Read an Excerpt
What a bizarre phenomenon he was,
this backwoods combination of
Machiavelli, leprechaun and Dr. Phil.
The phone rang at an awkward moment, which turned embarrassing when my wife walked into our living room and declared, “It’s the prime minister. He wants to speak to you.”
Her announcement was met with jeers from our neighbours, gathered for a pre-Christmas tipple in 1986 at our seaside house, cantilevered over a cliff, facing Haro Strait on Canada’s extreme western edge. Across the water I could spot the shores of San Juan Island and the American flag being whipped by the winter wind.
“Why would ‘Lyin’ Brian’ be phoning you?” asked Ross, our immediate neighbour. “Maybe he wants advice on when to quit. I can tell him: Yesterday!” Frank, the retired English gentleman who helped with our garden, and several others chimed in, making it very clear that none of these hardy and practical west coasters believed for a minute that anyone in Cordova Bay, the tiny village nestled into a notch on the coast of Vancouver Island where we lived, would be likely to receive a call from a prime minister–even Brian Mulroney, whose reputation ranked just below that of the harbour seals that fouled local fish nets.
I picked up the phone in the kitchen to hear that resonant, rain-barrel voice of his ask, “Where are you, Peter?” This was his standard opening ploy. While the PMO switchboard could always locate me, he never knew if I was in a suitable place for one of his rants about “those myopic, incestuous bastards” in the Ottawa press gallery, or the latest perfidy by “that asshole” Pierre Trudeau.
“I’m at home,” I replied, “entertaining the neighbours . . .”
“Lookit, I just wanted to tell you something.” He sounded unusually subdued. “We recently celebrated my mother’s seventieth birthday and she cooked asparagus flavoured with bread crumbs melted in butter. When I asked where she got the recipe, she said, ‘from Peter Newman’s mother.’ We really enjoyed it. I thought you’d want to know.”
He bid me a gentle Merry Christmas and hung up. It was nearly Silent Night, Holy Night, and the Big Guy was feeling mellow.
The call was a typical grace note from a man I had known and admired for twenty-five years, a man who had never failed to honour the appropriate occasion. My mother, the last and closest member of my family, had recently suffered a prolonged and tormenting death from cancer. She had enjoyed meeting the Mulroneys many years earlier when she and Brian’s mother were both visiting Ottawa, where I then lived. Now he was subtly acknowledging the agony of my mother’s passing, and how much I must be missing her.
Such compassionate gestures were one source of his power. His entourage, which consisted of his chums from St. Francis Xavier University and the Laval law school, had learned to appreciate this side of the man. It wasn’t just for show. Those of us who were beneficiaries of his generous sentiments and frequent phone calls could never figure out how he made time to govern the second biggest nation on Earth without forgetting our birthdays, wedding anniversaries and deaths in the families.
Now I had a problem. How could I explain to my expectant guests that the prime minister of the second largest nation on Earth was calling me ostensibly because he had enjoyed my mother’s asparagus recipe?
As I walked back into the living room, looking as if I had just kissed the Pope’s ring, my guests began shouting: “So, what did he want? Is he lonely? Hope you didn’t tell him about that marijuana stash up on Dover Street!”
I silenced them with a wink. “If you must know,” I confided, “I advised him to invade Zimbabwe.”
It had been a typical Mulroney moment.
He bugs us still. During the Mulroney years, most Canadians stopped being languid spectators of the Ottawa minstrel show. Instead, the country’s benign burghers, mobilized by their loathing for the blarneyed smoothie who occupied the nation’s highest elected office, turned federal politics into a killing field. What was it, exactly, that prompted such visceral contempt for this down-to-earth politician with charm to burn and the guts to tackle some of the country’s toughest problems? Even now, almost a generation later, it remains a puzzle, in the same league as trying to figure out why Japanese kamikaze pilots wore safety helmets or how wild deer manage to read those DEER CROSSING signs on country roads.
Perhaps the suicide pilots wanted to keep the hair out of their eyes, and probably the deer just follow their cousins’ spoor, but the Mulroney mystery demands a better explanation. This book attempts to provide it through his unfiltered thoughts and uncensored words. By reviving the echoes of his presence in this unplugged, informal, one-on-one format, 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.
Mulroney’s time in office was a harsh, unsettling decade. No journalistic formula can convey the sheer velocity of events, the patterns of response and denial that shaped the stewardship of the rowdy Irishman who headed Canada’s federal government for most of ten crucial years. It was a time of few heroes, yet there was no shortage of heroic confrontations, providing some of the most hair-raising clashes in Canada’s generally tepid political history. But instead of emerging from these pivotal encounters with victor’s laurels, Mulroney seemed diminished by them.
From the Hardcover edition.