IN his last years as prime minister, Brian Mulroney could not figure out why the very same Canadians who had given him majority governments in 1984 and 1988, disdained him so much. His popularity in opinion polls had dropped to 11 per cent. Only one of his Conservative predecessors, R.B. Bennett, who had governed during the worst years of the Great Depression, likely had been less popular with voters.
Desperately needing some answers, Mulroney called journalist and author Peter C. Newman, whom he was then speaking to regularly for a proposed book about his years in office (which eventually became the basis of Newman's sensational 2005 book, The Secret Mulroney Tapes).
"Look it Peter," Mulroney said to Newman, "tell me the truth. What's going on? Why am I so unpopular?"
"Okay, Brian," Newman replied. "It's simple: nobody believes a word you say." Mulroney did not call Newman again for six weeks.
This past week, former Manitoba Associate Chief Justice Jeffrey Oliphant concluded the same thing as Newman. His inquiry report of Mulroney's backroom dealings with German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber stated that the former prime minister's version of events was not credible and labelled his actions "inappropriate."
A year out of office, Mulroney had willingly taken hundreds of thousands of dollars stuffed in envelopes, claimed that the money was a business retainer, and then only paid income tax on these funds when he was compelled to do so. On top of that, in 1997 he received $2.1 million when a lawsuit against the federal Liberal government was settled in his favour largely, we know now, on misleading testimony he gave about his true relationship with Schreiber.
In short, Mulroney has dug himself into such a hole that it is truly impossible to believe anything he says.
For a prime minister who cared so much about history and his own legacy, this must be a bitter pill to swallow. That legacy has been seemingly tainted and tarnished beyond all reprieve.
Ambitious and possessing a sizable ego, Mulroney arrived in Ottawa in 1984 obsessed with his own stature and place in Canadian history. Politically, that was a strategic error. Mulroney cared to the point of distraction what literally every reporter, whether it was from the national media or the Bugle-Observer in Woodstock, N.B., wrote or commented about him.
More telling was Mulroney's determination to eclipse Pierre Trudeau.
Mulroney resented the respect and adulation accorded Trudeau. (It later bothered Mulroney to no end that in rankings of Canada's prime ministers, historians routinely rated Trudeau higher than him.)
Like a school boy, he kept score, later reporting how he had received superior treatment in Moscow from Soviet officials than Trudeau had when he had visited Russia.
Where Trudeau had failed with Quebec, Mulroney would be victorious -- or so he believed. Instead, his bold attempt to resolve the Quebec constitutional conundrum, which gave rise to the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, is today remembered kindly as "what might have been," and more frequently as a great debacle.
When Mulroney left office in 1993, a few years before the Schreiber affair erupted, he was proudest of having given Canada the free trade agreement and the not-so-popular but fiscally necessary GST. He had accomplished a lot.
"Brian Mulroney was one of Canada's most activist prime ministers and ought to be remembered for some real accomplishments, such as the crusade against apartheid in South Africa, the anti-acid rain campaign in North America and of course the free trade agreement," Peter C. Newman says today. "His problem was that he wanted to be loved instead of being satisfied with being respected."
He departed Ottawa refusing to accept his unpopular reputation as a politician who was too slick for his own good.
"We came in with a lot of style, and we left with a lot of style, with a lot of fights in between, but this record is there and it's going to be hard to match," Mulroney said at the time. "I'm more than willing to sit back and let history takes its course. If I died tomorrow, I'd die a happy man. I did what I said I was going to try to do."
But Mulroney also left the Progressive Conservative Party weak and badly split, with the rise of the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois. The utter demise of the Tories in the 1993 federal election was another consequence of the Mulroney legacy that required about a decade to partially repair.
The disgruntled western Canadians of the old Reform Party have returned to the Conservative Party fold, but the Bloc remains a powerful force in Quebec, making it difficult for either the Conservatives or the Liberals to obtain a majority government.
Other Canadian prime ministers have gotten into lots of trouble. Sir John A. Macdonald's legacy was stained by the Pacific Scandal. He was forced to resign over allegations that he took bribe money from magnate Sir Hugh Allan in exchange for the lucrative contract to build the CPR. Yet the wily Tory chieftain was back in power within five years.
In 1931, accusations of impropriety were raised against Liberal leader William Lyon Mackenzie King and the Liberal Party over $700,000 in election contributions the party had received from the Beauharnois Light, Heat and Power Company, whose plans for a massive hydro-electric power development on the St. Lawrence River had been approved by the Liberal cabinet in an order-in-council in the spring of 1929, about a year before the election (which King and the Liberals lost).
King, who pleaded ignorance, received a public rebuke over this matter and, like Macdonald, returned to office victoriously in 1935, putting the Beauharnois Scandal far behind him.
With Brian Mulroney, the charges are more serious and the acts more seedy.
No historian will ever be able to write about him again without considering the whole sordid Schreiber affair. And Mulroney already has to live down the crude image of him as profane, vulgar and overbearing as revealed by Newman.
Still, history is endlessly reinterpreted and the motivations and actions of its key players re-evaluated.
Monica Lewinsky has already become nothing but a minor footnote in the career of U.S. president Bill Clinton, in the same way that John F. Kennedy's sexual peccadilloes have seemingly not damaged his legacy. Even Richard Nixon, the only American president to resign in disgrace, has been rehabilitated in recent books and films.
In his new biography of R.B. Bennett, Ontario historian John Boyko has done the impossible: He has almost made the Conservative prime minister, a notoriously arrogant bully, a bit more likeable, portraying him as "the rebel who challenged and changed a nation." Boyko nearly pulls off this act of historical sleight of hand by stressing Bennett's accomplishments and down-playing all those nasty attributes that made him so unloved.
So can the impossible happen? Fifty years from now, a young Canadian historian, examining the "big picture" might decide to reinterpret the career of Brian Mulroney and, incredibly as it sounds, arrive at the conclusion that the Schreiber affair and those cash-filled envelopes were largely irrelevant to Mulroney's larger achievements. "Lyin' Brian" might not yet stand the test of time.
Winnipeg historian Allan Levine's most recent book is Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba, which won the McNally-Robinson Book of the Year. His next book, By the Hand of Destiny: The Life of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada's Greatest and Most Peculiar Prime Minister, will be published in the fall of 2011.