Mulroney at 70

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney speaks with L. Ian MacDonald about his family, Karlheinz Schreiber, Stephen Harper and Barack Obama

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
National Post, Friday, March 20, 2009

As Brian Mulroney turns 70 today, he has every reason to reflect on what he calls "a good life, a full life." The former prime minister is in Florida, at his winter home in Palm Beach, surrounded by his wife, four kids and four grandkids.

He adds: "Mila's in great shape. The kids are in great shape. The grandchildren are fantastic. My health is better than it's ever been in my life. You've got all that going for you at 70, you're beating the odds."

Before flying out to Fort Lauderdale yesterday, Mulroney took some time to chat in his law office at Ogilvy Renault, where he is a senior partner and huge rainmaker for the firm. On the window sills, books shelves and credenza, there are the photographs of a life in politics and business: with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the Oval Office, with the first George Bush at Kennebunkport, with Ted Kennedy, Nancy Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, all of whom have written or called to wish him a happy 70th birthday. There are other photos, with Ronald Reagan at the White House, with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in Russia, with Francois Mitterrand and Pope John Paul II at 24 Sussex.

Mulroney's desk, a walnut table that once belonged to Sir John A. Macdonald, was a gift from the Conservative caucus on his retirement in 1993. He points behind the desk to a large portrait of his four children, painted by the Ottawa artist Shirley Van Dusen in 1987. "That's by far the most important thing in this office, what I cherish most," he says. "It's perfect."

Looking back on his nine tumultuous years as prime minister from 1984 to 1993, he says: "I enjoyed very much being prime minister and I deeply enjoy now that my policies are being recognized as beneficial to the country. But all of that pales into insignificance beside my children. My wife, my children, my family, my friends -- that's what counts. I'm thrilled with life."

He adds: "My dad would be pleased. My mom would be pleased."

Mulroney never expected to live to see 70.

"No, I did not," he says. "My dad died when he was 61, and for me that was an entirely traumatic moment. I've lived 44 years without my hero, and I feel his loss to this day."

This is what it always comes back to with Mulroney, the narrative of the electrician's son from Baie Comeau, Que.; and the father, the first Ben Mulroney, who never lived to see, or savour, his son's success.

"He used to sit in that La-Z-Boy chair that he had at 79 Champlain Street," Mulroney recalls. "He would kick back, take off his shoes and sit back with a small, cold bottle of Molson in his hand. His words are burned into my mind. He would say, 'we're almost over the hump,' and of course, with six kids, we weren't. And he would say, 'the next time we go to Montreal, I want you to see the Canadiens, I want you to see the Forum,' and of course we never got there. He never saw them play."

This was something Mulroney always thought of during his years as president of the Iron Ore Company, when he had four seats in the reds right behind the Canadiens bench; or again when he left office, when he had his own two seats in the reds beside the great Dickie Moore. More than anything he ever did as prime minister, he has said his father would have been impressed by his investiture as a Companion of the Order of Canada, when Mulroney centred a line of Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau at Rideau Hall.

In a major new book, Blue Thunder, conservative author Bob Plamondon appraises every Conservative leader from Macdonald to Stephen Harper, and ranks Mulroney second to only Macdonald himself. In an appendix rating success and failure, Plamondon ranks Mulroney in first place on the economy and prosperity, notably for "his crowning policy jewel," free trade with the United States; first on the environment for the acid-rain accord, the Green Plan and other achievements. He rates Mulroney the best campaigner of them all, for his back-to-back majorities in 1984 and 1988, particularly the turnaround of the free-trade election after losing the leadership debate to John Turner.

Plamondon sent Mulroney an advance copy of the book the other day, enjoy that my policies are being recognized as beneficial to the country and the former PM says he finds it "gratifying" to be ranked "the best after Sir John A., who is obviously in a class by himself."

Their pictures being on the cover of the same book is about the only thing Mulroney shares with Harper nowadays. They've not talked since the current Prime Minister severed contact with his predecessor after Karlheinz Schreiber's affidavit in Nov., 2007, falsely accusing Mulroney of taking up his extradition case with Harper at Harrington Lake.

But this is more Harper's loss than Mulroney's, since the PM has deprived himself of his best adviser on Quebec, and a mentor on foreign affairs, notably Canada-U. S. relations. Mulroney would have served as an early warning system on the Conservative cultural cuts and young offender proposals in Quebec.

Mulroney knew early in the last election campaign that the cultural cuts were a problem when he and his wife had Robert Charlebois and Gilles Vigneault over to dinner, and the two renowned Quebec singers spent part of the evening blasting Harper. What Mulroney didn't know was whom to call, since no one in the Harper camp was allowed to talk to him. When Harper wonders about his missed rendezvous with a majority, and the near-death experience of his government in December, it's something to consider.

The only cloud on the horizon of Mulroney's life as he turns 70 is the matter of the inquiry into his cash transaction with Schreiber, the most expensive $225,000 he ever made in his life. He's certainly paid a heavy price for it, and has already suffered great embarrassment for his bad judgment in even meeting someone like Schreiber.

It's like a pebble in his shoe that he needs to stop and shake out. Mulroney blames no one but himself for doing business with Schreiber. As he has said: "My mother used to say, when you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas." But as to the accusation that his retainer with Schreiber was to lobby the Canadian government, Mulroney has often said privately: "I have never lobbied the Canadian government in my life."

As for the Oliphant Inquiry, which begins hearings next month, Mulroney knows he will just have to get through it. One thing is for sure: When he appears before the inquiry, it will be a quite a show.

"There is a saying that you should never be exultant in victory or craven in defeat," he says. "You've just got to keep going, that's all."

Four years ago, there was a very real question of whether Mulroney would keep going at all, when he nearly died of pancreatitis and was hospitalized for months at Montreal's Hopital Saint-Luc. He later said it was only when his daughter Caroline showed up at his bedside, and reminded him that she was expecting twins, that he decided he was going to live.

"They say if you have a near-death experience it changes you forever," he says. "Mila says it has changed me in that I'm much less partisan than I used to be. It was really Mila who pulled me through that." In this regard, he reflects on the illness of his close friend Ted Kennedy, "a wonderful man, who is completely without malice," now on an acclaimed victory lap of life even as he lives with inoperable brain cancer.

A lifelong aficionado of American politics, Mulroney likes the lift that Barack Obama has given to American politics, and that his visit to Ottawa "has given a new appreciation of Canada in America."

Obama reminds him of Jack Kennedy, "in the sense that he has both style and substance." He has known four American presidents and ranks the first George Bush as the "finest at a human level," and Ronald Reagan, as "the best natural leader I ever met."

The interview ended and Mulroney's driver was waiting. But when he reached the sidewalk, he said to me, "it's a beautiful evening, Montreal at its best, let's walk for a bit." At the corner of McGill College and de Maisonneuve, he pointed down the street to the iconic cruciform tower of Place Ville Marie, the spot where he started at Ogilvy Renault, fresh out of Laval law school, in 1964, and to which the firm is returning this summer.

Among the firm's five floors of space, Mulroney has been assigned a large corner office, "with view east to the Big O, south to the Port of Montreal, and north to the mountain." Imagine, he added, "me, a guy from Baie Comeau, with a corner office in PVM."

 
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