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The Way It Works: Inside Ottawa

By Eddie Goldenberg

McClelland & Stewart,

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402 pages. $36.99

Oddly, you get a much better personal sense of former prime minister Jean Chrétien from Straight from the Heart, the editor-crafted, mid-career autobiography that he produced 20 years ago, than you get from The Way It Works, the memoirs of the eminent political adviser who worked at Chrétien's side for more than 30 years. You would think that the reverse would be true -- that Eddie Goldenberg, however loyal to Chrétien he would naturally remain, couldn't help but reveal more of the tough guy from Shawinigan who became Canada's most consistently underrated political leader of the 20th century.

Alas, Goldenberg mostly limits his revelations to process, as the title candidly confesses. Here is a splendid manual on the art of politics and the art of government from a very discreet Machiavellian manager. For an understanding of Chrétien, though, you probably can't do better than this self-portrait from Chrétien himself: "The art of politics is walking with your back to the wall, your elbows high, a smile on your face. It's a survival game played under the glare of lights. If you don't learn that, you're finished."

Goldenberg does write viscerally on Paul Martin, Chrétien's implacable antagonist and, during his prime ministerial years, his indispensable partner.

Goldenberg holds nothing back in his telling of Martin's misguided coup d'état at the end of May, 2002 -- when he tried to quit his office in such a way that it would appear that Chrétien had fired him. At one point during a weekend of complex skulduggery, Martin calls Goldenberg: "Hi, Eddie. It's Paul. What's up?" Martin is running an inept insurrection, and trying to hide it. After a few minutes, Goldenberg ends the call with a memorable hang-up line: "Brutus was successful in stabbing Caesar, but remember that it badly hurt his reputation for the next 2,000 years."

Even as a manual, The Way It Works seems excessively protective. Goldenberg refers to the infamous sponsorship scandal with a few dismissive paragraphs, passing it off as an unfortunate occurrence but largely irrelevant, insisting that there was no authentic scandal at all, only human error. ("The problems with the sponsorship program were, in my opinion, sensationalized out of all proportion, thereby casting discredit on the more than 99.9 per cent of Canadian politicians and public servants who are dedicated, hard-working and honest.")

In this instance, Goldenberg disappoints. He blames journalists, and Martin (for his "colossal over-reaction"). He doesn't mention that it was Auditor-General Sheila Fraser who called public attention to the $100-million mess, which she described as "scandalous," or that it was she who observed that "no one in government appeared to care." Judging by Goldenberg, who was Chrétien's very shadow, she was probably right.

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Goldenberg appears to take another ethical shortcut with the private foundations that Chrétien and Martin established to help spend the huge budget surpluses that began to emerge in 1997. Goldenberg was deeply involved in the design of these foundations; indeed, he managed the process, from the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and the Canada Health Infoway -- 15 of them in all, none of them accountable either to the government or to Parliament. In her 2005 report, Fraser found that these foundations held, sitting unspent in their bank accounts, more than $7.7-billion.

Goldenberg dismisses the Auditor-General. ("The Auditor-General will continue to claim to be God," he writes, "or at the very least to be accountable only to God.") Arm's-length is good, he says. It keeps MPs from interfering. But he obfuscates. Fraser's report wasn't extraordinary at all. Goldenberg must have known that you can't give people $9-billion (the total funds transferred to the foundations) without strict accountability -- and without public auditing.

Well, you can. But you shouldn't. And you shouldn't need an auditor to tell you so.

When he took a summer internship with Chrétien in 1972, Goldenberg could hardly have picked a better position to witness Canadian history, and to participate in it, for the next three decades. He had finished his first year of law school at McGill University. Chrétien, at 38, was already in his third term as an MP and in his fifth year as a cabinet minister. (As minister of Indian affairs, Chrétien advanced a radical White Paper that proposed abolition of the Indian Act -- and his own government department -- within five years. Had he succeeded, First Nations poverty would by now probably have disappeared; ironically, it was aboriginal people themselves who refused their own independence.) Goldenberg would accompany Chrétien as he wended his way through all the senior portfolios of government -- he would sit at the cabinet table longer than anyone else in Canadian history -- and through 10 years, at the very pinnacle, as prime minister.

Although ever protective of Chrétien's performance as prime minister, Goldenberg is perceptive and persuasive in his telling of the events that preceded, and the events that followed, Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau's 1995 referendum on secession. This was the referendum that came within a hair's breadth of tearing the country apart, of ending the country's constitutional legitimacy -- though Chrétien himself would never, never, never, Goldenberg says, have recognized a "yes vote," had it actually occurred. Nevertheless, as Goldenberg says: "We knew that a defeat could lead to the irreversible breakup of Canada."

Mr. Chrétien had stood aside for the entire campaign, as the "no" strategists in Quebec had advised. In the end, at the last minute, he intervened. In a single, 10-minute televised speech -- most of it written by Goldenberg -- Chrétien defined the referendum as a final act of choosing: "To break up Canada or to build Canada. To remain Canadian or to no longer be Canadian. To stay or to leave." The polls turned overnight. Inevitably, Chrétien took the blame for the close call; inevitably, he vowed that it would never happen again. From this private resolution came, among other things, the intellectual federalist Stéphane Dion and the Clarity Act (which makes it much more difficult for Quebec separatists to manufacture a referendum victory) and the sponsorship scandal (which did arise from Chrétien's command to show a massive federal presence in Quebec.

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As for Dion, personally recruited by Chrétien, Goldenberg describes the relationship as "father-son." Chrétien invited Goldenberg to his summer residence at Harrington Lake twice in 10 years; Dion spent long hours there, alone with Chrétien, discussing strategies to confound the separatists. (Goldenberg says that Joe Clark, during his brief stint as prime minister, authorized federal billboards in Quebec "only as long as they are not very visible.") Goldenberg is most personally engaged -- aside, perhaps, from his episodes on Paul Martin -- when he describes Chrétien's post-9/11 sessions with U.S. President George W. Bush, understanding that his boss's decision to decline a role in Iraq -- whether ultimately right or ultimately wrong -- would define Chrétien's foreign-policy legacy. He is as candid here, portraying the "West Texan," as he is elsewhere reserved. "If I catch anyone who leaks in my government," Bush tells Chrétien in March, 2002, "I would like to string them up by the thumbs -- the same way we do with prisoners in Guantanamo."

Goldenberg turns this piece of evident Oval Office hyperbole into a prophetic reference to Abu Ghraib. Françoise Ducros, Chrétien's director of communications, got fired for saying that Bush was a moron -- but she was probably expressing a pervasive judgment in the PMO.

Goldenberg has nevertheless written a fascinating and valuable account of Chrétien's rise to power and his uses of it. The author's conclusions arise from a lifetime of personal experience and first-hand observation, and are conveniently listed, lesson by lesson, in the epilogue. Here's a single example: Never repudiate the leader you seek to succeed. It didn't work for John Turner when he repudiated Pierre Trudeau. It didn't work for Al Gore when he repudiated Bill Clinton. And it didn't work for Paul Martin when he repudiated Jean Chrétien. In other words, don't slap the wrist of the hand that lifted you up.

Neil Reynolds is national affairs columnist for The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. He is the former editor of The Ottawa Citizen and The Vancouver Sun.

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