'They came to see the history'

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The Gazette, Monday, September 14, 2009

PHOTO: Brian Mulroney, LIM (circled in red) and the rest of the press corps on the campaign trail in 1984 (click to enlarge)

A few days before the 1984 federal election, when it was apparent that Brian Mulroney would win by a landslide, I asked him: "What are you going to do with 200 MPs?"

"I will," he replied, "worry about that when I get there."

He got there all right, and then some - all the way to 211 Conservative members in what was then a 282-seat House of Commons. It was the biggest landslide in Canadian history.

This Thursday, a gathering at the Sheraton Centre Hotel in Montreal will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Mulroney's swearing-in as prime minister. The event - the proceeds from which will go to Montreal's children's hospitals - is being co-chaired by two men who were in Mulroney's cabinet: Michael Wilson, now retiring as Canada's ambassador to the United States, and Jean Charest, Quebec's Liberal premier.

Mulroney's historic victory on Sept. 4, 1984, was to give him plenty to worry about. A combination of inexperience and a rush to the trough would lead to serious mishaps for his government.

But before the election, he never let up, and went all out to close the deal. Only five days before the Sept. 4 vote, when it was clear he was going to leave John Turner in his slipstream, Mulroney's plane touched down in five Ontario cities and two in Quebec in a single day.

Everywhere he went, his closing refrain was always about "a brand-new day and a brand-new Canada." There was also a line about Canada being "a country of small towns and big dreams."

For the reporters travelling with him, this became the run-for-the-bus line. But on the takeoff roll aboard his plane, the journalists' mirthful refrain was that "Canada is a country of small towns and big tits."

Perhaps you had to be there, but no one laughed harder than Mulroney. And here's the thing about that Boeing 727, our home in the sky for eight long weeks: The 1984 campaign was the most fun ever.

At the front of the plane, Mulroney and his team were making history, while in the press section in the back we were writing the first draft of it. But in those days - before cellphones and 24/7 news cycles, not to mention the Internet and the blogosphere - the campaign plane was where the fun began at the end of the day.

If we were flying to the West Coast, the party would really be on. Mulroney would wander to the back of the plane to chat up "the boys," as he called them, though there were a good number of "girls" among us. Most of the time it was off the record, except for the time Neil Macdonald of the Ottawa Citizen filed Mulroney's comment on Turner's patronage appointments - "There's no whore like an old whore" - and all hell broke loose.

A chastened Mulroney apologized two days later and, just like that, the story went away. Back on the plane, "the boys" turned it into a song, to the tune of There's No Business Like Show Business: "There's no whore, like an old whore, like no whore I know." Again, no one laughed harder than Mulroney.

Only a few days later, in the English-language leaders' debate, he turned the comment to his advantage in an electrifying exchange with Turner that proved to be the defining and decisive moment of the campaign.

"I have apologized to the Canadian people for kidding about it," Mulroney said, sticking out his chin, pointing an accusatory finger and sounding quite self-righteous. "The least you should do is apologize for having made these horrible appointments."

Turner famously replied: "I had no option."

"You had an option, sir," Mulroney said. "You could have said, 'I'm not going to do it. This is wrong for Canada and I'm not going to ask Canadians to pay the price.' You had an option, sir, to say no...."

"I had no option," Turner repeated lamely.

"That is an avowal of failure," Mulroney interrupted. "That is a confession of non-leadership, and this country needs leadership. You had an option, sir. You could have done better."

That was pretty much all she wrote for 1984, right there. Everyone knew it, Mulroney most of all. "I had no option," he cried in a new refrain at every stop. "The devil made me do it!"

Two days later, in Hamilton, Ont., he received a report from his pollster, Allan Gregg, that there had been "a startling" shift of public opinion in his favour in Quebec overnight after the French debate on July 24, and that after the English debate the following night, the bottom had simply fallen out for the Liberals.

The irreversible movement toward Mulroney and the Conservatives was visible on the campaign trail. While his events had been well-organized before the debates, the crowds grew exponentially, and spontaneously, afterward. One morning in Plessisville, midway between Montreal and Quebec, there were at least 1,000 people in a park as Mulroney's bus rolled into town. This was the hometown of Raymond Garneau, Turner's star recruit and his Quebec lieutenant.

It was the same everywhere Mulroney went: surging crowds yearning for change after two decades of dynastic rule by the Liberals. Parents began carrying their kids on their shoulders so they would remember what they had seen in later years. As Charley McMillan, Mulroney's senior policy adviser, said at the time: "They came to see the history."

But it wasn't a given, much less a done deal, at the beginning of the campaign. When Turner dropped the writ on July 5, he went in ahead by more than 10 points in the polls. Mulroney knew that before he could force the issue of change, he had to frame the question of competence, and that the Conservatives being absent in government, the voters could judge their competence to govern only by the competence of their campaign.

The Conservatives were marginalized both by their perpetual opposition status and by the narrowness of their base. They were the party of rural Canada, of English Canada, of white Canadians. Mulroney made them a party of cities, of French Canada, of multicultural Canadians. Before the campaign, Canadians didn't see the Conservatives as a party of government, and they did not recognize themselves in the party. Mulroney changed that, and in the process he transformed a party of losers into a party of winners.

"My job is to win the election," he said months before the campaign. And he saw that happening in four stages: unite the party, fill the campaign coffers, organize the country and finally take it by storm. As the dimensions of his mandate emerged on Sept. 4, it was not really understood, and isn't to this day, that for a Conservative leader, just winning it was the hardest part.

Mulroney understood that for all that came later, from free trade to the acid-rain accord, he had to win the country first.

"We made history," he said years later.

Did he ever.

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