Canada needs a Prime Ministers Club

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On holiday in Maine, I’ve been reading The Presidents Club, a bestselling narrative history by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy on the relationship between sitting U.S. presidents and their living predecessors.

As the subtitle confirms, it is “the world’s most exclusive fraternity,” never having had more than six members, and then only once, when Bill Clinton took office in 1993, and the other members were the first George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.

Currently there are five members of the club: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, Bush Sr. and Carter.

It doesn’t matter that they belong to different parties, or even that some of them ran against and defeated one another. They are members of the club, which can be convened any time by the sitting president, who usually calls upon them to attend state funerals or appraise natural disasters. Quite on their own, they attend fundraisers and openings for their presidential libraries.

Along the way, mortal political foes have become close personal friends. In 1981, on the way home from the funeral of slain Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Ford and Carter talked for the duration of the flight, striking up an enduring friendship. “We found that we had a lot of things in common,” said Ford, who was defeated by Carter in 1976. Later they agreed that whichever one died first, the other would give the eulogy at his funeral, as was the case at Ford’s death in 2006.

When the disastrous tsunami struck South Asia in 2004, and hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, George W. Bush sent his father and Clinton to the scenes. Together they raised millions in relief. By then, they had become close friends, despite the elder Bush’s loss to Clinton in 1992. Clinton is a regular house guest at the Bush summer family estate in Kennebunkport, and they’ve been known to drop in at Barnacle Billy’s, a renowned seafood restaurant at Perkins Cove in Ogunquit.

When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Obama asked George W. Bush and Clinton to be presidential envoys, and they raised more than $50 million for relief and rebuilding. They, too, have become friends, even appearing together at paid speaking engagements such as the occasional TD Canada Trust events hosted by Frank McKenna.

The four living presidents sat together at the funeral of Reagan in 2004, where a remarkable eulogy was delivered by Brian Mulroney, the only foreign leader ever to speak at the state funeral of a U.S. president.

But it isn’t just funerals and fundraisers that former presidents attend together. Occasionally, the sitting president will convene them for political leverage. In September 1993, Clinton invited the elder Bush, Ford and Carter to the White House for their endorsement of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Seeing the four of them arrive together, and hearing their arguments for NAFTA, was an important moment. After that, from our vantage point at the Canadian Embassy, opposition to NAFTA collapsed in Congress.

They may be in the business of burnishing their legacies — Nixon spent 20 years rebuilding his after Watergate, and Carter made human rights the template of his post-presidency. And they’ve all had to go out and raise money for their libraries. But they’ve all sat in the president’s chair, and there is no adequate preparation for that.

For a Canadian reader, the question arises as to how we treat our former prime ministers, and whether they’re called upon by the prime minister of the day.

The answer is, not very well, and not very often.

There are no prime ministerial libraries on campuses in their home provinces, and their papers simply disappear into the National Archives. Former PMs aren’t sent on diplomatic errands, except to attend funerals.

There’s nothing like a PMs club in Canada, though there are seven living prime ministers, including Stephen Harper.

David Mitchell had the idea of honouring the former PMs two months ago on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Public Policy Forum, the think-tank of which he is president. Five out of six showed up at the gala in Toronto — Mulroney, John Turner, Joe Clark, Paul Martin and Kim Campbell. The sixth, Jean Chrétien, was a no-show, apparently because he didn’t want to appear with Turner or Martin, his predecessor and successor as Liberal leader.

While his absence didn’t spoil the evening in Toronto, neither did it go unremarked. The others spoke about public policy issues close to their hearts — Turner about Parliament, Martin about First Nations, Clark about foreign policy, Mulroney about the public service. Campbell spoke wistfully of being PM as the best job she ever had, one that opened other doors for her. It was one of those nights when everyone won, except the absent former prime minister.

We need more such occasions in Canada, where the service of our prime ministers is celebrated.

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