester Pearson. Memoirs vividly celebrates
his run. It works because “Bones,” as his university chums still call him, has learned to feel his own pulse again, so that he can probe his past with a forensic intensity that lands somewhere between stunning objectivity and bittersweet revenge. At least—and at last—we get the real dude. He knows that history’s jury is still out, and is counting on this chronicle to restore him among the political greats. There are no guarantees. History is fickle and dispenses assessments that flow more from perception than reality. Still, Mulroney makes a strong case on his own behalf, and brings passion to a profession all too often reduced to reading computer droppings from public opinion surveys. When was the last time we had a PM, in or out of power, not shy about expressing his innermost feelings, right down to confessing the details of his alcoholic per-
iod, when he insulted everyone except his poodle, Clover? He is not afraid to give conventional history the finger, but like most autobiographies, his book is an exercise in plea bargaining. It is a place to test the variables of probability and fantasy, to retrieve retroactive truths and midnight reconstructions of events, wished-for and real. What he lacks in evidence, he makes up for in conviction.
This is Brian Mulroney Unplugged.
Martin Brian Mulroney’s remarkable career divides into distinct phases: the first was his singleminded preparation from less than a standing start to will himself into the office of prime minister. That goes back to his original selection of political venues. He chose to join
the Progressive Conservatives while a student at St. Francis Xavier University, not out of conviction but because that party’s eternally warring hierarchy—which behaved more like a Sicilian cult than a political organization—was more easily penetrable. His ambition was so single-minded that he even took an informal poll among his friends when he was wooing the 19-year-old Mila Pivnicki, to determine whether she would make the ideal prime ministerial wife. Everyone agreed that she’d be perfect—after a possible nose job. In his climb through party ranks he turned down the chance to run for elective office so there would be no blemish of defeat, however minor, on his record. The exception was his abortive 1976 leadership attempt when Joe Clark won the prize. “While I had been kicked around, often unfairly, and been badly bruised, many of the mistakes were mine. More important than the scars was the knowledge that Mila and I were not mortally wounded,” he writes.
A year after grabbing the PC leadership in 1983, Mulroney was accorded the largest number of seats ever. He won 211 ridings, and elected an astonishing 57 more MPs than Lucky Pierre at the height of Trudeaumania. His hostility toward his predecessor blights the book. Most pointed is Mulroney’s condemnation of Trudeau for not pursuing the prosecution of known Nazi war criminals hiding in Canada, which he calls one of “the greatest sins of omission in the history of this nation.” Somewhere deep inside Mulroney’s embattled psyche there is a small, unsmiling universe peopled by his betrayers, none more culpable than Trudeau, whose recklessness in negotiating a new constitution that left out Quebec made the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords necessary. His nemesis became the spoiler by gutting these brave initiatives in the court of public opinion, and Mulroney has never forgiven him. “Trudeau was relentless in promoting his views of Meech, however hyperbolic and bizarre,” Mulroney complains. “He was later to tell a Montreal audience that the distinct society clause ‘would give the government of this society the power to say, let’s deport a couple of hundred thousand of nonFrench-speaking Quebeckers...’ ’’—which of course was never part of the accord. Francis Fox, who had been one of Trudeau’s minis-
WHAT HE LACKS IN EVIDENCE, HE MAKES UP FOR IN CONVICTION
ters and confidants, probably got it right when he said his former boss couldn’t stand that the Tory leader might succeed where he had failed. The book’s hidden hand grenade is references, backed by documents and press interviews cited on pages 526-8, showing that as far back as the failed Victoria talks of 1971, Trudeau himself was willing to accept constitutional amendments that included the notion of Quebec remaining within Canada while being recognized as a distinct societythe very concept he later claimed to be Meech Lake’s greatest stumbling block. As pollster Angus Reid put it at the time: “The millions of average Canadians who initially watched the Meech Lake story with the disinterest of window-shoppers were transformed into an ugly mob ready to torch the store.”
With the fallout from Meech Lake becoming evermore toxic, Mulroney noted in his journal in January 1991: “I am not sure that Canada can be saved, her unity maintained. Nor am I sure that I’m the leader to bring that about.” Referendum night for the Charlottetown accord in 1992 signalled open season on incumbents. The “no” vote crossed regions and language. For once, that muchcourted, indefinable group of voters who politicians smugly referred to as “ordinary Canadians” had their say and their way. They dispatched the Charlottetown accord to that part of the politicians’ anatomies where the sun don’t shine.
Such vicious debates, reconstructed in Memoirs, touch the marrow of the differences in the two men. The quality that defined Trudeau was that he remained true to himself. In public, he was decisive, disdainful, sarcastic, brilliant, impatient, aloof and bored; in private, he was decisive, disdainful, sarcastic, brilliant, impatient, aloof and bored. In contrast, the Public Mulroney and the Private Mulroney were distant cousins, twice removed.
At home or among friends, his limb movements were as loose as a limbo dancer’s, his manner endearing, his language generously salted with beer parlour obscenities, his view of the world so earthy you could smell the dandelions. But as soon as Mulroney gave a press conference, went on television or just stepped outside—his arms appeared welded to his shoulders, his countenance set in cement.
Faced with the routine chore of laying a wreath on a cenotaph, for instance, he would rehearse every vowel and consonant of his body language: when to turn left, whose hand to shake, and how vigorously to shake it. Fie convinced himself that such preparations were necessary to maintain his dignity of office and avoid offending anyone’s sense of history or love of protocol. His motive may have been worthy, but he succeeded in making himself appear to be frozen in aspic.
This was a shame, because the private Mulroney was warm, amusing and self-deprecating. While recording The Secret Mulro-
AFTER MEECH, HE WASN'T SURE THAT HE COULD ‘SAVE’ CANADA
ney Tapes, when I asked him about the extravagant use of political patronage, he quipped: “We practise neither nepotism nor extravagance at 24 Sussex. We did put in a dumb waiter, but it was the least we could do for uncle Larry.” The book’s most amusing recollection is about the 1990 G7 summit in Houston; with country and western music blaring everywhere, Mulroney encounters François Mitterrand tapping his toes, and asks whether he really likes the music. “Oui, Brian,” France’s president replies. “Je suis Hopalong Cassidy.”
Lacking internal sources of valuation, Mulroney spent a lifetime in search of himself, trying to fill his Gucci shoes. Unable to find comfort inside his skin, he adopted a public persona that was not him. While in office, he seemed to believe that it was better to act perfect than to be real.
The secret of retaining power in Canada
that eluded Mulroney was not, as he imagined, to appear grand and untouchable so that voters will believe you were unassailable. On the contrary, what most Canadians wanted in their prime ministers was an ordinary individual attempting to achieve extraordinary things, so they could connect with him or her at a human level. In a reversal of the feeling among native tribes that explorers who came with cameras stole their souls when they snapped their pictures, Mulroney believed that political life was one big photo op. It never worked.
Mulroney remained convinced that his bad rap was entirely the fault of the misguided media, which insisted on drawing him as a caricature of his charming and well-
meaning self. He could always be counted on to interrupt whatever was occupying his mind to launch an achy-breaky rant about how the press was ruining his life, (it played well, if you went heavy on the pedal steel guitar.) He remained convinced—and still is—that Canadians felt exasperated not by his style but by his policies because the goddamn press failed to explain them properly.
The media’s doubts about his character were matched by his suspicion of their motives; most journalists plain didn’t cotton to Brian Mulroney. He didn’t share their cozy paradigm. He had not come up through the appropriate political apprenticeship, spending the obligatory decade as a backbencher or junior minister. He arrived in 1983 as party leader and a rank outsider; the next year he was prime minister. Unlike his predecessor, who had sprung from a different but familiar milieu, and whom the media
could justifiably claim HE SEEMED TO THINK
p^Hticafiontender, ACTING PERFECT WAS the electrician’s son BETTER THAN BEING REAL
won the party leadership and two general elections on his own. He was an interloper who owed the press nothing, which doubled their fury.
During most of his time in office, Mulroney was different from his 17 predecessors. Becoming PM had taken such outrageous personal dedication—and 45 years—that once he got there he was determined to make a big difference. In doing so, he was trapped by the dysfunctional relationship between cause and effect in a country still trying to define its soul. He tried to dress up his most opportunistic gestures as the summons of
history, but it didn’t ring true. The BaieComeau politician’s cardinal sin was wanting, as desperately as any pimply teenager discovering sex, to be loved, when it was respect that he ought to have been harvesting. Canadians are a people whose national sport is treading water. It took us fully a century to officially approve the words of our national anthem and only two years less to choose our flag. Within that time capsule, Mulroney’s radical constitutional, trade and tax reforms proved to be too much too soon. He never took seriously the admonition that, unlike the Bible, Canadian politics has only
one, not Ten Commandments: thou shalt remain firmly ambiguous.
Mulroney was about as ambiguous as a speed bump.
When he left office 14 years ago, for a time Brian Mulroney became the Canadian version of Luis Echeverría Alvarez, who had been such an unpopular president of Mexico from 1970 to 1976 that upon leaving office he couldn’t enter a restaurant in Mexico City without people either booing or leaving. Canadian Tories eat their young and swallow their old. When a Conservative leader leaves, his exploits fade as fast as Zellers’ aprons. They might as well have never existed; ask Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark, or what’s-her-name. Mulroney was determined to beat the odds, and he has.
It’s refreshing to read Mulroney admit that he was wrong to insist on erring ministers’ resignations, never more so than in the case of defence minister Bob Coates’s, following his innocent if unwise visit to a German strip bar. “I was later to watch Chrétien handle similar issues in a much shrewder and less demanding manner,” Mulroney admits. ‘T failed to understand that I was going to be pilloried for accepting ministerial resignations and not respected for demanding them.” Although he attacked my transcripts in The Secret Mulroney Tapes because I didn’t remove the profanities that peppered our interviews, in his own book the F-word appears several times. Mulroney’s attitude reminds me of Kinky Friedman, the folk singer who was accused of blasphemy when he ran unsuccessfully for Texas governor in 2006. “Never,” he declared. “I never say ‘fuck’ in front of a c-h-i-l-d.” Just before Christmas 1988, after a particularly rough Question Period, when Brian Tobin wandered over to ask Mulroney whether the government would as usual be providing planes to fly MPs home, the PM shot back: “Get your own fucking plane.” On another occasion, when Robert McFarlane, president Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, opposed the tougher language in the transborder anti-acid rain regulations, Mulroney told ambassador Allan Gotlieb to tell McFarlane to “fuck off.” Not the diplomatic language of a politician applying for sainthood.
Conspicuously absent in the 1,121 pages of his Memoirs is any mention of patronage, except for a well-deserved dig at deputy PM Erik Nielsen, who wrote a book attacking the practice after accepting Ottawa’s plummiest post as chairman of the National Transportation Agency. Although he won the 1984 campaign by publicly keel-hauling Liberal leader John Turner for filling 13 senior vacancies with Liberals on behalf of the departing
Pierre Trudeau, appointing friends to high government positions became the Mulroney government’s most vulnerable flank. His most controversial move was his naming of Rinaldo Canonico, Mila’s hairdresser, as a director of the Federal Business Development Bank. He elevated Nova Scotia premier John Buchanan to the Senate while police were still investigating some of his dealings and sent Louise Dion to the board of the Canada Council, though her only experience was running the Baie-Comeau chapter of Weight Watchers. During his first year in office, Mulroney made 1,337 political appointments. His loyalty to friends and supporters was an admirable personal trait but a disastrous political one. Similarly, he doesn’t explain how his exquisite partisan ploys and attempts to woo Canada’s voters between elections resulted in such dissatisfaction that his popularity ratings plunged to the same dismal level as those Americans, who in a U.S. poll at about the same time, recorded their belief that Elvis Presley was alive and well in a suburb of Memphis.
His friendships with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are the leitmotif of the chapters on Mulroney’s diplomatic skills. Both became friends, as did several other heads of G7 nations, so that Canada was recognized as a significant middle power with clout. When his beloved free trade pact with Washington was in danger of collapse, Mulroney phoned James Baker, who had been placed in charge of the American side of the agreement, and in his best Kirk Douglas whisper, threatened that if he didn’t get his “goddamn dispute settlement” he would phone the president and ask him the following question: “Ron, how come the Americans can do a nuclear arms limitations deal with their worst enemies,
the U.S.S.R., but can’t do a trade deal with their best friends, the Canadians?” It broke the logjam and Mulroney was able to tell the press gallery in Ottawa the next day that, “A hundred years from now, what will be remembered is that it was done. The naysayers will be forgotten.” His affinity for all things American was palpable. He once told a group of PMO advisers at the end of a long, hard political strategy meeting, “When all this foolishness is over, we’ll all retire to Palm Beach.” The book does little to endow Mulroney with any hint of ideology. He believed that Canada’s mainstream political parties, his own included, existed not as the means for implementing sets of ideas but as instruments for the accommodation of personal, regional and national aspirations. His hard-core followers, if asked about their leader’s philosophy, would probably have been forced to cite his most seminal thought: “You dance with the one who brung ya.” His style was not so
much flexible as negotiable. He made peace with the progressive and neo-con sides of himself by rationalizing that he was “a caring, compassionate Conservative on social issues and a fiscal Conservative on fiscal issues.” Because of his push-button smile, the hamactor resonance of his voice, and the ease with which he had moved from an electrician’s son in the wilds of Quebec into Canada’s chandeliered chambers of corporate power, most observers casually dismissed his ideology as opportunism, and mistook his style for substance. But between the ambassadorial coiffure and his Guccis there lurked the working-class boy who became prime minister, with lively instincts to match. “The problem was that it’s not really a Canadian story,” maintained Sam Wakim, his chief confidant and best friend. “No Canadian had ever done this before, a poor working stiff from BaieComeau, who joined the party when he was a teenager and reached the top job.”
Neither rebel nor reactionary, Mulroney personified his party’s Progressive Conservative label. He never compromised his stand against capital punishment or support for gay rights, the improvement of Canada-U.S. relations, a hyperactive opposition to apartheid in South Africa, and unquestioning support of Israel. His enlightened campaign against acid rain and other environmental obscenities, as well as his impressive championing of equal opportunities for women in politics and the public service, were only lately recognized. Canada was taken much more seriously internationally when Mulroney was in charge. Under constant attack at home, he transformed himself into an effective go-between and coalition builder inside the G7, the Commonwealth, and other international venues, especially in his efforts on
behalf of racial freedom in South Africa. Some of Memoirs’ best chapters detail his friendships with German chancellor Helmut Kohl and French president François Mitterrand, who became surrogates for a Canadian-based admiration society.
Mulroney’s approach to politics flowed out of the cauldron of living in a Third World company town on Quebec’s north shore; the teachings of Canon Moses Coady, at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., who implanted the notion that an active social conscience was life’s highest goal; and his stint with the commission on labour troubles in
BETWEEN THE AMBASSADORIAL COIFFURE AND THE GUCCIS WAS THE WORKING CLASS BOY WHO BECAME PRIME MINISTER
Quebec’s construction industry in the mid1970s, which taught him that unbridled unionism and capitalism can be equally toxic. His first edict when he became president of the Iron Ore Co. of Canada was to double the pensions being paid to widows of employees. When he closed down the company’s Schefferville operations, he allocated $10 million to alleviate the shock to the community, even though there were only 167 full-time employees left to be laid off. Once in office, he was more progressive than conservative, though he did eliminate universality and partially eviscerated Canadians’ social welfare safety net.
The sustaining image of Brian Mulroney, etched in the national conscience, is that of being spotlighted on a stage in Quebec City on St.Patrick’s Day, 1985, hands linked with
president Reagan, singing When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. It was a puzzling metaphor, because when Canada’s prime minister took the solo on the high note (an A in the key of C) in the penultimate line, his voice went as flat as a toonie. Was this the final gasp of Canadian self-respect? Probably not, Mulroney maintains: “Canada’s loony left and professed intelligentsia expressed strong disapproval, denouncing our Irish duet, as ‘disgraceful’ and the most ‘demeaning’ moment in the long history of U.S.-Canada relations. Not, mind you, the moment when president Kennedy called prime minister Diefenbaker an SOB. Not the moment
when president Johnson seized prime minister Pearson by one of his lapels and told him, ‘You pissed on my rug.’ ”
What Brian Mulroney could never achieve, despite his two impressive majorities, was to create a friendly climate within which he could relax long enough to actualize any kind of rational plan for Canada’s future. The government’s operational code was always, “How do we get out of this one?”—meaning the latest crisis. “It’s been 12 weeks since I was on the cover of Maclean’s,” he would complain to me, though by then I had long ago left the magazine’s editorship and had nothing to do with choosing covers. Had I been honest with him, I ought to have stressed how fortunate he was. After 1985, every issue of this magazine as well as most other peri-
odicals and newspapers that carried his likeness drew attention to the dark side of his reign—the scandals, the rampant patronage, all the unrealized expectations.
Mulroney was a child of television, suckled on the tube. He actually believed that what appeared on the small screen was reality, which was why he thought he could recruit voters if he only sounded sincere enough. The problem was that the great glass eye—the camera lens—has an uncanny ability to capture character, not merely image or personality. After watching Mulroney on the small screen for most of a decade Canadians felt they could see right through him. Like P.G. Wodehouse’s fictional butler Jeeves, Brian Mulroney entered meeting rooms as “a procession of one.” But it seldom had the desired effect.
And yet it was Mulroney who first realized that Canada had not merely become urbanized, but that it was now a strung-out cluster of city-states, and he tried to govern it as such. But at the time, most provincial premiers still owed power to their rural constituencies, which they could control more easily than city folk. That caused the tension and discontinuity in priorities that ruined his grand design. Adolf Berle, the American business philosopher, maintained that priorities must flow from an overall system of political values that decides what is good and what is beautiful, and how to reach it. That was a state of grace Mulroney was never able to achieve.
Immediately after the 1984 election, Canadians felt good about themselves and their country. But as he had done before and would do many times again, Mulroney put his reputation on the line by promising to
create “jobs! jobs! jobs!”—and to end patronage. The late Dalton Camp, a friend and one-time adviser, took him aside and said, “Lookit Brian, you cold-turkeyed on smoking and you cold-turkeyed on drinking. Why can’t you cold-turkey on hyperbole?” But he never did. By promising too much he was caught in the trap of having to choose between manoeuvrability and credibility—a deadly political equation. Canadians grew increasingly restive with all those unfulfilled expectations and the rebellious mood accelerated as the Mulroney administration began to suffer from scandals, with seven cabinet ministers eventually resigning for various mixtures of stupidity, conflict of interest, and dishonesty. None of these crises were particularly serious, but the way they were handled was reminiscent of former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban’s jibe that, “for a government to repeat its mistakes is permissible—but not mandatory.”
The binding element of Mulroney’s career is this week’s publication of his Memoirs, which ought to have been subtitled: Why Canadians Should Love Me. In his bid for political rehabilitation and personal redemption, past glories matter little. He is bloody tired of being remembered as Canada’s most reviled prime minister. By setting down his own version of events, tributes to the compadres who helped shape his aspirations and disdain for the traitors who shattered them, he intended to point the record in his direction. This book is his best shot and he was right to not turn it into his private wailing wall. He portrays himself as he really was: a man with touches of grace and courage, who in office was constantly being overwhelmed by events of his own making. Mulroney is many things but he is not stupid, and he realized that a selfjustifying memoir would sink his reputation permanently. Thus, Memoirs, which is vintage Irish blarney and political wisdom melded into a story well worth telling—and reading.
Despite its impressive smooth style (he wrote it himself with the help of Douglas Gibson at McClelland & Stewart, one the best editors in the business) Memoirs reads like the confessions of the field marshal of a onceloyal, retreating army (the Progressive Conservative party) that he led to its greatest triumphs—until it abandoned him, and the voters tore off his epaulettes. The book is not exactly a beach-read but it goes some distance in absolving Mulroney from being remembered as “lyin’ Brian,” or in Allan Fotheringham’s backhanded salute, as “the jaw that walks like a man.”
“I don’t want a puff job,” he told my tape recorder during research for The Secret Mulroney Tapes, about the kind of biography he wanted. “I find myself so goddamn frustrated, as a modest student of history, wanting to know, what was the guy really like? Did he get laid? Did he look after his family? Did he swear? Did he get drunk? It’s safe to say that the only bloody Canadian prime minister who really comes across as a human being is Macdonald. I’ve always said that if I was lucky enough to be in that position as prime minister myself,
I would not object at all to people reading about my warts and my failings. They’re part of me. So, as I say, I don’t want a puff job.”
He didn’t write one. Memoirs will enhance the Mulroney mystique. A good argument can be made that during his time in power, he was a daring agent of change; a better argument can be made that he was its chief victim. He has now published the first part of his selfportrait, how he sees himself and how he wants to be remembered. The picture may be crude and it is still incomplete. But it’s real, and for that we can be truly thankful. M
With research by Brian Bethune