There is fluidity to Canadian political history that is generally ignored in the media. Print, television and Internet coverage of a scandal of the type we are now witnessing with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the trio of former Conservative senators he is attempting to expel and expunge exists in the moment. Each new revelation is sensationalized, analyzed and speculated about as if it were the first time such an event happened in Ottawa.
Irrespective of their collective shaking of the heads, the media enjoy nothing more than a good scandal since it has all the elements -- confrontation, human drama, winners and losers -- that make the news stories and commentaries of the messengers seem more significant than they might be. Frequently, a week in the life of a scandal is reminiscent of the ending of an old Adam West Batman TV episode from the '60s: Will Stephen Harper be proven a liar? Will Tom Mulcair continue to score points in question period? Will Mike Duffy release his allegedly damaging e-mails? Stay tuned for tomorrow's episode, same Ottawa time, same Ottawa channel.
In fact, the current Senate scandal is hardly the worst thing that has taken place in Ottawa, and Stephen Harper is not the first prime minister to be embroiled in controversy -- far from it. Canadians and the members of the media merely have short memories. Here is a prime ministerial primer on eight of Harper's major predecessors. The historical lesson: This too shall pass.
JOHN A. MACDONALD
PARTY LEADER AND PM ELECTION STATS: Won 6, Lost 1
GREATEST SUCCESS(ES): Confederation; building the Canadian Pacific Railway
GREATEST FAILURE(S): Failing to understand that hanging Louis Riel would alienate Quebec; disdain for challenges to his authority from premiers; weakened Canadian federalism.
CHIEF NEMESIS(ES): George Brown, publisher of the Globe. Though he put aside his personal differences to work with Macdonald and George-âtienne Cartier in making Confederation a reality, Brown detested John A. and never forgave him for accusing Brown of lying and falsifying evidence in an investigation of conditions at Kingston Penitentiary in 1849.
RELATIONS WITH MEDIA: Macdonald was as partisan a prime minister as there was. He spent an inordinate amount of time attempting to control coverage of his government and worked diligently to establish a Tory newspaper in Toronto that could counter the power of the Globe. In this, he was only partly successful. Reporters from Conservative newspapers adored him; Liberal ones much less so.
SCANDAL(S): The Pacific Scandal, in which Macdonald was accused of awarding the lucrative CPR contract to Montreal shipping tycoon Hugh Allan in exchange for campaign contributions. Ironically, the damaging information about Macdonald's links with Allan was leaked by angry officials from the American-owned Northern Pacific Railway whom, for political expediency reasons, Macdonald had cut out of the contract.
UH-OH: "Immediate private. I must have another ten thousand. Will be the last time of calling. Do not fail me. Answer today." The publication in the Globe of Macdonald's telegram to Hugh Allan's lawyer in August 1872 asking for more campaign funds sealed John A's fate in the Pacific Scandal.
BEST QUIP: Seeing Macdonald, who was drunk, vomit on the side of the stage during an election campaign, his disgusted opponent asked the crowd: "Is this the man you want running your country? A drunk!" In reply, Macdonald declared, "I get sick sometimes not because of drink or any other cause, except that I am forced to listen to the ranting of my honourable opponent."
HISTORICAL LEGACY: Historians and the public usually rank Macdonald as the best prime minister Canada has ever had. His constant behind-the-scenes scheming today is remembered more fondly that it was treated at the time. Among all of the Fathers of Confederation, he is our George Washington. There has been a campaign to have his birthday declared a national holiday and plans are underway to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2015.
PARTY LEADER AND PM ELECTION STATS: Won 4, Lost 3
GREATEST SUCCESS(ES): Opening and settling the Canadian West; promoting the politics of compromise between English and French and Protestants and Catholics.
GREATEST FAILURE(S): Turning his back on Macdonald's National Policy protective tariff and seriously misreading the way in which his reciprocity or free trade deal with the U.S. in 1911 would be received by Ontario and to a less extent Quebec. The Conservative slogan, "No truck or trade with the Yankees," proved popular.
CHIEF NEMESIS(ES): Henri Bourassa, the French-Canadian nationalist, who fought Laurier's embrace of British imperialism, founded the Quebec newspaper Le Devoir, and portrayed Laurier as a vendu -- a French Quebecer who had sold out his own people.
RELATIONS WITH MEDIA: Liberal newspapers were a lot happier when Laurier came to power because now after many years of Conservative rule, they had access to the prime minister and patronage. He nevertheless ran into problems when the editor of the Globe, John Willison, began to assert the paper's independence. He was much happier when wealthy Liberal supporters established the Toronto Daily Star in 1899.
SCANDAL(S) The Conservatives charged Laurier and his government with being linked to "wine, women, and graft," but most of the allegations did not stick. Laurier did, however, authorize excessive railway building, provided hefty subsidies to private entrepreneurs like Donald Mann and William Mackenzie, and cost Canadian taxpayers billions of dollars over the decades.
UH-OH: His alleged affair with Emilie Lavergne, the wife of his law partner. The affair, if there was one, likely stopped by the time Laurier became prime minister, but their relationship provided Ottawa with a lot of gossip. Photographs of Emilie's son Armand sure look a lot like a young Laurier.
BEST QUIP: "I think that we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century," he said in early 1904. That it did not work out that way does not diminish Laurier's genuine optimism.
HISTORICAL LEGACY: Laurier is remembered as being the most graceful and charming of prime ministers. Yet, as the first French-Canadian to be prime minister, he was often caught in the middle. "I am branded in Quebec as a traitor of the French, and in Ontario as a traitor to the English," he said in 1911. "In Quebec I am branded as a Jingo, and in Ontario as a Separatist. In Quebec I am attacked as an Imperialist, and in Ontario as an anti-Imperialist. I am neither. I am a Canadian." Still, his decision not to support Robert Borden's union government and conscription in 1917 split the country apart. On Laurier's death in 1919, Borden, ever the gentlemen, remarked, "On the whole I think there never has been a more impressive figure in the affairs of our country."
WILIAM LYON MACKENZIE KING
1921-26; 1926-30; 1935-48
PARTY LEADER AND PM ELECTION STATS: Won 5, Lost 2 In the 1925 election, despite winning fewer seats than the Conservatives and losing his own seat, King maintained power with the help of the farmers' Progressive Party and a few independents for eight months.
GREATEST SUCCESS(ES): Redefining Canada's role in the British Empire; keeping country unified during the Second World War.
GREATEST FAILURE(S): Permitting political opportunism to trump humanitarianism in his refusal to admit German-Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in the late '30s; failing to truly address social welfare problems for close to three decades despite favouring reform.
CHIEF NEMESIS(ES): Conservative leaders Arthur Meighen and R.B. Bennett, and Liberal Ontario premier Mitch Hepburn. King's contempt for Meighen was "too great for words," as he put it.
RELATIONS WITH MEDIA: King rarely gave press conferences and in the few he did grant, he was as cryptic as possible. He befriended such loyal Liberal journalists as Grant Dexter, the Winnipeg Free Press Ottawa correspondent, and Bruce Hutchison, feeding them information as he saw fit.
SCANDAL(S): The Customs Department Scandal in 1925, involving corruption and bribery, and the Beauharnois Scandal of 1931. Partisan lobbying efforts, financial manipulation and conflict of interest in the construction of the Beauharnois hydroelectric project on the St. Lawrence River tarnished King and the Liberals and make the current Senate Scandal seem fairly tame in comparison. Tellingly, a few Liberal senators were made the scapegoats and King went on to win another election.
UH-OH: After his death, the decision by King's literary executors to grant researchers access to the diary he kept for 57 years revealed in astonishing detail King's many insecurities and peculiarities, his fascination with spiritualism, his attitudes about sex, and his over-the-top affection for his three Irish terriers, who were all named Pat.
BEST QUIP: In June 1942, during the contentious debate about conscription, King declared that his policy was "not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary." He had borrowed the phrase from a Toronto Star editorial, but that was ignored and the remark solidified his reputation as a cautious plodder and fence-sitter.
HISTORICAL LEGACY: Historians tend to ignore the inanities found in King's diary and rank him as one of the country's top three prime ministers. His nearly 22 year run as prime minister is impossible to dismiss. However, his zany beliefs, obsession with numbers and the images he found in his shaving cream lather make him the most oddball PM in Canadian history.
LESTER "MIKE" PEARSON
PARTY LEADER AND PM ELECTION STATS: Won 2, Lost 2, but never won a majority government.
GREATEST SUCCESS(ES): Winning the Nobel Prize for Peace as minister of external affairs in 1957; official bilingualism, medicare, Canada Pension Plan and student loans.
GREATEST FAILURE(S): Listening to Walter Gordon, his economic nationalist finance minister, who convinced him he would win a majority government in 1965.
CHIEF NEMESIS(ES): John Diefenbaker, the Conservative Party leader. Pearson goaded Dief into calling an election in 1958 and then watched in dismay as the Conservatives won 208 of 265 seats, reducing the reigning Liberals to only 49. On the night of the election, Pearson's wife Maryon, who did not like politics exclaimed, "Mike, you've lost everything. You've even won your seat!"
RELATIONS WITH MEDIA: Pearson was an affable person, who generally had good relations with journalists, even though they gave him a lot of heartache. Yet Pearson found living in the Ottawa fishbowl difficult. Details of confidential cabinet meetings were routinely leaked and he was unable to adapt to the increasingly powerful medium of television.
SCANDAL(S) The Rivard Affair, involving convicted Montreal drug dealer Lucien Rivard, who was linked to several Quebec Liberals. There were allegations of bribery and the scandal compelled Pearson's besieged justice minister, Guy Favreau, to resign; the Munsinger Scandal, Canada's first political sex scandal, which exposed an affair between Pierre Sévigny, a former Tory cabinet minister in Diefenbaker's government and a German woman named Gerda Munsinger, who was allegedly a Soviet-trained spy. She wasn't, but that did not stop the Pearson government from dragging her name through the mud and attacking Diefenbaker and Sévigny.
UH-OH: To counter Tory accusations about Liberal scandals, he asked the RCMP commissioner to forward him all files the force had accumulated related to members of Parliament since the mid-'50s. Such a request was unprecedented in Canadian political history.
BEST QUIP: "I'm the prime minister of Canada, I live here, and I'm about to go and have a leak," said Pearson to U.S Secret Service agents who tried to stop him during a visit to Ottawa by President Lyndon Johnson.
HISTORICAL LEGACY: History has been kind to Pearson and deservedly so. "Mike," the nickname he preferred, was a decent and intelligent person even if he lacked the hard-nosed political skills necessary to win a majority. Still, despite the clumsiness of his term in office and the scandals, he did lead, as one of his biographers has put it, "the most productive government in Canadian history."
PARTY LEADER AND PM ELECTION STATS: Won 4, Lost 1
GREATEST SUCCESS(ES): Patriating the constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982
GREATEST FAILURE(S): Trudeau gave real meaning to the term "tax and spend Liberals." He came to office when the net debt was $19 billion and left office in 1984 with the net debt at $172 billion.
CHIEF NEMESIS(ES): FLQ terrorists, western farmers, probing journalists, power-grabbing premiers.
RELATIONS WITH MEDIA: Trudeau had little time for the members of the media, whom he generally regarded as nuisances, although he did enjoy verbally sparing with journalists. He was also the first PM to have his private life extensively covered.
SCANDAL(S) None to speak of, although at least one cabinet minister, André Ouellet, had to resign after being found in contempt of court for comments about price fixing in the sugar industry. Trudeau caused a minor uproar in 1971 when he said "fuddle duddle" in the House of Commons and was accused of using un-parliamentary language. Trudeau also dismissed the legal excesses caused by instituting the War Measures Act during the FLQ Crisis.
UH-OH: After dating a slew of beautiful women, including actress Barbra Streisand, he married, at the age of 51, Margaret Sinclair, who was only 22. The couple had three children -- the current Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau is the eldest -- but divorced in 1980. Trudeau also had a daughter with lawyer Deborah Coyne in 1991. He was then 71 and she was 36.
BEST QUIP: When pressed by reporters during the FLQ Crisis of 1970 how far he was prepared to go to fight terrorism, Trudeau declared: "Just watch me." As justice minister in 1967, Trudeau said: "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation."
HISTORICAL LEGACY: "He haunts us still," wrote Stephen Clarkson and Christina McCall in their 1990 biography of him. It was impossible to be neutral about Trudeau, and it still is. He was Canada's most intellectual prime minister, who disdained all forms of nationalism and fought against special status for Quebec. Historians do not rank him as high as many Canadians do. His charisma and style made him popular. But his firm views on centralized federalism, among other issues, made him a polarizing leader as well.
PARTY LEADER AND PM ELECTION STATS: Won 2, Lost 0
GREATEST SUCCESS(ES): The Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
GREATEST FAILURE(S): Criticizing the Liberals for abusing patronage appointments and then doing the same thing; making the debt situation worse (by 1993 the net debt had increased to $487 billion); and for believing that the Meech Lake Accord of 1987 would save national unity.
CHIEF NEMESIS(ES): The Liberal Rat Pack, Ottawa journalists, Frank Magazine, Stevie Cameron, John Sawatsky, Pierre Trudeau (and his perceived legacy), Lucien Bouchard, his former best friend who resigned from the Conservative cabinet over Meech Lake and founded the Bloc Québécois ("I have never known a more vulgar expression of betrayal and deceit," Mulroney told Peter C. Newman).
RELATIONS WITH MEDIA: Mulroney made the mistake of caring too much what was written and reported about him. He wanted to be loved and adored and could not understand why journalists were so critical of him. He failed to understand how relations between politicians and the media had dramatically changed since the '50s and '60s and wound up being burned over and over again.
SCANDAL(S): Tunagate in which tainted tuna was approved for sale to unsuspecting Canadians; and the Sinclair Stevens conflict of interest case.
UH-OH: After he left office, he accepted envelopes filled with cash for consulting services from German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber, who was lobbying for Airbus contracts, and then only declared the money as income many years later. He also agreed to give author Peter C. Newman unprecedented access while he was prime minister and permitted him to tape hundreds of private and revealing conversations, which 10 years later Newman turned into his controversial bestseller, The Secret Mulroney Tapes.
BEST QUIP: "You had an option, sir. You could have said, 'I'm not going to do it. This is wrong for Canada and I'm not going to ask Canadians to pay the price,'" declared Mulroney during the 1984 election debate, attacking Liberal Party leader John Turner for consenting to the orgy of patronage appointments Pierre Trudeau made before he retired.
HISTORICAL LEGACY: Brian Mulroney won big majority governments in 1984 and 1988 and yet he is probably, next to R.B. Bennett, the most detested PM in Canadian history. He exhausted himself trying to save Canada from Quebec when it didn't need saving, gave us the annoying GST, and watched as the Conservative Party was nearly decimated in the 1993 federal election after Kim Campbell took over. In a 2011 ranking, historians placed Mulroney in ninth spot, mainly on the strength of the free trade deal.
PARTY LEADER AND PM ELECTION STATS: Won 3, Lost 0
Greatest Success(es): Working diligently to tackle the out-of-control deficit; refusing to join the U.S. and Britain in the war against Iraq; the Clarity Act, which defined how the federal government would handle Quebec sovereignty.
GREATEST FAILURE(S): Reneging on his promise to abolish (or at least, reform) the GST during the 1993 federal election campaign; poorly handling the 1995 Quebec referendum.
CHIEF NEMESIS(ES): Paul Martin, his finance minister until he quit the cabinet in 2002 and caused a mini-civil war that tore the Liberal Party apart. Chrétien later said he should have fired Martin as early as 2000.
RELATIONS WITH MEDIA: Chrétien became a federal MP in 1963. He was a superb political operator and a successful cabinet minister in the Pearson and Trudeau governments. He kept the media at bay and used his "little guy from Shawinigan" persona to his advantage. A photograph from 1996 of Chretien with a chokehold (the "Shawinigan Handshake") around the neck of anti-poverty protestor Bill Clennett, only reinforced his image as a street fighter.
SCANDAL(S): Shawinigate, in which Chrétien allegedly lobbied for government business loans on behalf of a private Quebec company based in his hometown of Shawinigan, that he had a prior interest in. The Sponsorship Scandal, a tale of corruption, fraud and payoffs involving misuse of federal government money to counter Quebec independence. Chrétien was not personally involved, but it happened on his watch.
UH-OH: Chrétien approved the sponsorship advertising program and then seemingly forgot to check up on it. He then retired, leaving the next Liberal leader, Paul Martin, to deal with it.
BEST QUIP: "For me, pepper, I put it on my plate," Chrétien replied to a question in November 1997 about the RCMP using pepper spray to control protesters at the APEC summit in Vancouver. To a reporter who asked what proof would be required for Canada to go to war in Iraq, he said: "A proof is a proof. What kind of a proof? It's a proof. A proof is a proof, and when you have a good proof, it's because it's proven."
HISTORICAL LEGACY: Chrétien learned the lessons of how to run Ottawa well. He centralized power in the PMO and was criticized by journalists for turning Canada into a "friendly dictatorship." He certainly was as much of a control-freak as Harper has been accused of being. Though he (and Paul Martin) should be praised for dealing effectively with the debt and dramatically improving Canada's economy, Chrétien never articulated his vision for the country or why he wanted to be PM.
PARTY LEADER AND PM ELECTION STATS: Won 3, Lost 1
GREATEST SUCCESS(ES): Sound economic management; potential Canada-Europe free trade agreement; moderating the more extreme right-wing members of his caucus; approving same-sex marriage; supporting the Canadian Museum for Human Rights being built in Winnipeg as a national museum.
GREATEST FAILURE(S): As partisan as John A. Macdonald; pledging to do something about the Senate but not yet doing so; excessive authoritarian behaviour.
CHIEF NEMESIS(ES): Opposition party leaders, bureaucrats, environmentalists, Liberal senators, and former friends like Mike Duffy, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Ethics Commissioner, the former Wheat Board.
RELATIONS WITH MEDIA: Harper is a throwback to Mackenzie King. He does not like being questioned by journalists he considers unfriendly and works hard at controlling every aspect of his government. The Ottawa press gallery complains about lack of access, but thus far this griping has done little to alter Harper's approach.
SCANDAL(S) Senate Scandal
UH-OH: Appointing former CTV journalist Mike Duffy as a senator from P.E.I. and that $90,000 cheque his former chief of staff Nigel Wright gave to Duffy to cover his improper expenses.
BEST QUIP: "Mr. Duffy now says he is a victim because I told him he should repay his expenses. You're darn right I told him," in defending his recent actions in the Senate Scandal.
HISTORICAL LEGACY: Harper has been condemned for being a control freak and for stifling the members of his cabinet and caucus. In this, however, he is no different than many of his other successful predecessors. Like all PMs, he is in a no-win situation. If he permits too much debate and/or is too indecisive, he will be attacked as being weak -- as Joe Clark and Paul Martin were. If he runs a tight ship like King, Trudeau and Chrétien, then the media castigate him for being a dictator. He certainly gets full marks for shrewdness. He wants to make the Conservatives the country's "natural governing party," as the Liberals were in the 20th century. Time will tell.
Historian Allan Levine is the author of King: William Lyon Mackenzie King: A Life Guide by the Hand of Destiny. His next book, Toronto: A Life and Times, will be published in 2014.