The Mulroney I know

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National Post, Thursday, September 6, 2007

Brian Mulroney was talking about his legacy one night, so I asked what he regarded as his most important achievement. I was thinking along the lines of the Free Trade Agreement, or the acid rain accord, something like that.

He didn't hesitate: "Having a good marriage," he replied. "And being a successful parent." Well, of course.

But that's the thing with Mulroney. It is always personal. And nothing is more important than family or friendship.

He once had the PMO switchboard track down a friend who had just split up with his wife, and was staying in an Ottawa hotel with his infant daughter. "I hear you've got trouble at home," he began. "Look, if you walked down the Sparks Street Mall tomorrow, nine people out of 10 will tell you they have problems in their marriage. The thing is to work through them."

The conversation went on for about half an hour, the friend later recounted. "You have more important things to do than this," the friend finally told him. "You have a country to run."

"Nothing is more important than this," Mulroney replied.

There are at least as many such stories about Mulroney as there are pages in his new book--more than a thousand. They come from personal friends and political foes alike. When Bob Rae's brother died in 1989, Mulroney was on the phone. When my daughter Grace was born in 1990, he called the hospital. "It doesn't get any better than this," he said that day.

It was because of this personal touch, le beau geste prive, that Mulroney was able to hold the Conservative caucus, a notoriously fractious group, together for the decade he led the party from 1983 to 1993.

There were plenty of highs, including two consecutive majorities, but also lots of lows. Mulroney was not one to hoard his political capital. Rather, he spent it down and then some. By the time he left office, the country was glad to see the back of him, but his caucus always remained solid, even as his approval rating plummeted toward single digits. "I'd follow you anywhere," Don Mazankowski told him before the caucus one day as the end of his nine years in office drew near.

Equally, Mulroney invested in relationships with foreign leaders, none more so than Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush. And what did Canada get out of those excellent interpersonal relations between the Canadian prime minister and two American presidents? Well, as David Frum wrote in yesterday's Post, there was the Free Trade Agreement with Reagan in 1987, and the acid rain accord with Bush in 1991. On more than one occasion, presidents Reagan and Bush rejected the advice of their advisors on U.S. positions so they could be helpful to Mulroney on his home front in Canada. "That's for Brian," Bush said of the emissions-reductions targets he agreed to on acid rain.

Many years later, Mulroney traced his relationship with Bush to his time as U.S. vice-president, when it was by no means clear that he would succeed Reagan as president. "I invested heavily in George Bush," Mulroney would later say of a time when many foreign leaders had difficulty looking past Reagan.

The friendship and courtesies were reciprocated in full. And they continue to this day: Just last week, Brian and Mila Mulroney spent Labour Day weekend, as they have for years, as guests of George and Barbara Bush at Walker's Point in Kennebunkport, Me.

Reagan and Bush will undoubtedly figure prominently in Mulroney's book, Memoirs, which is what he's been calling it for years -- as in "I'll deal with him in my memoirs." Lucien Bouchard and Pierre Trudeau are undoubtedly among the subjects. Clyde Wells wouldn't fare very well, either, in Mulroney's version of Meech Lake.

This was long before he finally got started to write them, around five years ago. He hired a researcher, Kingston writer Arthur Milne. But Mulroney himself, and no one else, wrote his book. And if Mulroney is settling accounts, well, aren't all memoirs self-serving as well as revealing?

Having completed the manuscript and delivered it to his publisher in late spring, Mulroney recently said, "I now understand why you writers get the jitters before the book comes out." The writer's work is done, and now it's in the hands of others, especially the reviewers.

What he did control was the timing -- he would not be pushed into finishing the book, and would not let go of it until he was done. He has always understood that this book was his one opportunity to tell his version of events as he lived them, and his version of history as he made it.

One area where the narrative may be incomplete is in his telling of the 1984 and 1988 campaigns, if only because Mulroney was always in the moment, rather like a hockey player who never sees the tape of a great playoff series.

I covered the 1984 campaign from the press section at the back of Mulroney's campaign plane, and participated in the 1988 free-trade election from the staff section at the front. The two campaigns were as different as my vantage point, but both outcomes were a result of Mulroney's unrivalled skills as a campaigner. As his friend Robert Bourassa said at a critical point of the 1988 campaign: " Brian, c'est un maudit bon campaigner."

He could make the case, as he did on free trade; he could force the issue, as he did by defining the negatives of his opponents; and he could close the deal. And no one since Mulroney has had the ability to carry a campaign on his back, as he did in 1988 after taking a hit from Turner -- "I believe you have sold us out" -- in the defining moment of the leaders' debate.

He was a highly disciplined campaigner, but he also had a gambler's instinct for living on the edge. In Victoria in the 1988 campaign, he accepted a challenge from three hecklers to debate them on the spot over Chapter 19 of the Free Trade Agreement and its associated dispute-settlement provisions. When our press secretary, Marc Lortie, came aboard the PM's bus, I asked him: "Does he know it that well?"

"We are," said Lortie, "about to find out."

It turned out that he did know it, but it was also, excuse the expression, a roll of the dice.

A week later, on a beautiful late autumn Saturday morning, we were rolling on the North Shore of Quebec, on a day that would end with him speaking in his home town of Baie Comeau. He wanted to say something about the courage of his parents' generation, who built towns out of forests. "My father dreamed of a better life for his family," he said, "I dream of a better life for my country."

"Good stuff," he said as he got off the bus that night. "Thanks." No, sir. Thank you.

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