Canada’s one and arguably only blue-collar prime minister was back in the news last week.
Jean Chrétien made headlines for attending the funeral of Latin American bad boy Hugo Chavez. He was on Page 1 for saying Canada had lost its stature abroad. He marked the 10th anniversary of his telling George W. Bush what he could do with his Iraq invasion plan.
The visit to Venezuela to pay respects to the socialist demagogue caught some by surprise. Leaders of Western democracies steered well clear of the event. Mr. Chrétien’s being seen in the presence of the brutes who did show up – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad et al. – was not exactly an image enhancer. But in that respect, the occasion said a lot about Mr. Chrétien. It told us that, at root, he’s still a proletarian. He went to the funeral, he said, because Mr. Chavez “was very much on the side of the poor, and we have to think about the poor in any society. I’m not the type of guy who thinks the crumbs off the table are enough for the poor.”
Political leaders these days talk endlessly of the need to appeal to the middle class. Jean Chrétien the commoner still has the lower class in mind.
I recall interviewing him shortly before he left the prime minister’s office a decade ago. He talked about how the office had not changed him, about how he would go to his hometown golf club and tee it up, even as prime minister, with anyone who happened to be there.
In a line that Mr. Chavez would have loved, Mr. Chrétien said: “It’s very dangerous when you find comfort with the big shots.” He never liked the rich, he added, because the rich always wanted more.
Mr. Chrétien became quite wealthy himself. He worked at Gordon Capital and for a Bay Street law firm, and his daughter married into the Desmarais family. People wondered how he could still be the little guy from Shawinigan. But, while Mr. Chrétien partook of the benefits and privileges that his career bestowed on him, it never seemed to me that his heart was with the high and mighty.
Other prime ministers of modest upbringings became bona fide members of the boardroom set. They wouldn’t be seen at a Chavez funeral. Mr. Chrétien always kept a foot outside the door. The establishment classes of Quebec had once looked down on him as peasant stock; he never forgot. It hardened him.
It’s nearly 10 years since he left office, and his legacy is taking shape. On the economy, the work done by him and Paul Martin gets high grades. On unity, he almost blew the 1995 Quebec referendum, but the Clarity Act now stands him in good stead. On war, his Iraq decision is seen as the right call. And his electoral record – three majority victories, no defeats – sparkles.
Ironically, it’s on the political ledger that his story is most tarnished. Street fighters sometimes let their roughhouse instincts rule them. His poor ethical judgment, most notably on the sponsorship scandal, hurt his party deeply. His record was wanting on issues such as climate change. Files such as the gun registry and military procurement were badly managed. And he mishandled his succession.
Over all, though, his Shawinigan values served him well. He was able to balance social progressiveness with fiscal responsibility and he left the country in better condition than he found it.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, there’s a passage about the ambitious man on the way up:
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend.
The words apply to many political leaders, but not to Mr. Chrétien. Our proletarian PM kept his collar blue, his values grounded. On the conscience of the country, it was an imprint worth leaving.