Mulroney still waiting for credit; But Canadians won't give it to him
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 11 September 2007)

We all enjoy being liked, Brian Mulroney remarks in Memoirs: 1939-1993, "and I was no exception." His 1,121-page autobiography tells the story of a boy who has never been sufficiently liked. When he became especially unpopular in his last years as prime minister, he consoled himself by dreaming of a kinder verdict from "a more reflective nation in the fullness of time."

Time has passed, 14 years of it, yet there's no noticeable movement of public opinion in his direction. Long ago, the Liberals stole his free-trade policy and his GST, which they claimed to hate when those measures were adopted. But no Liberal has ever thanked him, in public, and no Liberal ever will.

And it might be hard to find anyone, of any party, who disliked him in 1993 but admires him now.

His intensely personal reflections will fascinate psychologists as well as students of politics.

He's most revealing when he ponders, sorrowfully, the negative public opinion polls and the Parliamentary Press Gallery's hostility. These signs of rejection trouble him to this minute.

What can be said about one of the most successful Canadians of his generation who seems to feel his failures so deeply? Is he one of those people who can't accept happiness when it arrives? A French psychologist, T.A. Ribot, invented the term "anhedonia" to describe the inability to experience appropriate pleasure. (Woody Allen wanted to use that word as the title for Annie Hall, but wiser heads prevailed.) There are many places in Mulroney's book, as there were many moments during the CTV documentary about him on Sunday night, where a peculiar joylessness makes itself felt. (His forced and hollow laugh, which failed him so often during his years in power, still works against him on television.)

What accounts for his air of dissatisfaction? Is it simply that he believes himself unloved? Should he care so much? Should anyone care as much as he clearly does?

Citizens tend to expect in their leaders a certain cool, self-possessed decorum. Pierre Trudeau had that quality, Mulroney didn't. There were many reasons for Mulroney to envy Trudeau, but this may have been the most compelling.

In Memoirs he comes across as something of a whiner, a politician who loses his poise when dealing with failure or betrayal. His anger is too overt, his neediness too obvious, just as when he was in office. Serenity under pressure was a quality he admired but could never emulate.

He pays tribute to Margaret Thatcher, whom he watched at an international conference in Paris while her caucus back home was voting her out of office. As he wrote in his journal that night, she maintained "a jaunty, confident air, very much a leader." Under attack, her dignity was unimpaired. Mulroney noted particularly that, "She rejected an occasion to denigrate her adversary" (Michael Heseltine). And he commented with admiration that when a battle was over, she held no grudge and showed no malice. He also saw a "total absence of malice" in the personality of Ronald Reagan, another role model he was incapable of emulating.

When writing about Thatcher and Reagan, was Mulroney thinking about his own reputation as a grudge-holder? Did he reflect on the curious fact that he rarely exhibited (so far as the public knows) the very qualities that most aroused his admiration when they appeared in other politicians?

There's no evidence he's given this question much thought, and the lack of any such reflection makes his book emotionally thinner than we might have hoped. Time has not deepened his perspective. Certainly, in Memoirs he makes no effort to forgive his enemies. The grudges are all there again, directed at Preston Manning, Jean Chrétien, Lucien Bouchard and Trudeau, among others.

In his section on the Meech Lake constitutional process, Mulroney announces that "for the first time ever, I am now going to tell the whole story about Lucien Bouchard and his betrayal of Meech Lake and our friendship."

That's a narrative worth unfolding, but he then proceeds to tell all but the most important part. He makes it clear that Bouchard's resignation from the Cabinet (part of a secret plot against the government, Mulroney says) was the worst blow to his prime ministership. Eventually, because Bouchard started the Bloc Québécois, it was also a lethal punch to the 1990s Tories.

But in recounting these events, Mulroney ducks a key question: Why in the world did he make Bouchard into one of the grand figures in federal politics? (The TV documentary also sidestepped this point.)

Mulroney's law-school contemporary at Laval, Bouchard joined the Parti Québécois when he was 32, campaigned for it, served as the PQ government's chief negotiator with civil servants, and chaired the "Yes" side in the 1980 referendum on separatism. True, he was Mulroney's pal -- they were like brothers, apparently. True, he claimed that as Mulroney's ambassador to Paris, "I have learned to love Canada."

But surely his track record on separatism should have suggested he was not the horse on which to bet the future of Canada, which is more or less what Mulroney believed he was doing when he made Bouchard his Quebec political minister and therefore the key Quebecer in the Meech Lake period.

Aside from his political views, Bouchard had a seriously paranoid side, and during his first election campaign as a Tory he flew into a tantrum and announced (wrongly) that he was losing and "Brian is part of the cabal to bring me down." As Mulroney says now, "there is a darker side to his personality." Still, "I trusted him completely." Why?

Perhaps someone should have said, "Brian, are you out of your mind?" But Mulroney had produced for the Tories a majority beyond their most fervent dreams or his. Perhaps he knew something that others didn't. He thought Bouchard would put their personal friendship ahead of his proud (if somewhat erratic) belief in Quebec's future. To a reader of the Memoirs it's obvious the prime minister made a grave mistake. But in Mulroney's eyes the only thing that matters is the villainy of Bouchard. Mulroney insists on looking everywhere except inside himself.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image