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He believes he will go down in Canadian history as the best prime minister since Sir John A. Macdonald.

He most certainly will go down as the most profane.

And perhaps even, much to Brian Mulroney's regret, as the least believable of the 17 prime ministers who came before his arrival in 1984 and the three since he left in 1993 -- a master and victim of hyperbole who is described by one premier who consistently stood by him as "a pathological liar" who didn't know he was lying and who simply could not be trusted.

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As author Peter C. Newman writes in an explosive new book: "He bugs us still."

The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister has been the most closely guarded story of the Canadian fall publishing season. Neither its author, its subject nor even its publisher were at first revealed to those given early hints that incendiary political material was about to be unleashed -- Toronto-based publisher Random House fearing a court injunction before the first revelations would appear today.

And such revelations they are:

Mr. Mulroney's absolute conviction that former prime minister Pierre Trudeau was behind the undermining of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, a conspiracy that included then-Newfoundland-premier Clyde Wells -- "nothing has ever compared to the lack of principle of this son of a bitch" -- and lawyer Deborah Coyne, who later had a child with Mr. Trudeau. "Trudeau wound up persuading her," Mr. Mulroney tells Mr. Newman at one point, "and that's when she became pregnant, exactly at that time."

Mr. Trudeau's motivation, according to Mr. Mulroney, was that "He didn't want anybody to succeed where he had failed. Trudeau's contribution was not to build Canada but to destroy it, and I had to come in and save it. Three times I've achieved unanimity. In 16 years, he couldn't do it once, the 'great statesman.' "

A hatred for the media that verges on paranoia. "Business is booming," the prime minister says at one point, "our jobs are up and everything is going fine. But the Toronto Star says Brian Mulroney is a shit. So I change newspapers. I went to The Globe and Mail, which says I'm a spendthrift and an asshole. So I decided to go to the Sun, a real conservative paper run by Paul Godfrey. I read Claire Hoy's column, and I'm a thief and a murderer."

According to Mila Mulroney, a willing co-conspirator in the plot to kill the constitutional accord was the negative Canadian press. "Meech," she says, "was treated as a holdup in a gas station at 6 o'clock in the morning."

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The failure of the constitutional accords, of course, led to the departure of Mr. Mulroney's lifelong friend, Lucien Bouchard, who went off to lead the fight for Quebec separation. "I have never known," says a crushed Mr. Mulroney, "a more vulgar expression of betrayal and deceit." Adds Mr. Mulroney's then chief of staff Stanley Hartt: "Lucien turned himself into a human car bomb designed to go off at a time and place where it would do the most damage. . . . He saw a chance to make himself both a hero and a martyr at the same time, and the opportunity to catapult himself into being Jacques Parizeau's successor as Quebec premier. And that is exactly what he did. I don't know anybody else like that. And I'm glad."

A secret memorandum that passed between the Progressive Conservative leader and future deputy prime minister Erik Nielsen on May 25, 1984, containing details of party appointments -- a patronage plan carefully laid out weeks before the leadership debate where Mr. Mulroney destroyed then-prime-minister John Turner with his famous "You had an option, sir" lecture on this very topic.

Mr. Mulroney's accusation that his short-lived successor, Kim Campbell -- "a very vain person" -- blew the 1993 election because she was too busy "screwing around" with her Russian boyfriend, resulting in "the most incompetent campaign I've seen in my life."

Outrage that the tainted-tuna scandal of 1985 could ever have reached the heights it did. "You would think that 10,000 people had died because of rancid tuna," Mr. Mulroney says. "No one was even sick. . . . The media gave more publicity to tuna than to the Gulf War."

Mr. Mulroney's hatred of the Ottawa press corps -- "a phony bunch of bastards" -- so visceral that he claims they refused to give him the credit he was due for "brokering" the deal between Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then-U.S.-president George Bush that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Only then-German-chancellor Helmut Kohl understood Canada's pivotal role, Mr. Mulroney says, and gave Mr. Mulroney his due credit. Mr. Mulroney claims that then-British-prime-minister Margaret Thatcher once showed then-U.S.-president Ronald Reagan a copy of The Globe and Mail to show "what Brian has to put up with. Look at this disgrace. This is Canadian journalism. Look at this disgraceful, putrid newspaper."

"By the time history is done looking at this," says Mr. Mulroney in a moment of self-praise, "and you look at my achievements as opposed to any others, certainly no one will be in Sir John A.'s league -- but my nose will be a little ahead of most in terms of achievements. Nobody has achievements like this, Peter. I can say that to you objectively. You cannot name a Canadian prime minister who has done as many significant things as I did, because there are none."

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Former Ontario premier David Peterson, who stood by Mr. Mulroney through all the constitutional wrangling, says he truly likes the former prime minister, "But to be perfectly honest, Peter, I would never trust or respect him. He is a pathological liar. In fairness, I don't believe he knows he's lying. . . . Oh God, you couldn't take anything he said at face value. His essential Achilles heel is his baloney."

Mr. Peterson's assessment is clearly one shared by others who have been close to Mr. Mulroney over the years. Nor is it an assessment that came later in his career. During the 1984 campaign, when Mr. Mulroney claimed that the day after his party was elected, "there will be tens upon tens of thousands of new jobs," he was taken aside by party guru Dalton Camp.

"Damn it, Brian," Mr. Camp told the new leader, "you cold-turkeyed on smoking. You cold-turkeyed on drinking. Why can't you cold-turkey on hyperbole?"

It was not to happen.

Maclean's magazine is publishing an excerpt of two chapters in which Mr. Mulroney claims he got worse press than Adolf Hitler. At one point in those chapters, the former prime minister angrily dismisses as meaningless the "distinct society" clause that was supposedly the sacred core of the constitutional accord that Mr. Mulroney fought for and, ultimately, failed to sell to Canadians.

The chapters also have Mr. Mulroney's unexpurgated thoughts on those he intensely disliked, such as Mr. Trudeau, former CBC head Patrick Watson, Citizens' Forum chair Keith Spicer, Joe Clark's wife, Maureen McTeer, as well as many of the journalists who covered him during those years -- and even contains a surprising attack on his deputy prime minister and right-hand man, Mr. Nielsen.

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He is not as hard, however, on his second-in-command as he is on the leader who took over the party from him, Ms. Campbell. Mr. Mulroney thought it outrageous that she seemed more concerned about her relationship with Russian-born entrepreneur Gregory Lakhtman than she did with winning the next election.

"Throughout the whole goddam thing," he tells Mr. Newman during the 1993 summer campaign, "she's been screwing around with this Russian guy. The guy was sneaking into hotel rooms and the campaign bus. If I'm in an election and you bring Marilyn Monroe and 15 others into my hotel room, I'd throw them out. You have no time for that stuff. If you have 15 minutes, you phone some of your candidates."

The 462-page Secret Mulroney Tapes is likely to soar straight to the top of the bestseller lists, something fully anticipated years ago by Mr. Mulroney -- though he could not possibly have envisioned the book that has come of it.

"The publishers don't have to worry about whether this thing is going to sell," he told Mr. Newman some 20 years ago. "The only question they're going to have to wonder about is whether they've got enough paper in the forest to print the fucking books.

"That's all they have to worry about. I'll tell you this, if there ain't a good book in this, there's not a good book in Canadian history."

The book arrives, ironically, at a time when there has been a significant softening of public opinion toward the once hugely unpopular Mr. Mulroney. His recent illness, the passage of time and a growing longing for leaders who actually do something had somewhat polished the 66-year-old former prime minister's tarnished image.

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In many sections of the book, Mr. Mulroney comes across as charming and likeable and, often, the reader is sympathetic to him as he comes to terms with those who have let him down or even betrayed him.

Mr. Newman, certainly, is not without some continuing admiration for Mr. Mulroney, calling him "the most radical prime minister in Canadian history." He shares some of Mr. Mulroney's disdain for the media that covered his years in office and is clearly an affectionate champion of Mr. Mulroney's wife, Mila.

Mr. Newman and Mr. Mulroney had been friends since early 1961, when the rising young Ottawa journalist happened to meet, and become entranced with, a skinny law student who had a special knack for explaining the intricacies of Quebec politics. Mr. Newman had been a key sounding board through both of Mr. Mulroney's leadership campaigns, failure in 1976, victory in 1983, and following Mr. Mulroney's dramatic election win over John Turner's Liberals in 1984, they struck a remarkable deal.

Mr. Newman would have unbridled access to Mr. Mulroney for however long Mr. Mulroney stayed in office. He would have access to cabinet documents and memoranda and he would be given unprecedented access to interviewing, with tape recorder, Mr. Mulroney, his family, his friends and his advisers over that time -- so long as Mr. Newman agreed not to publish while Mr. Mulroney remained prime minister.

Mr. Mulroney wanted to come across as he was, warts and all, convinced that in all of this country's history only one prime minister, Sir John A., had come across as "real."

"I don't want a puff job," Mr. Mulroney told Mr. Newman.

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He didn't get one.

Over the years, Mr. Newman conducted 330 formal interviews, 98 of them with Mr. Mulroney. He ended up with 7,400 pages of transcripts containing an exhausting 1.8 million words - many of which Mr. Mulroney might today like to have taken back.

At one point in their discussions, Mr. Mulroney begins talking about his great and troubled friend, Michel Cogger, and suddenly stops and points to Mr. Newman's tape recorder.

"That's thing is not running, is it?"

"Yes it is."

The deal between friends gradually fell apart. Mr. Newman and Mila Mulroney had a great falling out that was later somewhat patched but will, likely, begin anew with this publication. In the end, Mr. Newman was unable to get access to all the documentation and he concluded that the book he had planned was now lost, impossible to complete with any accuracy.

The original concept for the book, a definitive analysis of the Mulroney years, is not to be found here and Mr. Newman is adamant that it not been seen as such. "This," he writes, "is not a history of the Mulroney years but rather an impressionistic journey through a prime minister's mind and temper." Mr. Newman has arranged that the entire tape collection will become available to future scholars who will do the deeper analysis he himself once intended.

The Canadian public, however, will likely be far more interested in the personality that emerges today than in the legacy that may one day be defined. Readers will find what Mr. Newman found, that Mr. Mulroney is an extraordinary conversationalist capable of side-splitting humour -- a mischievous side that comes through at times on the tapes but can also come through as cruel, malicious and certainly politically incorrect.

One long-time aide recounts a phone call to a holidaying Mr. Mulroney to inform him of the latest troubles caused by stumbling cabinet minister Suzanne Blais-Grenier. The prime minister's solution: "Slit her throat."

"Much of what he told me was crude and vicious," Mr. Newman writes. "Yet during our interviews another Mulroney emerged: warm, witty, street-smart, yet kind and considerate."

Mr. Mulroney spoke always with "an eye to history." Mr. Newman found him a "backwoods combination of Machiavelli, leprechaun and Dr. Phil. Yet Mr. Mulroney's impact was enormous. He deconstructed the country's economy through free trade with the Americans, seriously rejigged our tax system with the introduction of the GST, deregulated the transportation and energy sectors, privatized dozens of Crown corporations and revolutionized social policy with precedent-shattering budgets."

His deal-making, on the other hand, upset people. And that, combined with a presidential style that offended many Canadians, "triggered the rise of the Bloc Québécois and Reform parties, fatally weakening his traditional power bases in French and Western Canada."

Mr. Mulroney emerges as someone who simply cannot leave certain matters alone: his obsession with Mr. Trudeau, his hatred of Mr. Wells, his desperation to explain the explosive "roll the dice" comment that appeared in this newspaper and, many believe, began the ultimate unravelling of Mr. Mulroney's beloved Meech Lake accord.

Stanley Hartt, who appears time and time again as the voice of reason, remembers being driven to work by his wife the morning the story appeared and the CBC radio news picked up the prime minister's cynical suggestion that the future of a country was something that could be gambled. "It was instant," Mr. Hartt tells Mr. Newman. "I mean, it didn't take me half a millisecond. I asked her to pull the car over, stopped and said, 'He's finished. It's over. I think he blew it. I really do.' " According to Mr. Hartt, he had quietly been meeting in secret negotiations with Jean Chrétien, at that point only weeks away from winning the Liberal leadership, and Mr. Chrétien, in Mr. Hartt's eyes, was on the verge of coming onside and going public with what would have proved crucial support for Meech. After this, however, Mr. Chrétien backed off, according to Mr. Hartt.

As for Mr. Wells, he held the dice story as proof that he and others had been manipulated, and so began the long, agonizing march toward June 22, 1990, when both Newfoundland and Manitoba backed off on their votes, thereby killing the accord. Mr. Newman writes that Mr. Mulroney flew into a blind rage over Mr. Wells's decision. "You know all politicians take liberties," Mr. Mulroney later told Mr. Newman, "That's the nature of the beast, getting kicked around and trying to get things done in an imperfect system. But nothing has ever compared to the lack of principle of this son of a bitch. Lookit, on the night before the vote I was standing in the rain on the doorstep of his house and asked him what the odds were. He told me that after my speech, they were good -- at least 50-50. This was after he had already made up his mind to cancel the vote."

Mr. Mulroney says that Meech was "the sweetest deal ever known to man and it was thrown away."

He also suggests that his most disturbing memory of that time came when Mr. Wells arrived, triumphantly, at the Liberal leadership convention in Calgary and was hugged by Mr. Chrétien. "That," a bitter Mr. Mulroney tells Mr. Newman, "was the modern equivalent of hugging Macdonald for hanging Louis Riel. This is like the hanging of Louis Riel on videotape."

The book goes some distance toward countering the Mulroneys' reputation for overspending at 24 Sussex Dr. Mr. Newman gives them the opportunity to explain, in detail, the story of the closet filled with Gucci shoes, which they claim was "preposterous," a complete misunderstanding, but which set in stone their image as spendthrifts.

The author reproduces documentation that shows Mr. Mulroney sent a cheque for $211,796.68 to the P.C. Canada Fund to cover furniture and interior decorating carried out at the official residence, which had become considerably rundown in previous years. There is also a copy of a letter from Mila to Marcel Beaudry, head of the National Capital Commission, in which she bequeaths $100,000 worth of personal furnishings at 24 Sussex and the Harrington Lake retreat and adds: "I shall not be requesting a tax receipt for any of these items that I hope future prime ministers and their families may enjoy."

But it will not likely be those points that resonate as Canadians hear, once again, the familiar voice -- as Mr. Newman says, not so much "Mulroney Unplugged" as "Mulroney Undressed."

Brian Mulroney, Mr. Newman eventually came to believe, was simply someone who could not help himself.

"The secret of governing Canada," Mr. Newman writes after a career that saw him cover every prime minister from Louis St. Laurent on, "is knowing what not to touch."

Mr. Mulroney not only not could resist touching, ". . . he behaved like an obsessive beekeeper, patrolling the buzzing apiary that Canada had become, punching holes into every hive he could find. More often than not, the liberated bees stung the man who had set them free."

Background

Meech Lake: Prime minister Brian Mulroney's first effort to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold culminated in the signing of the Meech Lake Accord by the first ministers on April 30, 1987 at Meech Lake, Que. Each province and the House of Commons were given a deadline to ratify the deal. Manitoba was going through the process just before the June, 1990, deadline when MLA Elijah Harper refused to allow the legislature to extend its hours. The deadline passed without Manitoba's approval and the deal was dead.

Mr. Mulroney blamed Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells for scuttling Meech Lake after Mr. Wells chose not to hold a vote on the accord. Mr. Wells responded that the deal was already effectively dead because the Manitoba Legislature was unable to vote.

"Roll the dice": Mr. Mulroney discussed Meech Lake in an interview June 12, 1990 with The Globe and Mail. The story quoted the prime minister (referring to his advisers) as saying, "Right here, I told them when it would be. I told them a month ago when we were going to [meet] It's like an election campaign; you count backward. [I said] 'That's the day we're going to roll the dice.' " The quote prompted a national controversy on how he had envisioned the negotiations would proceed.

Tainted tuna: One year after being swept into power, the Mulroney government was rocked by scandal when it was discovered in 1985 that one million cans of rancid tuna were allowed to be sold, despite being declared unfit for human consumption. Minister of fisheries John Fraser and Mr. Mulroney had a very public debate about when the Prime Minister's Office knew about the situation. Mr. Fraser resigned.

Gucci shoes: The "Gucci shoe" story, published in April, 1987 said that Progressive Conservative finances had been used for renovations and decorating at 24 Sussex Dr. -- including building a closet to store the expansive supply of shoes the Mulroneys owned. Mr. Mulroney was alleged to own "at least 50 pairs of Gucci loafers."

He denied that he owned that many shoes or that party finances were used improperly.

rmacgregor@globeandmail.ca

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