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The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister

by Peter C. Newman
462 pages,
ISBN: 0679313516


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Careless Talk
by James Roots

As we all know by now, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made a jackass of himself by unloading his personal opinions into a tape-recorder wielded by Peter C. Newman over a period of ten years that covered his entire time in office. Then Newman proved himself a duplicitous 'friend' by not only publishing the results but excerpting huge chunks for magazines, newspapers, and a CBC movie.
Each man then issued a lame mea culpa. Like Groucho Marx trying to halt publication of Richard J. Anobile's collection of shoes-off taped interviews in The Marx Brothers Scrapbook in 1973, Mulroney didn't deny saying what the book quoted him as saying; he just didn't want to see his words in print. Newman, for his part, hid behind the old he-knew-he-was-talking-to-a-journalist shibboleth, but clearly this was his revenge for having been treated as Mulroney's "pet journalist", a phrase Newman uses repeatedly with seething resentment.
Newman, at age 76, probably saw these tapes as his last chance to make a big killing in the marketplace, and he's gone all out to milk it. In the process, he has traded in his journalistic ethics for greedy and cynical manipulation.
Take the way he publicized Mulroney's advice to Kim Campbell. Here's what Mulroney said in full:

"She came to see me in the House the other day and I told her, 'Remember what Dief said-keep your pecker up, Kim! What can you do? This is the way it is, and it gets a hell of a lot worse. I told you and you didn't believe me. Now you do. You're dealing with a sewer.'"

Note that Mulroney is quoting Diefenbaker, and that he is actually commiserating with Campbell. But in all the excerpts Newman released to magazines and newspapers, and repeated on the back cover of this book, he pulled out that one line-"Keep your pecker up!"-and left the impression this sexist gibe was the entirety of Mulroney's personal advice to Campbell. The difference this creates in the public perception of Mulroney is huge, and Newman knows it.
The sheer grubbiness of this orchestrated publicity is underscored by the fact that hardly anything in the book is new. It's almost an annotation of Newman's earlier book, The Canadian Revolution (1995). The same anecdotes, and yes, the same quotes are in both books. It's as though Newman resented the critical drubbing and lacklustre sales that greeted what he obviously intended to be the definitive tome on post-Trudeau Canada, and re-issued it in the guise of a "shocking" work of journalism.
The unsparing but unshocking interviews pretty much confirm everything we already knew about Mulroney: that he thinks the world of himself; he lives and dies by the deal; he deliberately tore holes in the Canadian security blanket with the knives of free trade and constitutional reform; he is obsessed with a jealous hatred of Pierre Trudeau; he sabotaged Joe Clark's leadership of the Progressive Conservatives; he cannot control his own hyperbole; and he blames the media for all of his woes.
Mulroney became PM with the vow to reshape the Canadian economy and constitution. He had the courage and perseverance to stick to those goals throughout all the years he held power. As he points out, the economy is booming as a direct result of free trade and the GST, and Quebec separatism is likewise booming as a direct result of other people's refusal to accept constitutional change. "You measure success or failure by the manner in which your successor government treats your heritage," he says:

"If it was right, they keep it. If it was wrong, they throw it out. Just look at the building blocks of the revolution we brought in. Every one of them has been maintained."

So, as he keeps asking, why did we all loathe him so much? Partly it's because, unlike Trudeau, he never understood the media or how to manipulate them. He and Mila were telegenic, and yet the cameras that loved them also laid bare their essential shallowness, oiliness, and phoniness. Attempting to project statesmanship or sombreness, Mulroney projected earnestness instead. Earnestness is a little-boy quality, a country-bumpkin virtue. No matter how intrinsic it was to his character, it came across as calculated and artificial on a corporate slickster wearing expensive tailored suits, incandescent Gucci shoes, and a 1950s haircut.
The Mulroneys come across in these pages as anachronistic Emily Post disciples. They write thank-you letters immediately for the smallest favour, go to everyone's wedding and funeral, believe in making friends of their enemies, stand beside their friends even when the latter publicly betray them, and of course they dance with the ones that brung them.
Such smiling politesse made Brian an easy mark for amoral traitors like Lucien Bouchard, and for cardsharps like the business leaders who put tax cuts at the top of Mulroney's agenda and then pocketed the resultant windfalls instead of investing in training and job opportunities. They all played him for a chump, and his response was to submit like a stunned cow trying to saunter out of the slaughterhouse with its head held high.
A huge weakness of Mulroney's was that he gave out, and took in, at face value. He made a point of praising Kim Campbell's alleged multilingualism without troubling to test it. Speaking 89 languages counts for nothing in Canadian politics; only the ability to speak French matters. He was a completely fluent French speaker himself; why didn't he take her out for coffee and insist that they speak nothing but French for fifteen minutes, so he could have seen for himself that she can't even speak French, never mind Russian, Yiddish, and Spanish?
He reels off all the favours he did for Westerners, and can't fathom why they despise him as much as they despise Trudeau, who didn't do any. The answer is that Trudeau bought three or four regions for every one he sold down the river. The National Energy Program enraged the West, but it was a big hit in Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic. The Charter of Rights upset Quebec, but it pleased everyone else. Mulroney, on the other hand, took nationwide actions that angered everybody and pleased nobody: the GST, the FTA, tax cuts for corporations, the constitutional renovations.
This was part and parcel of his Teamsters' approach to politics: recruit a couple of thugs like David Peterson and Robert Bourassa to join him in strongarming everybody else into toeing the line, rather than play the regions off against each other. Contrary to popular opinion, Brian Mulroney was not a negotiator; as Sally Armstrong, his wife's biographer, insightfully notes, "I think he's probably a master manipulator rather than a negotiator." And there's a parenthetical question mark after "master".
The tapes reveal that Mulroney's every breath passed through the twin lungs of self-adoration and self-pity. There's no growth either: the guy who was incredulous and bitter at Diefenbaker's 1963 electoral defeat, and again at his loss to Joe Clark in the 1976 leadership campaign, remains every bit as incredulous and bitter at the electoral wipe-out of his party in 1993.
He's far from alone in being shown at his worst in this book, however. Stanley Hartt, who has the gall to describe Mulroney as "a Shakespearian character", comes off like a Rhodes Scholar choirboy in the early pages, then ends up more foul-mouthed and abusive than anyone else. Joe Clark's quoted statements show him to be every bit the self-impressed, pompous lecturer in private that he was in public. Mulroney's other handlers, including Bill Fox and Fred Doucet, are even more inept and defensive than was suggested by the media at the time.
Only the women come across in the interviews as having a perspective unclouded by self-produced smoke and mirrors: Sally Armstrong, Barbara McDougall, Bonnie Brownlee, and Janis Johnson speak in impeccable sentences without pretensions or bluster. No wonder the incompetent men, including Newman, repeatedly slag the female politicians as controlling shrews (Aline ChrTtien, Geills Turner), bossy schoolmarms (Kim Campbell, Maureen McTeer), clueless losers (Flora MacDonald), and on and on.
Mila is a special case. Everyone raves about her as a brilliant beauty who perfectly matches her adoring hubbie. Because she is beauty to Brian's beast, everything she says and does is attributed to awe-inspiring mystical powers: her prediction that Clyde Wells would flip-flop on Meech because he exuded an "aura of deceit" makes Mila a Delphic oracle instead of a new age flake, and her observation that the Meech Accord was "not over yet" after the premiers signed it is regarded as a foresight instead of a statement of the obvious fact that the Accord still had to be approved by provincial legislatures over the next three years.
Newman closes the book with a lengthy account of joining the Mulroneys to watch the returns on the Charlottetown referendum, and what we see here of Mila is not nice. In fact, she delivers a string of cutting remarks "not smiling", "glumly", "in her sweetest sarcastic tone." It's not clear if Newman realizes how unflatteringly he is sketching her; he seems to find all of this terribly romantic about her.
This is an all-too-typical problem: Newman is a frequently lazy writer in this book, even to the point of refusing to affix a specific date to each interview excerpt. He probably thinks he doesn't have to do anything because the tapes speak for themselves. But teaming a foaming Irish raconteur with a master journalist doesn't absolve anyone of the need to use their brains. For every gem of a line (Conservatives "not only eat their young, they swallow their old"), there are at least three clunkers (he identifies P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves as the epitome of chutzpah, which would certainly have Wodehouse scratching his head, then explains himself in a way that proves he doesn't even know what chutzpah means).
In fact, Newman writes the way Mulroney talks: his book is full of hyperbole ("What a bizarre phenomenon he was, this backwoods combination of Machiavelli, leprechaun and Dr. Phil"), inaccurate memories (Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane was not "the sleaze queen of rock and roll"), trite mottos presented as portentous revelations ("We are all insecure, but it is how we handle those 3 a.m. feelings of inadequacy that decides what kind of men and women we are."), self-admiring declarations ("Inevitably, this volume digs into the echoing canyons of Brian Mulroney's psyche."), and just plain ego-tripping ("I became an offstage voice, prompting and goading him . . . ")
Attempts at providing innovative analysis end up being inventive in the worst sense. The story of eight-year-old Brian singing for Colonel McCormick was often cited as a precursor to his sycophantic singing with Ronald Reagan and to giving away the Canadian store for a song; but "To my mind," Newman smirks, "the real significance . . . [was that] Mulroney learned that deference to high authority might pay the occasional dividend-but that possessing authority was far better than catering to it. That small epiphany was the emotional trigger that led him into politics, and eventually to the top." Oh, please. An eight-year-old boy in 1947 is not going to experience any such "epiphany", except in the imagination of a journalist grasping at straws to explain what Alan Gregg calls "the bootstrap kind of stuff" that Mulroney personified.
Virtually all of the truly perceptive analysis of Brian Mulroney comes not from Newman but from other interviewees. Sam Wakim, Tom Long, Barbara McDougall, Stanley Hartt, and David Peterson pin him down as the boy whose rise to the highest office sparked suspicion and resentment because such Horatio Alger stories are un-Canadian, and whose ability to adapt his persona to different situations led the public to assume he wasn't a genuine sort of person, and whose inability to curb his compulsion to exaggerate made him an unintentional "pathological liar".
Despite Newman's grandiose claims for this book's raison d'Otre ("I hope to resolve the riddle-to trace his mutation from the genial poster boy of U-turn politics into a reform-minded statesman who became a high-stakes player, rolled the dice and lost."), he fails to ask the one question that might have done the most to penetrate the mystery of Mulroney's fall from grace: Would any other person have suffered the same fate in his shoes? If it had been John Turner or Joe Clark instead of Lyin' Brian who had introduced the GST and the FTA, and brokered two failed constitutional deals, would we still be snarling at the very mention of Traitor Turner or Judas Joe?
If the answer is no, then Mulroney's bad rap is clearly rooted in his personality, not his policies, as controversial as those policies were. And if the answer is yes, then Mulroney simply had the misfortune to be the messenger. But at least he has the consolation of knowing this is one massacred messenger whose name will never be forgotten, and whose run left an indelible mark on his country.
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