As George Washington declared in his last presidential address, "I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is the best policy." My late grandmother told me the same thing.
Niccoló Machiavelli, the Renaissance historian and diplomat, begged to differ. "Every one admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep faith, and to live with integrity and not with craft," he wrote in his political treatise The Prince (1513). "Nevertheless our experience has been that those princes who have done great things have held good faith of little account, and have known how to circumvent the intellect of men by craft, and in the end have overcome those who have relied on their word."
In other words, a prince or politician who wants to maintain power must be shrewd and even deceitful, if necessary.
In the case of Canadian prime ministers, Machiavelli's advice has been translated into stonewalling and remaining silent as long as possible. And then, when a leader is compelled to say something, the rule to follow usually is to be as ambiguous as you can.
Weeks after the disclosure Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former chief of staff Nigel Wright gave Senator Mike Duffy a $90,000 cheque so he could pay back improper expenses claimed on his Senate housing allowance, Canadians still do not know precisely what transpired. Harper, who has said he is angry and disappointed, insists Wright acted independently. At the moment, Wright and Duffy are not saying much more.
Harper's less than specific answers to questions about the case might be exasperating for the opposition party MPs and media, and cause many Canadians to wonder about his leadership. But he is following a well-honed political strategy in dealing with scandals that goes all the way back to John A. Macdonald.
The Pacific Scandal is the most infamous in Canadian history. It involved a quid pro quo scheme during the 1872 election in which tycoon Hugh Allan, who was head of a syndicate vying for the lucrative contract to build the CPR, provided an estimated $350,000 to Macdonald and the Conservatives' campaign to solidify the deal.
What made the situation worse for Macdonald was a portion of the money he had received was indirectly supplied by Allan's American partners from the Northern Pacific Railway. Macdonald had approved Northern Pacific's involvement, yet then decided it was not acceptable. Northern Pacific shareholders were justifiably angry at being cut out of the project. One of the investors, who was frustrated by what had transpired, released correspondence about Allan's contributions to the Tories to the Liberal Party and partisan Liberal newspapers like the Toronto Globe, setting off the scandal in the spring of 1873.
Macdonald believed the charges would eventually "fizzle" and did whatever he could to delay. His ploy worked for seven months, until he was swamped by damaging evidence.
On Nov. 3, 1873, he made a five-hour speech in the House of Commons, again denying the charges of corruption and collusion with Allan. His desperate telegrams to Allan's lawyer, future prime minister J.J. Abbott -- "I must have another ten thousand" -- told a different story. Two days later, he submitted his resignation.
His friends and foes believed Macdonald's political career was over, a fact that seemed certain once the Conservatives lost the next election in January 1874. Yet less than five years later, he was prime minister again and remained in office until his death in June 1891.
Many of Macdonald's successors have, with slight variations, followed his dictum that stonewalling often staves off defeat. William Lyon Mackenzie King was as different in personality, style and politics from John A. as could be. When he was confronted with scandal in the customs department in 1925 and again in 1931 over the Beauharnois hydro-electric power project, he scrambled, delivered assurances matters would be dealt with and never truly came clean about what he knew and when he knew it. It worked: After five years in opposition, he won a majority government in 1935 and retired as prime minister 13 years later.
Likewise, Lester Pearson in the 1960s, a decent, though not always decisive, prime minister, was vague in responding to questions about several scandals that embroiled his government. In late 1964, justice minister Guy Favreau had interceded in the case of involving a drug dealer, Lucien Rivard.
Favreau was made the scapegoat and Pearson was not forthright about when he learned the circumstances. Many of his colleagues judged him harshly. Still, the Liberals remained in power under Pearson and then under his successor, Pierre Trudeau.
In more recent years, those masters of evasion, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien have continued the tradition. In the tainted-tuna scandal of 1985, which cost fisheries minister John Fraser his cabinet job, Mulroney and Fraser kept changing their stories as to when Mulroney knew Fraser had approved the rancid tuna be allowed on store shelves.
Mulroney later revealed Fraser was not supposed to say anything since as he put it, "We had it pretty well under control." It was only after Fraser spoke to the media contradicting what Mulroney had said in the House that he was forced to resign.
Throughout much of Jean Chrétien's decade as prime minister from 1993 to 2003, he was always dealing with one scandal or another. Two of the most prominent were charges he had used his personal influence to secure a loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada for his friend Yvon Duhaime and the more serious sponsorship scandal in which millions of dollars were distributed to prop up federalism in Quebec.
In both of these cases and others, Chrétien, as journalist Paul Tuns has described it, "shrugged off these scandals, denied wrongdoing, or excused the misconduct on the grounds that there were larger issues at stake." To be fair, in the two scandals noted, the former Liberal prime minister was cleared of any personal wrongdoing, though in his investigation of the sponsorship scandal Judge John Gomery criticized Chrétien and his PMO staff for not properly supervising the program in question.
There is no denying scandals do have consequences, as John A. Macdonald found out in 1874 and as did the Liberals under Paul Martin in the 2006 election in the fallout from the sponsorship scandal. Political commentators have already predicted Mike Duffy and the Senate expenses scandal ("Duffygate") will hurt the Conservatives chances of re-election in 2015.
There is also no denying that in the often mundane day-to-day coverage of Canadian politics, scandals make for absorbing newspaper and television stories and commentary with their alleged chronicles of dishonesty and deceit. The soap opera-political reality show quality of these incidents are indeed compelling.
The historical record has left a mixed legacy. While there are exceptions, like the Pacific Scandal and the Beauharnois Scandal, in many instances the media move on to something else, voters get bored and forget, and the scandal of the hour that seemed of utmost significance is relegated to a footnote.
Many Canadians do not have fond feelings toward Brian Mulroney, yet the odds are that judgment has nothing to do with tainted tuna. Will Mike Duffy be a footnote to the Harper years or the cause of the prime minister's downfall in 2015? Stay tuned.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today into a historical context.