MY YEARS AS PRIME MINISTER
By Jean Chrétien
Knopf Canada, 435 pages, $39.95
Unlike most political leaders, who assume that the world exists to be improved and mobilize their scattered priorities in that direction, Jean Chrétien had no visionary purpose or narrative arc in his decade as prime minister. This memoir faithfully records the events of his baleful interregnum - an extended, listless March break between the reigns of Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper. It was a time out of joint. The same issues came around again and again, like unclaimed baggage on an airport carousel. Nothing was resolved; less was settled.
Contrary to most autobiographers, Monsieur doesn't take the opportunity to plea bargain. "Like Peppergate, like Shawinigate, the sponsorship scandal had more to do with party politics and the newspaper wars than the public interest," he decrees. "The media had nothing better to attack us with than muck." And that's that. No explanations; no apologies.
He did accomplish several worthy initiatives, mainly the Clarity Act, masterminded by Stéphane Dion, who was Chrétien's best buddy in cabinet, and he did keep Canada out of the Iraq war. Those accomplishments receive their due credit, but mostly, this volume chronicles the old stag's stunning ability to evade criticism.
As his memoir inadvertently documents, Chrétien's stewardship was devoid of defining legacies or memorable quotes. In person, he gave off a lunar chill in place of the music that once danced in his eyes. In his public appearances, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the PM from his professional bodyguards, except that Chrétien was rougher with belligerent bystanders.
Canadians watched with fascination as le p'tit gars de Shawinigan disgorged disconnected words instead of marshalled ideas. He once promised to enact reforms, "the better the sooner." It was virtually impossible to follow his train of speech, always on the point of derailing itself. He turned incoherence into an art form. When he was tackled about the absence of proof that his government's Quebec sponsorship program (later proved to have been criminally fraudulent) made sense, he replied: "The proof is the proof. And when you have a good proof, it's proven." His prepared speeches were delivered in a flat voice, innocent of wit or cadence, like the disinterested tone of a bored waiter, repeating a customer's unimaginative order of the plat du jour.
As the book documents, prime minister Chrétien was at his most insensitive in dealing with University of British Columbia students when they protested the 1997 visit to Vancouver of the Indonesian dictator Suharto, who was soon afterward overthrown by his own people and charged with massive corruption. Subsequent investigations documented that the RCMP acted on direct orders from the PMO to protect the visiting despot not just from harm, but from embarrassment. When peaceful student demonstrators were crudely pepper-sprayed into painful silence, Chrétien ridiculed them by joking that he used pepper only when he was munching steaks.
This chronicle of his 10-year reign doesn't live up to its billing. Its cloying perspective and deliberate avoidance of key issues guarantees that Lawrence Martin's Iron Man: The Defiant Reign of Jean Chrétien will remain the definitive study of the period. Martin portrayed his book's chief protagonist as exercising an instinct wonderfully at one with the country's broad wash of citizenry and their values, but devoid of the intellect with which to clothe it. "He was born not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but rather a cement mixer," Martin concluded.
My Years as Prime Minister is well written and cleverly structured by ace ghost writer Ron Graham. But where's the beef? We're not told what role, if any, Chrétien played in the great scandal of his administration that became the subject of the Gomery Inquiry. According to the Chrétien version, no one in authority was to blame, even though the scam cost taxpayers $63-million in improperly awarded contracts.
Its birth must qualify as a case of immaculate conceptions, not that uncommon when it came to apportioning blame on the banks of the Rideau during Chrétien's tenure. He may not have had a way with words, but he had a nose for survival so intense it ought to have guaranteed him mention in Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
At the same time, readers might have hoped for some explanation of the Shawinigate affair that rocked the Chrétien administration and left many questions unanswered. All we get is a rhetorical, "What scandal?" It seems that his critics didn't realize the kindly PM was just trying to help a struggling constituent who happened to owe him big bucks.
Touches of his Gallic charm and the stir-fry of homespun humility and self-deprecating humour that characterized the young Chrétien do occasionally shine through. But his memoirs emphasize that in power he was one tough dude, unable or unwilling to demonstrate grace under pressure - or at any time, actually. He treated his parliamentary caucus like a servile retinue instead of the source of his power, and it was Paul Martin's recognition of the difference that eventually allowed him to steal the party from under its leader.
The Sicilian blood feud between the two former Liberal PMs, set off by this book, goes to the marrow of why the Liberals have ceased to be Canada's Natural Governing Party. The transition between its leaders was once as smooth as papal successions (except for the plume of white smoke), with the political bickering conducted behind closed doors. Incumbents did their best to boost their successors. Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, for example, were very different men, one the son of the Protestant manse in rural Ontario, the other an urban Quebec radical. And yet, Pearson set up Trudeau's 1968 triumph by carefully mentoring him for the position; his wife Maryon had to be physically restrained from rushing unto the convention floor wearing a big Trudeau button. With the Chrétien/Martin vendetta now in full Monty, the Liberals are only confirming what was once the most heretical of notions: They are no longer fit to govern a country that thrives on unity.
Canadians watched in horror or wonderment as Chrétien transformed the country from a one-party state into an elected dictatorship whose operational code demanded loyalty to him, personally, that was so blind that even the most faithful Liberals could not stomach it. Despite such thuggish behaviour, the Liberal chief won three political majorities, and if My Years as Prime Minister is to be believed, he emerged unscathed, innocent of any errors of judgment or wrongdoing - just a gritty old Grit, doing his entitlement thing.
He takes full credit for having won the trio of elections he called between 1993 and 2003, not bothering to acknowledge the kamikaze tendencies of his opponents. How lucky can one politician get: to have run against the hapless Kim Campbell and her unerring instinct for her own jugular; followed by Preston Manning, who boasted the finest medieval mind in the Commons; and finally, having to contend with Stockwell Day, who has made a spectacular recovery since, but at the time believed in the possibility of dinosaur petting zoos.
Still, My Years as Prime Minister is valuable because it fills in some blanks and explains why, over the years, Canadians have become so cynical about politics that even when cabinet ministers admit they lied, nobody believes them. The Chrétien who emerges from this auto-hagiography is a politician who trails no history, except the conviction that his performance was flawless. This, though he was the first Liberal PM to be overthrown by his own party.
My Years as Prime Minister belies its author's implied claim that he was perfect. That's why this book is so difficult to pick up once you've put it down. It don't ring true.
The author of 24 books, Peter C. Newman is currently writing the biography of Izzy Asper.