It’s not Mulroney who’s been slimed by Newman

Two men fall into the mud. One comes out. I think it’s Brian Mulroney. His tone is unpleasant, but not surprising. But who expected Peter C. Newman to publish such a lurid, uninformative, sin-of-detraction “Gotcha!” book? As too often with Mr. Mulroney, we find ourselves agreeing with much of what he said while shaking our heads at the way he said it. Joe Clark’s vanity is not a well-kept secret; nor is Kim Campbell’s self-pitying political ineptitude. As for calling Pierre Trudeau a “coward,” he was physically brave and, on separatism, had the courage of his convictions. But his chic indifference to the evils of Nazism, then Communism, I do consider moral cowardice.

Mr. Mulroney’s depiction of many of his political contemporaries as egotists invites the response “tu quoque.” But it is not thereby rendered less accurate. Nor is he the first skilful politician to see others more clearly than himself. He just had a particularly repellent way of doing it.

The friends of offputting politicians are prone to say, “ah but if you only knew the private man.” No thanks. It is revealing that, like Richard Nixon, Mr. Mulroney could neither resist the tape recorder nor anticipate how it would make him appear. Why would a man who loathed the press, yet called them “the boys” and pored obsessively over what they wrote, have blundered into this book? His familiar besetting flaw: a lack of comfortable self-awareness that led him to crave approval, yet plunge into discreditable hyperbole.

A classic reflection is his outburst at Jean Chretien’s reversal on free trade. If he’d really been the Ronald Reagan clone his detractors claimed, he’d have smiled and said, “Why, that hasn’t happened since a fellah named Mulroney was running for the Tory leadership in 1983 and said ‘Free trade is terrific until the elephant twitches, and if it ever rolls over, you’ll be a dead man. We’ll have none of it.’ I guess we get smarter in office.” Instead he fired obscenities at Mr. Chretien and the press.

I don’t remember the most uncharitable thing I ever said about Liberal trade policy. But I remember not saying it into Peter C. Newman’s tape recorder.

Early accounts pilloried Mr. Mulroney’s actually quite measured claim that “there was one great prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald ... and then there’s the rest of us. By the time history is done looking at this ... certainly no one will ever be in Sir John A.’s league -- but my nose will be a little ahead of most in terms of achievement.” Arguably, it doesn’t narrow the field much. From Bowell to Bennett to Campbell, our prime ministers are an undistinguished lot. But if not Mulroney, who?

Mackenzie King may confirm the scientific hypothesis that inaction promotes longevity, but my tea leaves say it is shameful to govern so long to so little purpose. Anyway, considering who Mr. Mulroney had in mind, it must be said that Pierre Trudeau was a more important prime minister, but also a far worse one.

On the Mulroney balance sheet, free trade was a visionary triumph backed by a clear electoral mandate. More broadly, he understood the importance of our relationship with the United States. And though his early attempts to revitalize our military fizzled, he conducted foreign policy like a grownup. It was nice while it lasted.

On domestic affairs, his record is more mixed. The GST was superior to the tax it replaced and also, being more visible, helped make Canadians aware of their staggering tax burden. On the other hand, his failure to control spending should have embarrassed fiscal conservatives and did lasting harm to his party and his nation.

His profanity appalls me. I’m sure Sir John A. knew those words, too. But he avoided them while dictating. Moreover, Mr. Mulroney made politics too personal and insufficiently philosophical. But his exaggerated sense of loyalty contrasts favourably with that of many of his “friends,” including the one with the tape machine.

His reaction to the book showed him at his best. “It’s my responsibility, and entirely my fault,” he said. Deploring the “locker-room” tone, he said “I regret any personal allusions that I made. In all cases, I have my own private regard for their talent and their achievements.” He also noted that many of the quotations are years old and “I hope I’ve become more mature and more generous.”

Perhaps he has. Meanwhile, if the gushing handwritten note in Mr. Mulroney’s own copy (“For Brian -- At last Canadians will see you for the warm, funny and human person that you are -- Peter”) does not show Mr. Newman at his worst, he is a man much to be pitied.

Brian Mulroney will one day, despite his own worst efforts, be recognized as one of our better prime ministers. As for Mr. Newman, that guy he’s pinned in the mud is himself.

And you can quote me on that.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson