One afternoon in February, 1992, then Opposition Leader Jean Chrétien was having a coffee at the Four Seasons Hotel bar in Washington, DC, accompanied by his communications director, Peter Donolo, and a journalist ”” me. He had just finished a ”œcordial and productive” meeting in the Oval Office of the White House with President George Bush (the first). Now, he was reflecting on Canada-US relations ”” and how his approach differed from that of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Unlike Mulroney, Chrétien had no desire to be ”œpals” with the American president. In fact, he thought such a relationship was counterproductive. As he warmed to this theme, he pointed to Donolo. Peter, he said, is someone he liked and worked closely with. But, he continued with forceful emphasis, Donolo ”œis not my friend” ”” and nei- ther, for that matter, were most other people with whom he worked ”” because ”œin politics, there is no room for friendship.”
In his new memoir, My Years as Prime Minister, Chrétien makes clear his feelings on the subject haven’t changed. ”œAs I had seen with [Lester] Pearson and [Pierre] Trudeau, and as I was to discover through my own share of disillusionment,” he writes, ”œa prime minister has little room for friendship.” That’s vintage Chrétien ”” a man who built his career around the populist cliché of being a self- described ”œlittle guy from Shawinigan” ”” but who proved to be a far more hard-edged and complex figure than that.
Given that, no one should have expected Chrétien to unburden his feelings in his memoirs. And he does- n’t ”” at least not, by way of inevitable comparison, to the same degree as did Brian Mulroney in his recent book, the 1100-pages-and-counting Memoirs: 1939-1993. Mulroney is the classic Irishman who wears his emotions on his sleeve, and his big ambitions for himself and his country plain for all to see, while Chrétien keeps his emotions buttoned-down, prefers problem-solving to grand visions, and delights in being under-estimated, as he was for much of his career.
But Chrétien delivers readers more insights into his thinking than might have been expected (and much more, according to insiders, than he did in earlier drafts.) One is his asser- tion that if Mulroney hadn’t reopened the constitutional debate with the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, he might have won election a third time ”” over the Chrétien-led Liberals. That’s a remarkable admis- sion from a politician who has never liked to acknowledge the possibility of defeat. And one of the more reveal- ing memories in the book is his description of the time when he met with his caucus on the eve of the 1995 Quebec referendum, when the ”œYes” side seemed poised to win. He recalls that he ”œchoked up” when he ”œreflected on the indecency of being called a traitor to my people, espe- cially by someone like [Lucien] Bouchard, who had changed parties four or five times in his life.”
Speaking of people whose behav- ior he considers traitorous, there’s Paul Martin. Like Mulroney, Chrétien has forgiven and forgotten none of the offences perpetuated by his nemesis, and recounts them in precise and out- raged detail. Another similarity is that both men recount how they rejected advice from their advisers to fire the person in question ”” Martin in Chrétien’s case, and Bouchard (from cabinet) in Mulroney’s, and ultimately regretted their decisions.
Chrétien credits Martin properly for taming Canada’s annual deficits as finance minister. He underplays his own commendable willingness to back his minister in tough times ”” a lesson Chrétien learned the hard way years earlier, when he held the portfolio himself and Trudeau didn’t always keep him in the policy loop. So Chrétien’s anger at the impatience and scheming of Martin’s people to replace him is understandable. But a friend or editor should have talked Chrétien out of softening and rewriting a controver- sial sentence in which he asserts that because of Martin’s dithering ”œabout whether Canada should extend our term with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, our soldiers were moved out of Kabul and sent south again to battle the Taliban in the killing fields around Kandahar.” That version of events has been refut- ed by others close to the situation. More to the point, I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that Chrétien didn’t really mean to imply that Martin has blood on his hands as a result. And, in fact, that was likely not Chrétien’s intent: for better and sometimes worse, he has always been blunt ”” and if he meant to level an accusation that serious, would he have fudged his lan- guage at all?
Much has been made of the fact that Mulroney did his own writing, while Chrétien worked with Ron Graham (who co-wrote the 1985 book Straight From the Heart). Both men made good decisions. Mulroney’s memoirs fully reflect his voice, while Chrétien ”” whose dodgy relationship with verbs and nouns has kept journalists busy cleaning up his remarks for years ”” benefits from Graham’s clear prose. What matters most is that the senti- ments and philosophies in this book are unmistakably those of Chrétien.
Our newsletter about the public service.
Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.
One of the most impressive qualities made clear in this book is Chrétien’s formidable understanding of how government functions. By the time he became prime minister, he had held so many portfolios and served under, alongside or across from so many politi- cians of so many different stripes, styles and beliefs that he had distilled his approach to a minimalist essence: hence, his preference for briefing notes in bullet form of no more than a page, and for a paper-free desk at the end of every day. To keep staff on their toes, he writes, he would occasionally seize on ”œan obscure fact or incidental statistic buried in one of the annexes. ”œ”˜Test me’, I often said, ”˜just for the sport of it.’”
Chrétien is too dismissive of some controversies that surfaced during his tenure ”” although he offers an admis- sion that he didn’t do himself any favours with his pre-1993 election promise to ”œscrap” the Goods and Services Tax. He is unrepentant about the creation of the federal unity pro- gram in Quebec that led to the abuse of millions of taxpayer dollars and also to Martin’s creation of the Gomery Inquiry. Chrétien contends that the program was ”œwell executed on the whole by honest, professional public servants.” He suggests that if Martin had let the police investigations run their course and had not created the inquiry, the affair would have blown over by now. We’ll never know ”” but instead of finding something else for which to blame Martin, a more pro- ductive approach might have been to reassess the way his government mis- handled the unity file between 1993 and 1995 to the extent that the refer- endum outcome was that close.
Overall, there are many positive reminders of why Chrétien flourished for so long in public life. One or two of those are unintentionally amusing. Like many politicians, he purports to have paid little attention to the media ”” even as the evidence shows otherwise. When I met him shortly after the 1996 release of Double Vision, his first gruff comment was that he hadn’t read the book (though he let us interview him for it). He went on to specifically take exception with several sections of the book ”” thereby, of course, demonstrat- ing his keen awareness of its contents.
That said, he didn’t take criticism personally, and made a point of keeping his relationship with jour- nalists civil. On the second Team Canada trip to Asia in the mid-1990s, I was crossing the hotel lobby in Islamabad, Pakistan late one after- noon, when I heard someone call my name. The PM, having coffee alone, motioned for me to join him, and we spent the next half hour talking about hockey, his frustra- tions with his golf game, and the highlights of the cities we were visiting. A few years later, after I left the press gallery to move to Toronto, I saw him at an event one night. The next day, my cell phone buzzed, and a voice said it was the Prime Minister’s Office. Seconds later, that familiar voice came on the line, ”œWe didn’t have a chance to talk last night,” he said, then added, jokingly, ”œYou must be missing me.”
Which brings us back to Donolo, who vividly recalls that incident in Washington ”” and a night almost a decade later when he was leaving his job after one of the most successful tenures of any prime ministerial communications director. The Chrétiens hosted a dinner for him at 24 Sussex, and when it came time to pay tribute, Chrétien arose, looked at Donolo, and said that while he was sad to be losing him from his office, there was also a good side to that: ”œNow I can call you my friend.” That’s not in the book ”” but it makes for a telling reminder of how leaders must distinguish between personal and professional considera- tions, and how they govern their thinking accordingly. Regardless of where you sit politically, Canadians owe Mulroney and Chrétien a debt for two books that describe in an up- close and personal manner what it takes to get to the top ”” and how hard it is to stay there.