Book reviews in The Globe and Mail, once known for their national influence, now stir interest only when they contain something approaching scandal. That's what happened when the editors chose Peter C. Newman to review Jean Chrétien's My Years as Prime Minister (Knopf), the latest example of a genre that's usually preceded by headlines, followed by controversy and shrouded in mystery.
A few decades ago, Canadian politicians seldom wrote memoirs. Today, the political autobiography is both a staple of publishing and a star turn in the circus of publicity. We expect anyone who becomes famous in politics to produce a book filled with praise for friends, blame for enemies and lavish personal self-justification.
The Newman review, which appeared Oct. 20, opened a bizarre new chapter in this story. A week after it was printed, Louise Dennys, the publisher of My Years as Prime Minister, placed a quarter-page ad in the Globe news section criticizing Newman's criticism. (She'd originally planned a letter to the editor, but the Globe refused to print more than 200 words. Dennys had twice that much to say, so bought her way into the paper.)
She made excellent points. Newman reviewed not the book but the Chrétien era, and discussed that subject in eccentric terms. He called it an "interregnum," an odd term for a period lasting a decade. Against all evidence, he considers Chrétien a Joe Clark-like figure on the margins of history.
Dennys hinted that Newman didn't read the book, and his review, on the face of it, supports that idea. Naturally, Chrétien boasts of bringing a dangerous deficit under control. A hostile critic might claim this was achieved by careless and harmful budget-cutting or perhaps should be credited to Paul Martin, Chrétien's finance minister and eventual usurper. But Newman doesn't even mention the word "deficit." He neglects many of the book's other major topics but focuses on Chrétien's mangled English, not an issue in the book. His review is less than adequate.
The Dennys ad may be the first of its kind in the history of publishing. Its ironic result is that the Globe, by offending Dennys, picked up $15,000 or so in revenue. But the money wasn't wasted. As Dennys says, it helped draw attention to My Years as Prime Minister. That mattered, because Chrétien, recovering from heart surgery, can't promote (or defend) his book. Did I say his book?
The autobiography of someone not known as a writer inevitably raises the question of authorship. Apparently, Brian Mulroney made the colossal error of writing his book by himself. The result, Memoirs: 1939-1993 (McClelland and Stewart) will stand forever as a 1,121-page monument to literary incompetence. Chrétien avoids that mistake.
My Years as Prime Minister carries on the title page the words "A Ron Graham Book," the first clue that Graham, an accomplished writer, wrote it, as (it has always been believed) he wrote Straight from the Heart (1986), Chrétien's reputation-boosting memoir.
Yet everyone close to the current book denies that Graham was the ghostwriter. He was more of an editor, according to the official line. Chrétien tells a different story in his acknowledgements. He says Graham interviewed many of Chrétien's colleagues, ploughed through his official papers, questioned him for many hours, worked with 1,200 pages of transcripts, arranged the narrative, clarified the arguments, polished the wording--and all of this "without losing my true voice in the process."
In other words, Graham did what most people mean when they call someone a ghostwriter. And he went farther: He selected the photographs and negotiated with the publishers. (Later, he helped Dennys with her letter as well.)
Chrétien's account of the writing process is persuasive, except for that line about not "losing my true voice." The reasonable style and the careful structure recall Graham's work under his own name but do not in any way evoke the Chrétien we all watched on television. The book is filled with adroit (but not too adroit) phrasing, such as "You're a good Liberal when the left says you're on the right and the right says you're on the left."
Is the book frank? Definitely not, no more than most political memoirs. But it's at least as forthright as, for instance, Newman's own autobiography, Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passions and Power (2005). The Chrétien book, when read with ordinary good sense and scepticism, offers a valuable account of the way federal government works. Certainly it tells us more about government than Newman's book tells us about journalism.