Life of Brian

“Why can’t he just go away,” said a friend as he and I watched CTV’s two-hour presentation of Brian Mulroney: Triumph & Treachery last Sunday evening. “The guy just can’t deal with rejection. He’s still vain and arrogant. It’s just an empty TV moment with a little bit of truth to it.”

My friend remembers when Mulroney left office as the most reviled prime minister in Canadian history, and he professes to still feeling “disgusted whenever he sees his face.”

Unfortunately for my friend’s mental well-being, Mulroney will not take the advice of rock band The Who and “f-fade away” and “not cause a b-big s-s-sensation.” 

The former prime minister has recently begun flogging his 1,121-page autobiography. TV and radio outlets,  newspapers  and magazines have been filled with Mulroney's musings for weeks in anticipation of the book launch. It’s the most ink and air time Mulroney has received since author Peter C. Newman published in 2005, The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Confessions of a Prime Minister. As in his new book, the ex-PM blamed everyone from political enemies to so-called friends for various failures, while claiming he will be judged by history as the greatest prime minister since John A. Macdonald. 

“By the time history is done looking at this, and you look at my achievements as opposed to others, certainly no one will be in Sir John A.’s league — but my nose will be a little ahead of most in terms of achievements,” he told Newman. 

Although I haven’t read Mulroney’s autobiography, the excerpts published by the media show its pages contain essentially what he told Newman — there will be a kinder outlook on his place in Canadian history from “a more reflective nation in the fullness of time.”

What Mulroney and his closest apologists, especially Conservative Senator Marjory Le Breton, have forgotten is that his tenure in office ended just 14 years ago; the memories of individuals, such as my friend, are still relatively fresh. In addition, the past is the domain of historians who will interpret and then write about his role — both the good and the bad aspects. No matter how an individual tries to sugar-coat their role in history, there will always be someone setting the record straight.

Mulroney has shown in the excerpts that he is a bitter and vindictive man who saw enemies everywhere. 

His nemeses Pierre Trudeau and former good buddy Lucien Bouchard are particularly vilified by Mulroney, although he also singles out former Newfoundland Premier Clyde  Wells, former Reform Party Leader Preston Manning and former PM Jean Chretien, and others, for a dose of his venom.

What Mulroney fails to recognize, or conveniently ignores, is that he was often the cause of his own problems. On TV, I noticed that he never addressed the question of why he chose to elevate Bouchard, whom he said he “loved like a brother,” only to have his trust betrayed. He must have known of Bouchard’s well-documented separatist leanings and affiliations. It almost defies credibility that Mulroney didn’t know Bouchard had a membership in the Parti Quebecois and performed yeoman duties during the 1980 Quebec referendum for the “yes” side. Bouchard, the Quebec nationalist who helped found the BQ after the failed Meech Lake Accord, was made the Canadian ambassador to France and brought into the Conservative cabinet by  Mulroney — no one else. 

He also won’t acknowledge it was he who fostered the separatists’ cause and created the Bloc Quebecois through the misguided act of re-opening the Constitutional debate and then rolling the dice to get his way. 

Mulroney remains totally obsessed by Trudeau and can’t restrain himself from attacking the man. It’s sad to see a man unable to drop old grudges against someone who has been dead for years, my friend said.

Mulroney is still haunted by the ghost of Trudeau, who unlike Mulroney didn’t appear to give a darn about what people thought about him. Mulroney’s obsession culminated last Sunday in the statement that, “Pierre Trudeau does not want Prime Minister Mulroney to succeed where he didn’t succeed” — because the Liberal PM had written an op-ed in a Quebec newspaper lambasting the Meech Lake Accord.

Despite the musings of Mulroney, Trudeau had put the separatist question to bed by winning the 1980 Quebec referendum for the federalist side and repatriating the Constitution. Quebec may not have signed the repatriated document, but because of Trudeau’s actions, the separatist cause was floundering and virtually dead in the water — until Mulroney re-opened the proverbial Pandora’s box. 

In the case of the West (also not addressed in the TV program), Mulroney managed to create enough alienation to spawn a new political entity — the Reform Party — because he intervened and made a political decision to award a CF-18 maintenance contract to Montreal-based Canadair, despite Winnipeg-based Bristol Aerospace having a superior and less costly bid. 

He told Newman his desire was for French- Canadians to have a technological foothold in the 21st century, but it was met with ingratitude in Quebec and animosity in the West. Mulroney hungered for praise and instead received scorn. 

Of course, he doesn’t acknowledge his role in creating a party which divided Conservatives and left a wide gap in their ranks. This the Liberals eagerly filled to electoral success until the party was reunited under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. 

Mulroney can be given credit for free trade with the United States and having laid the groundwork for Canada’s present surpluses by such actions as implementing the GST. Still, he left the nation historically in its greatest financial mess with a massive deficit and debt. He also did good work in convincing other nations to bring sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

Whatever Mulroney's efforts to rewrite history, it will be a monumental task to recast his tainted image and convince Canadians he was actually one of their best PMs. Meanwhile, Mulroney reinforces his image as vain and in denial, the very traits that caused many Canadians to hate him.