Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

From pathos to bathos

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If tragedy describes gifted and complex characters destroyed by a fatal flaw, Brian Mulroney may have at least some of the makings of a tragic hero.

I was one of many long-time supporters of the old Progressive Conservative party who, repelled by sins of omission and commission and by Mulroney's persona, gradually withdrew from the party during the last years of his premiership.

Now, in the contemplation of his career and in watching him testify before the Oliphant Inquiry, I am struck by the appearance of an enormous contest between his insecurity and his vanity. Simply put, it is difficult to take seriously much of what he says when it is so ingratiatingly self-serving. One recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson's, "The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted our spoons."

Looking back 25 years it seems clear that he had the potential to be an effective political leader. In his famous debate with John Turner, in which Turner pleaded he had no choice but to approve Pierre Trudeau's final patronage appointments, Mulroney turned on him and said, "You had an option, sir, to say no!"

To political smarts he added wit and charm and, having brought Quebec into a party which was strong elsewhere, he helped transform it into a national institution, a status it had enjoyed only infrequently in the 20th century.

His moderate conservative government had important accomplishments in areas like immigration and the environment; he was a leader, within the Commonwealth, in opposing apartheid and pursuing policies calculated to strengthen the pressure on the government of South Africa. His initiatives on the GST, free trade and the Constitution -- whatever one thought of them -- were the stuff of leadership.

With the passage of time, however, smarminess set in: he was suave but unsubtle; ingratiating ways became irritating ways; soon "lyin' Brian" entered our political vocabulary.

At the partisan level, he presided over the erosion of key bases of the Progressive Conservative party which, despite the valiant efforts of Joe Clark, never recovered; and at the political level precipitated a fracturing of the country into regions, some dominated by parties with radical agendas, like Reform and the Bloc.

During his appearances before the Oliphant Inquiry, flashes of the old wit and humour were in evidence but so, unfortunately, were his insecurity and his vanity. In agreeing to work for Karlheinz Schreiber, Mulroney identified a number of world leaders whom he had known well enough to lobby on Schreiber's behalf. When Richard Wolson, the inquiry's counsel, observed that most of those named were now dead (and unable to corroborate Mulroney's comments), Mulroney reminded us that he had been the youngest head of government in those obviously exalted circles and, in melancholy tones, went through their names noting how old each of them would be if they were still alive ("president Reagan would be 99 years old..."). He would have been wiser to follow the advice he offered Turner and reply simply, "yes."

In discussing the cash Mulroney received from Schreiber, Wolson asked why he had put it in a safety deposit box in a particular bank. Mulroney couldn't explain why he'd chosen that branch without introducing the names of David Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger. Rather than simply saying he'd received advice from unnamed friends in New York, he dropped names.

At the conclusion of examination by his own counsel, Mulroney was asked if he wished to say anything about the impact of these matters on his family. The family issue is real, but it is not an issue before the inquiry. Yet Mulroney must have known and approved of the question before it was asked; and if one grants that Mulroney's visible distress in answering was real, so was it calculated to elicit sympathy. How much better if he had said: the impact has been real and painful but it is not a matter for public discussion.

Taking cash from Schreiber, he said, was an error of judgment, for which he was paying heavily. He added, however, that perhaps he was the only Canadian who had ever made such an error and, further, that if there was another 70-year-old in the country who'd never made an error of judgment, he'd like to meet him. As whimsy, it was leaden. From the lofty, elevated and sentimental he moves effortlessly to the trite and banal, from pathos to bathos.

Whatever one thinks of his political record, it is profoundly sad to see any former prime minister reduced to this. Whatever the inquiry ultimately concludes, Mulroney has lost in the court of public opinion.

William Neville is a Winnipeg writer

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 22, 2009 A13

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