When he left office in 1993, Brian Mulroney was the most despised political leader of recent times. The interviews that he gave over the years to author Peter C. Newman will confirm many Canadians in their low opinion of the former prime minister, who often comes across as bitter and boastful.
In one interview, he insists: "You cannot name a Canadian prime minister who has done as many significant things as I did, because there are none." He also claims that Pierre Trudeau nearly managed to "destroy" the country, and "I had to come in and save it." He has choice words for both enemies and friends, from that "son of a bitch" Clyde Wells, the Newfoundland premier, to his "incompetent" successor as Progressive Conservative leader, Kim Campbell. It is precisely this sort of blarney and bombast that helped make Mr. Mulroney so unpopular.
But before they congratulate themselves for being right about Mr. Mulroney, those who dislike him should take a closer look. Behind the bluster, there is a lot of truth in what he says. Hard as it may be for the legion of Mulroney-haters to admit, it is true that he accomplished a great deal for the country, from free trade with the United States to the modernization of the tax system. It is equally true that his accomplishments were overshadowed by meaningless controversies and tempest-in-a-tin-can scandals like "Tunagate." His anger at the media is out of scale, but understandable. Mr. Mulroney had a bad press.
His Conservative government was only a year old when it was shaken by the revelation that a million cans of tainted tuna had been approved. Nobody got sick and Mr. Mulroney had nothing to do with the error, but when he showed up at a baseball game, the derisive crowd chanted "tuna, tuna." The fuss over his renovations to his official residence, 24 Sussex Dr., paid for out of PC Party funds and his own pocket, was just as petty. Critics painted Mr. Mulroney as a high-living plutocrat with a closet full of Gucci shoes.
On top of all this came the most serious charge of all: that Mr. Mulroney and his government were corrupt -- the most corrupt in Canadian history, according to one well-known journalist. In fact, no proof was ever advanced that Mr. Mulroney was "on the take" (though he has yet to explain adequately why he received $300,000 from German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber after leaving office). When he was accused of graft in the Airbus affair, he sued the government and won.
In this blizzard of allegation and dispute, it is easy to forget how much Mr. Mulroney got done in his nine years in office. His decision to pursue the free-trade agreement despite the obvious political risk was one of the boldest any recent prime minister has taken. It has paid off richly for Canadians, who have seen their economic future assured by reliable access to the world's richest market. It took at least as much political courage to revamp the tax system by introducing the GST, a necessary, sensible reform that nevertheless produced a public backlash from which Mr. Mulroney never fully recovered.
In the economic sphere, Mr. Mulroney streamlined government by selling off inefficient Crown corporations to private interests. In foreign affairs, he played an important role in fighting apartheid in South Africa through the Commonwealth. In national affairs, he tried to heal the constitutional breach with Quebec through the Meech Lake accord, a noble attempt to accommodate Quebec nationalism that foundered in the end, despite herculean efforts by Mr. Mulroney.
It is unfortunate that a former prime minister had to strut and spit the way he sometimes did in the Newman interviews. But it can't be easy being so unfairly and unreasonably loathed. Brian Mulroney deserves much better.