The end marred by betrayal, bitterness
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 November 2003)

The band went home an hour ago, and then they closed the kitchen, but there's this one guy sitting at the bar, waiting for God knows what. He's the last guest still hanging around, he knows he should go, but he just can't bring himself to walk out the door. Somehow, it doesn't feel right. If he stays a little longer maybe everything will be OK, maybe his feelings will sort themselves out.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who has had so much trouble admitting the party is over, titled his mid-career memoirs Straight from the Heart. That was his way of saying he's a man of deep feelings. No one doubts that, but unfortunately for him, and for the rest of us, most of the feelings he expresses have a powerfully negative quality -- and he enjoys sharing them. He feels anger, he feels humiliation, he feels resentment. He displays all of these emotions, again and again, in his public appearances and his dealings with others.

In private his anger is legendary, but the public has seen it most often, over the last 10 years, in Question Period. He's made a habit of meeting every serious criticism with a snarl. Not for him the cool disdain of Pierre Trudeau or the Irish bravura of Brian Mulroney; he wants to tell us he's damned mad. He can't stand to be contradicted, he can't bear to have people point out his mistakes, and above all he can't admit he was wrong about anything, ever. As for corruption, he can't believe it exists in his Ottawa.

He must know more about the craft of politics than any other living Canadian, but in the last few years he's stumbled badly. Under him, the Liberals have been looking like Tories -- and there's nothing worse that Liberals could say about themselves. Traditionally, the Conservatives made war on each other while the Liberals put team spirit first, even if it meant gritting their teeth and pretending to admire colleagues they despised. Peace in the party was crucial to their success.

From the mid-1980s onward, however, the Liberals have known that Chretien has had little interest in peace. He's a tiger when crossed, and he's a notoriously careful collector of grievances. For these reasons, his decade of power is ending in an atmosphere polluted by betrayal, plots and bitterness.

After keeping government frozen for what already seems an eternity, and keeping attention focused on himself and his whims for as long as possible, Chretien will hand over a solid parliamentary majority to his successor, a triumph in itself and something any leader should richly enjoy. But he'll do it under duress, and in the knowledge that most of the MPs he led into Parliament, those ungrateful wretches, have long since turned against him.

Knowing politics as he does, having learned it from masters, how could he have let it all come to this? The trouble is that all the practical experience in the world can't help him. His problems are problems of character. He's that most dangerous of leaders, an easily bruised egotist. He's the living proof that pride and self-pity can be close relatives.

Long ago he suffered because he was inarticulate in both languages, because his origins were provincial (and therefore contemptible to Montreal intellectuals), and because he lacked the grasp of policy that came easily to people like Trudeau and Paul Martin. But as a vote-getting politician he overcame all that, in spades. Unlike every other Liberal leader since Sir Wilfrid Laurier, he won three majorities in a row. Lester B. Pearson, who must have seemed a king to Chretien back in the 1960s, never got even one majority, and Pierre Trudeau got three but not in a row. Chretien had luck on his side, of course; his opposition was always divided and always inadequate. But Trudeau, too, was lucky in his opponents, the Conservative leaders Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark.

You could argue that Chretien reached the prime minister's office in 1993 because the Tories were in disarray and Prime Minister Kim Campbell was still a novice, shoved far too soon into a star role. But when the election was over Chretien's native cleverness began to emerge. As a prime minister he was shrewder than anyone expected.

He ran against Mulroney's record and then adopted Mulroney's policies, a trick that required poise, acumen and the nerves of a cat burglar. He embarrassed his supporters by keeping in place the hated GST (which he had promised to change or eliminate) and ended up endorsing the Mulroney free-trade policies that his party had vehemently opposed in 1988 and he had promised to review and perhaps alter. Six months after he took office, and only five years after the Liberals had nearly torn the country apart over the Free Trade Treaty, it was obvious that Chretien's trade policies didn't differ in a single detail from Mulroney's; if anything, our new prime minister was more of a free trader.

He and Paul Martin then won the praise of a grateful nation for cutting the federal deficit, while reducing services far more than Mulroney had dared. By political magic, the Liberals persuaded voters to embrace the very programs that many of them hated when Mulroney promoted them.

In English-speaking Canada, this involved a mild form of class warfare combined with an elaborate rhetorical diversion. A lifelong professional politician who was by this point also a well-to-do lawyer, Chretien as prime minister managed to maintain his well-worn image as a poor, small-town boy who could always be trusted to take the side of the disadvantaged. He talked fast enough to make nearly everyone forget that he had belonged to the Canadian leadership class since becoming Mitchell Sharp's protege in 1964 and Prime Minister Pearson's parliamentary secretary in 1965.

He just kept saying that he was not a member of the Establishment (unlike all those other leaders), and somehow people kept believing him. His bumpkinish manner helped, and his awkwardness. No one could possibly mistake him for a clever law professor like Trudeau, a smoothie like Mulroney or a capitalist like Martin. He was just folks.

In Quebec, that act didn't play quite as well. In 1995, the worst of his years in office (until 2002 brought the beginning of the end), the federal side nearly lost the referendum on Quebec's future. Chretien quickly realized that separatism needed more of his attention, recruited better advisors and finally began to turn around a once-desperate situation. As he leaves office, a Liberal federalist is premier in Quebec City, installed there partly through Chretien's good offices.

But when he had won everything a Canadian politician can dream of winning, and then won it again, and yet again, he still seemed angry, as if there was something they were withholding from him. He made it clear, in dozens of public ways, that he was not pleased. Some outsiders might consider this inexplicable, and the people close to him (by now scholarly curators of his moods) never came up with an adequate explanation. Were we confronting some weirdly public version of anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure? Or was it just old-fashioned ambition, the kind that can never be completely satisfied?

In the end he so overstayed his welcome that his party had to force him out, to replace him with his former finance minister. If Chretien's electoral record was unprecedented in recent times, the achievement of Paul Martin was unique in our history: He toppled a prime minister who had only recently won a majority, a feat previously considered impossible.

For Chretien there must have been a kind of grim satisfaction in this drama. Perhaps he had always suspected something like this would happen if he let anyone else achieve independent stature, the way he'd done with Martin, allowing him to become famous and take credit for all those much-admired budgets. People had known for years about Martin's ambition, and had known just as well that Chretien disliked him, but it wasn't until the end of the 1990s that the Martin gang began grinding away at the job of undoing Chretien. By last year, everyone in Ottawa understood that something almost unbelievable had happened. A Cabinet minister had taken the Liberal party away from the Prime Minister.

The Martinite strategy was obvious: Capitalize on all the resentments that Chretien had created by attending to his own feelings and ignoring those of the MPs. Over the years his colleagues had noted a royal element in Chretien's personal style, a need for courtiers who told him what he wanted to hear. This tendency reached its climax in 1999 when he made Francoise Ducros, a lawyer and political operative, his director of communications. An admittedly talented woman, furiously loyal to Chretien, she brought a major problem to her job: She couldn't communicate in ways that others found acceptable. She echoed the Prime Minister's anger and defensiveness rather than moderating and explaining it. (She finally left her job after a journalist reported that she had said, "What a moron!" about George W. Bush.)

So far as an outsider could tell, tracking him from a distance, Chretien seldom showed signs of a generous spirit. He demanded loyalty but never learned how to reciprocate. He couldn't support John Turner, the party leader from 1984 to 1990, and even towards the end he dumped his true and loyal servant, Herb Gray, for no reason that anyone has ever been able to imagine.

Like many egotists, Chretien seems rarely to understand the effect of his words on others. As a result, he sometimes made his motives appear worse than they could possibly be. Earlier this year, he claimed, in an astonishing interview with his sympathetic biographer Lawrence Martin, the author of Iron Man: The Defiant Reign of Jean Chretien, that he had not planned to run for prime minister a third time. What changed him (by his account) was the news of a meeting of Martinites at the Constellation Hotel near the Toronto Airport in March, 2000, a meeting that could easily have been interpreted as a discussion of how to unseat the Prime Minister.

He told Lawrence Martin that till then "he'd made up his mind to leave at the end of his second term. But he felt they were trying to push him out, and that wouldn't do." So he ran again, just to spite them. It was an ancient gambit, intended to make the enemy feel thwarted: I was going to quit till you guys tried to fire me.

Nobody believed this story, not even Chretien's brother Maurice, but in telling it the Prime Minister obviously didn't know what it would say about him if he were believed: That he put the needs of his ego before his party, and for that matter the country. He probably thought the story proved he was a proud, gutsy guy who wouldn't let his enemies get the better of him.

As he steps down, Chretien can look back on a career of personal triumphs. Time after time, he surprised those who refused to take him seriously, including the snobbish Trudeau intellectuals who considered him slow-witted. Doggedly, he had worked his way to the top of the party, proving he was smarter than just about any of them. The separatists always hated him, and he vanquished them -- at least for now. The journalists predicted, year after year, that he couldn't possibly be prime minister. ("Chretien is the invisible man, the man who stands for nothing" -- Geoffrey Stevens, 1990.) They loved to call him Yesterday's Man. His fellow Liberals chose John Turner over him in 1984 because they thought Turner looked like a winner and Chretien didn't.

He showed them, all of them, every last one. But it wasn't enough for him, not nearly enough. He won victory after victory, but by a curious twist of personality, a kind of reverse psychological alchemy, he managed to turn all of it into something that now must feel to him a lot like defeat.

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