On a normal day, Stephen Harper would arrive at the office at around 8:30 a.m., after dropping the kids off at school. A bit later, the Prime Minister, a man, said David Emerson, "who could say No better than anyone I'd ever met," would step into a boardroom for the meeting that set the marching orders for the day.
At that instant, his staff got a clue of his mood. Was he weighed down by one of his deep and brooding resentments? Was he eager, his hard gaze focused on a challenge to surmount? Or was there something else that stirred him?
Seldom did Harper make introductory remarks. An adviser handed him the issues report, which also contained the daily press briefing. It reviewed major developments and sorted out which points to put to the boss. The key was to nail things down, said Bruce Carson, who was then a senior policy adviser. If you were all over the map, the PM could turn ugly.
'HE'D BLOW A GASKET'
At the main meeting, communications strategist Keith Beardsley gave the issues report, summarizing, among other things, recent media coverage. On bad-news days, some staffers argued in the pre-meeting to keep the worst of it hidden from Harper. Why put him in one of his funks? But most often the decision was made to give him the straight goods. "In some cases he'd blow a gasket," Beardsley recalled. "And others it would be like, 'Well, same old critics. They're never going to change.' "
Occasionally, Harper would sit down and say, "I'm thinking of doing this," and await reaction. If it was negative, he sometimes put his foot down and advisers would back off: Often, though, he'd come back later and say, "What about if we change it and do it this way?" The Prime Minister liked to be challenged, but only with specific counterpoints, not generalities. During a purge in his opposition days, he kept Beardsley because he was one of the few who would take him on.
At the morning meeting, the press briefing was a central focus. It started with the most-watched television programs, and proceeded in descending order of importance. The print journalists were typically last. Although Harper maintained that he didn't pay much attention to the media, his staff didn't believe it. They could often tell by his responses that he'd read the article or seen the report they were discussing.
Around the meeting table, few were eager to butt heads with Harper. Usually the task was left to senior advisers like Carson, who would start in softly by saying, "Geez, Prime Minister, I'm not sure … ." When it was most tense was when the advisers were all agreed on one strategy and the PM wanted to go another way. He could be loud and foul-mouthed, but to Carson, that was no different from other leaders he had worked with. "If he got pissed off, he got pissed off and he would certainly let you know he was pissed off. But this is not the guy in the Li'l Abner cartoon with the cloud hanging over his head."
Carson once made the mistake of trying to say something positive about the CBC. He suggested that the government intervene to prevent the network from losing its broadcast rights to the Hockey Night in Canada theme song. He argued that since the song was like a second national anthem, something should be done. "Well," Carson recalled, "to say I got my ass handed to me is a mild way of putting it."
Unlike leaders who prefer issues to be boiled down for them, Harper wanted details. He did his homework, reading studies and briefing papers thoroughly. Members of his staff were sometimes amazed at the amount of detail Harper absorbed. Senator Marjory LeBreton approached Carson after one of the meetings and exclaimed, "Jesus, Bruce. He even reads the annex items!"
On a daily basis, Harper received several reports from the Privy Council Office. Staffers there got them sent back with comments and instructions. Sometimes he was blunt. On one PCO report, he wrote, "This is bullshit!," underlined it, and provided marching orders.