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Palm Beach, Fla., is a town where a resident's net worth is summed up in the capsule description that invariably is tacked onto their name in the local society column. As in, pharmaceutical heir Laddie Merck, Cuban-American sugar king Pepe Fanjul, oil billionaire David Koch, or Kate Ford, the widow of Henry Ford II.

Former Canadian prime minister and globetrotting rainmaker Brian Mulroney - a Palm Beach homeowner since 1997 - fits in marvellously here.

So it was, on a Friday evening in March, that a select group of the island community's seasonal and permanent inhabitants - among them Paul Desmarais, Conrad Black, Koch, Fanjul and Ford - descended on the ritzy Club Colette on Peruvian Avenue. The occasion that brought them to the private dinner club (which was once owned by Aldo Gucci, a detail too delicious to ignore for anyone familiar with Mulroney's shoe fixation) was the boy from Baie Comeau's 65th birthday party.

They were joined by an illustrious list of out-of-towners. George Bush Sr. flew over from Houston. Gustavo Cisneros, Venezuela's richest man, came up from Caracas. Dallas-based leveraged buyout wizard Tom Hicks popped over from his retreat in the Caribbean. So did Irish media baron Tony O'Reilly, who flew in on his Gulfstream III. Pierre Karl Péladeau came down from Montreal, Gerry Schwartz and Galen Weston from Toronto.

Joan Rivers, a family friend through shared charitable causes, kept everyone amused. "Mila is so attractive," the comedienne, in five-inch rhinestone heels, cracked, "that the first time I met her, I thought she was the second wife." Mila Mulroney, in a silver lamé Dolce & Gabbana creation, blushed.

If Mulroney's 65th birthday was the official reason for the celebration, there were other excuses to party.

The year had been a very good one for Mulroney, his best since leaving office in 1993. The legacy he so longed for was finally taking shape. It began with an April 17, 2003, letter from RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli informing Mulroney that he had been fully exonerated in the Airbus affair. It continued in June when he was named the second-best prime minister of the past 50 years by an elite panel of 28 academics (Lester Pearson was first). Then, in February, journalist Stevie Cameron was exposed as an RCMP informant in the Airbus case. Cameron, who had spent much of her career trying to tear down Mulroney's, ended up seriously compromising her own. Mulroney enjoyed the irony in that.

So did his friends. Those assembled at the party - the main event during a weekend of soirées, brunches and cocktails that Cisneros would label "a whole Brian Mulroney festival" - had never doubted his innocence nor underestimated his political achievements. To them, Mulroney was an icon. They'd seen him spend the previous decade building a hugely successful international business career, amassing much wealth and even greater influence than he held as prime minister.

Bush, Desmarais, Cisneros, Hicks, O'Reilly, Péladeau and others - people with names like Rockefeller, Kissinger, Munk and Forbes - had been eager helpmates in Mulroney's ascent to the top of the global business establishment. As Mulroney expanded and consolidated his worldwide network - flitting from his Montreal base at the law firm of Ogilvy Renault to Beijing, Brussels, Cape Town, Moscow, Dublin, Dallas, Paris, London, New York, Washington and Caracas - he never forgot his friends. For them, he opened doors. To them, he offered his counsel. With him, they got richer.

"I'm an unabashed Mulroney fan," says Bush, the former U.S. president and father of the Oval Office's current occupant. "If he said, 'This is something you oughta do,' that would get more than a cursory consideration from me." Adds Cisneros, who controls one of the world's biggest private conglomerates, with 72 companies in more than 80 countries: "Brian Mulroney is a walking encyclopedia. He knows all the issues better than anybody else and he can give you better advice than anyone else. He also has a wealth of contacts. If you need to talk to the president of Argentina or some other country, Brian knows them."

The late-afternoon light streams into Brian Mulroney's office on the 12th floor of a McGill College Avenue office tower. On his desk is a thick stack of paper that constitutes the memoirs he has written in longhand, about to be sent to his publisher, McClelland & Stewart; hanging behind the imposing bureau, a portrait of Mila and the kids. At the other end of the office is a large collection of framed photographs. There's Brian and the Bushes. Brian and Bill Clinton. Brian and Francois Mitterrand. Brian and Ronald Reagan. More Bushes. Brian and the Pope. Brian and Ted Kennedy. Another Bush.

Wearing a classic double-breasted blue pinstripe suit, the former prime minister looks rested and, on the eve of becoming a senior citizen, healthier than he has in years. In contrast to the dour and haggard man with the tired voice that Canadians remember from his final years in office, this Brian Mulroney is a chipper 65. Which is astonishing, considering the schedule he keeps. He has shown no inclination to slow down, despite a scare in 2002 when doctors detected an irregular heartbeat. Mulroney, who taps a pouch of Equal into his coffee, insists he is in fine shape and exercises regularly.

"The truth of the matter is that I work as hard today, if not harder, than I did when I was 35," he says. "But I'm having a great time doing it. I love it."

In the five weeks leading up to this interview, Mulroney has been in more airports than many people see in a lifetime. There was a jaunt with Desmarais to the White House for meetings with President George W. Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. A trip to South Africa for a meeting of the global advisory board of Independent News and Media Group - the Tony O'Reilly-controlled communications giant that owns some 200 newspapers - and a courtesy call on an old friend, Nelson Mandela. New York was next. There, he attended board meetings at Trizec Properties Inc., Peter Munk's U.S. real estate company, and Cendant Corp., the massive franchiser that owns such name brands as Century 21 and Coldwell Banker in real estate, Avis and Budget in car rentals, and Days Inn and Ramada in hotels. A couple of days later, Mulroney was in Toronto for a meeting of the Barrick Gold Corp. board. Then to Palm Beach to speak at an American Ireland Fund dinner with O'Reilly, who is chairman of the international Ireland Funds. After that, back to New York for a board meeting at America Online Latin America Inc., a Cisneros-controlled joint venture with Time Warner Inc.

To Montreal, then, for a day of meetings as co-chair of a committee struck by Quebec Premier Jean Charest to study Montreal's plan for two new superhospitals. The next couple of days at home were devoted to work at Quebecor Inc., where Mulroney is on the board of both the parent holding company and subsidiary Quebecor Media. Then a day in New York as chairman of printing behemoth Quebecor World Inc. Mulroney ended the month as the star attraction brought in by Steve Forbes - Mulroney is the chairman of Forbes Global, the international edition of Forbes - to entertain high-powered CEOs on the Forbes yacht, the Highlander, off the Florida coast.

Mulroney sits on 16 corporate boards or international advisory boards. He almost added another to the long list last fall, when he emerged as a key figure in New York hedge fund Cerberus Capital Management's bid to become struggling Air Canada's saviour. Mulroney, the fund's senior legal adviser, would have become the airline's chairman had the Cerberus offer been accepted. (Air Canada instead opted for the bid by Hong Kong-Canadian businessman Victor Li. But by early April, Li had all but pulled out, paving the way for a revival of the Cerberus offer.) Mulroney was recruited for the Cerberus gig by Dan Quayle, George Bush Sr.'s vice-president, who heads the hedge fund's international advisory board.

Such boards - which began popping up in the mid-1990s and are now a must-have for a global company - are a networker's dream. Mulroney sits on IABs with, among others, former U.S. secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, philanthropist David Rockefeller and Clinton insider Vernon Jordan. "You meet them socially, you become friendly," Mulroney explains. "When they're looking for lawyers in Canada, they'll call me. And vice versa. Or the CEO of one of the companies I'm involved with will call me and say, 'We're looking at spinning off a division in Europe. Do you think Hicks Muse [the Dallas-based leveraged buyout firm where Mulroney is a senior counsellor]would be interested?' " Mulroney's international advisory seats include J.P. Morgan Chase, the second-largest U.S. bank; Desmarais's Power Corp. of Canada; Frank Stronach's Magna International Inc.; General Enterprise Management Services Ltd., a Hong Kong-based investment fund run by former Li Ka-shing lieutenant Simon Murray; and China International Trust and Investment Corp. (CITIC), a huge state-owned conglomerate that specializes in joint ventures with non-Chinese partners. What do they expect from the former prime minister? "Geo-strategic evaluations," he offers. Most of his advice is highly confidential. Mulroney would never say if, for example, he has told CITIC whether he thinks George W. is toast in November. But he probably has.

His board work, Mulroney insists, is still secondary to his activities as a senior partner at Ogilvy Renault. "This is the cornerstone of my existence," he says of the firm he rejoined almost immediately after leaving office in 1993. "The promotion of the interests of Ogilvy Renault and its clients is my principal preoccupation."

Mulroney's name alone on the letterhead draws business to the firm. But he doesn't leave it at that. "He's always available to partners who like to introduce him to clients or CEOs or give talks to small groups," says Ogilvy Renault managing partner Raymond Crevier. "It's amazing the attraction he has. I've seen him talking to clients over dinner and they just stop everything and listen. He's got this Irish charm. In the past 15 years, [hiring Mulroney]is the best thing we've done as a firm."

Mulroney's job at Ogilvy Renault carries no salary. Nor does he take credit for the business he generates for the firm. When he snags a client, he immediately refers the catch to another partner. And when Mulroney chalks up billable hours on behalf of the firm, he credits it to the account of an associate. Mulroney's only remuneration for his activities at Ogilvy Renault comes from his share of the profits he derives as a partner.

Brian Mulroney was introduced to the realities of global business long before most of us. He was born in a town that owed its very existence to trade and border-crossing capital. The North Shore town of Baie Comeau was built a few years before Mulroney's birth in 1939 by Colonel Robert McCormick, to supply newsprint for his Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News. Mulroney's father, Ben, an electrician, went to work for McCormick's Quebec North Shore Paper Co., and the family settled on the English side of town, which was normally reserved for managers. Most residents of Baie Comeau stuck to their own. But young Brian easily straddled the town's two cultures, at ease with the working-class francophones with whom he fraternized at Catholic school and unintimidated by management-class Americans who ran the mill.

McCormick liked to fish near the town he had built. He also liked to be entertained. So it was that, on one of his fishing excursions to the North Shore, McCormick's PR man sought out a seven-year-old reputed to be a fine singer. Mulroney was escorted to Le Manoir, the hotel McCormick had built. Perched atop a piano, he asked McCormick what he wanted to hear. "And he said that his favourite song was Dearie but that I wouldn't know it because how could a kid from Baie Comeau be expected to know that. But I knew it and I sang it, and others as well," Mulroney told biographer L. Ian MacDonald in 1984. "And they gave me $50 and put me in the car and drove me home. And I gave it to my mother and she just about had cardiac arrest."

This anecdote has been appropriated by Mulroney's fans and critics alike. The fans say it illustrates the magnetism of his personality. The detractors say it shows how Mulroney was, from an early age, all too eager to please the rich and powerful.

To adopt the latter thesis, one has to assume a shallowness - not in Mulroney, but in those who have succumbed to his charms. Desmarais, Bush, Munk and Cisneros are a lot of things, but shallow they are not.

Mulroney was no stranger to the business world when he left politics. A gifted labour lawyer before entering public life in 1983, he had already established a successful business career that, while not making him rich, had certainly made him influential in Montreal financial circles. Two men above all had been the young Mulroney's mentors. They were Paul Desmarais and Pierre P{Zcaron}ladeau.

In 1964, 25-year-old Mulroney, fresh out of Laval University law school, joined the Montreal firm of Howard, Cate, Ogilvy. His salary was $5,200 a year. It was the same year that Péladeau, then 39, started the tabloid Journal de Montréal during a strike at La Presse, Quebec's dominant broadsheet. In 1967, the 40-year-old Desmarais bought La Presse; P{Zcaron}ladeau and Desmarais instantly became rival media barons. Like the papers they owned, the two men were a study in contrasts: Desmarais was understated, debonair and ultrafederalist; P{Zcaron}

Péladeau was boisterous, funny-looking and a Quebec nationalist. Yet both men took to Mulroney.

When workers at Le Journal de Montr{Zcaron}al unionized in the late 1960s, Péladeau called on Mulroney to negotiate the first collective agreement. In 1971, with La Presse once again embroiled in a lengthy labour conflict, Desmarais, too, turned to Mulroney. By that time, the dispute was already into its ninth month, and Péladeau's Journal was making deep inroads into La Presse's readership. "So, I thought of Brian Mulroney and said, 'We'll see whether he can be helpful,' " Desmarais recalls. "He was very helpful. He related well to the negotiating teams, both ours and the labour side. I think he had some influence on the labour leaders, such as [late Quebec Federation of Labour president]Louis Laberge. He got to know them and they trusted him." Within a week of Mulroney's involvement, the conflict was settled.

After that, Desmarais and his Power Corp. lieutenants regularly sought Mulroney's counsel. "We used him as a labour lawyer from time to time. But really he was more of a friend you would talk to whenever you had an idea you needed to bounce off someone," Desmarais says. "He's a pretty wise guy. He knew a lot of people, too. He got around a lot - more than I ever did."

Neither Desmarais nor Péladeau seemed to hold it against Mulroney that he had befriended, and simultaneously worked for, their chief competitor. Such was the extent of Mulroney's charm and legal skill. The same ease with competing interests - labour, management, Liberals, Péquistes - was evident in Mulroney's star turn on the Cliche inquiry into the construction industry in 1974.

Shortly after his first, unsuccessful bid for the Progressive Conservative leadership in 1976, Mulroney moved from a supporting role in the business world to the corner office, as president of the Iron Ore Co. of Canada, a subsidiary of Cleveland-based Hanna Mining. The position enabled Mulroney to not only demonstrate his managerial skill - he turned a troubled company into a highly profitable one and improved its labour relations record despite closing its Schefferville, Que., operations - but also to extend south his already considerable network. Iron Ore's parent had a high-powered board, and Mulroney made sure all of its members took note of his achievements.

By the time he had decided, for the second time, to make the leap from business to politics, Mulroney had accumulated no fewer than 10 notable directorships, including Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Standard Broadcasting (then controlled by Conrad Black) and Montreal's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, his favourite haunt.

His ability to win over almost anyone was the hallmark of Mulroney's quest for 24 Sussex Drive. But charm in itself is no match for the centrifugal tensions of actually being in power in Canada. Without the binding force of his ambition and personality, the coalition that Mulroney put together would split into no less than three parties - Reform, Bloc Quebécois and a PC rump. The Prime Minister's office was not, by the end, the most satisfying fit for Mulroney's abilities.

It was clear he was not headed for retirement when, at barely 54, he stepped down in 1993. Besides, he needed the money. As Iron Ore president, Mulroney evidently never earned more than $400,000 a year. For a decade he had lived on a politician's paltry salary, and his pension on leaving office barely topped $33,000. With four U.S.-college-bound children to support, having himself grown accustomed to finer tastes, and with a new $1.67-million Westmount home and $1 million in renovations to pay for, Mulroney's lifestyle required a salary in seven digits.

Perhaps it was this pressure that led him, shortly after leaving office, to accept a $300,000 consulting contract from Karlheinz Schreiber, the German-Canadian businessman whose name would come back to haunt Mulroney in the Airbus case. At the time, though, Schreiber had not been accused of any illegal activities. In the end, Mulroney didn't need Schreiber's business. His pro-market agenda as prime minister between 1984 and 1993 - centred around free trade, privatization and tax reform - had ingratiated him to big business and helped usher in an era where global networkers were indispensable to any ambitious company. As a recently retired head of state, Mulroney was on a first-name basis with some of the most powerful men and women on the planet. Combined with his people skills and head for business - he could actually read a balance sheet - he was an inviting catch for almost any major transnational corporation. The offers poured in.

Shortly before he left office, Mulroney lunched alone with a single guest. Peter Munk barely knew the outgoing prime minister, but had nevertheless requested the téte-a-téte. A couple of years earlier, Mulroney had made an indelible impression on the Hungarian-born entrepreneur after Munk stunned Bay Street with a $31.6-million gain on the stock options he held in his American Barrick Resources Corp. (now Barrick Gold Corp.). It was, at the time, the biggest payday ever recorded by a Canadian corporate boss. The Barrick chairman was pilloried in the media, accused of unabashed greed. But Munk - who had founded Barrick in 1983 and helped its stock price soar 11-fold from 1986 to 1991 - figured he deserved the reward. So did Mulroney. "I was in my office and the phone rang," Munk recalls. "Someone on the other end said, 'This is the office of the Prime Minister.' " Munk thought it was a joke. When a distinctive baritone voice came on the line, he realized it wasn't. "I just read about this coup you made and I want you to know that what Canada needs is many more Peter Munks," Mulroney declared. "I'm proud of you."

By 1993, Munk's mining empire was expanding rapidly around the globe, particularly in Latin America. Mulroney, who had just negotiated Canada's entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement, knew the area intimately. Munk naturally figured the former prime minister would be an excellent addition to Barrick's board, and that of its largest shareholder, Munk's Horsham Corp. "No one on our board knows the quality or quantity of people globally that Brian does," Munk says now. "He has got this unbelievable network that he has spent years and years developing. And he works enormously hard to maintain those contacts. That's why those contacts are so alive and useful. He wasn't born with them. He's not royalty."

Mulroney joined the boards of Barrick and Horsham in November, 1993, and was immediately granted options to buy 250,000 shares in each Munk firm. The options grant was unprecedented for a non-executive director of a Canadian company, and led shareholder-rights proponent William Riedl to wonder, "Are Mulroney's contacts worth that much?"

They were - Paul Desmarais, for instance. Munk and Desmarais had been acquaintances, but hardly anything so intimate as business partners. Mulroney changed that. The result was a Barrick-Power joint venture to develop gold deposits in China. Of course, the partnership would have been fruitless without the co-operation of the Chinese government. In early 1994, Mulroney took Munk to China, and asked Desmarais to come along. Desmarais was no slouch when it came to influencing the Chinese, having done business in the Communist colossus for years. Mulroney, though, had his own ins. The trio's dinner partner one night during the trip ended up being none other than Zhu Rongji, then head of the Chinese central bank, without whose accord access to the country's gold deposits would have been impossible. "The next day we met the Premier," says a still-stunned Munk. "This is a good example of how Brian uses his connections and contacts and turns them into international business opportunities for the companies he's involved with."

Another example: In 1994, Mulroney met with Argentinian President Carlos Menem and his Chilean counterpart, Eduardo Frei. Barrick had acquired mining concessions that straddled the historically contentious border between the two countries. Developing the mines promised to be a logistical nightmare, given laws that required miners to descend a mountain 48 kilometres and report to a border crossing before entering the part of the mine located in the neighbouring country. Mulroney, Munk says, got the countries to hammer out an agreement that allowed the Barrick workers to cross the border freely. "That was of enormous importance to us," says Munk.

In early 1995, Mulroney asked his friend George Bush to work for Barrick. Bush was reluctant. "I said, 'I have a policy, Brian. I don't go on [corporate]boards,' " explains the former U.S. president. "But Brian said, 'You wouldn't be on the board; you'll be a [senior honorary]adviser. I think this will be a wonderful experience for you.' And he was right." In 1996, Bush and Mulroney lobbied Indonesian President Suharto on behalf of Barrick's bid to win control of the Busang gold deposit in Borneo that had been discovered by Bre-X Minerals Ltd. (Is this what Munk meant when, according to Titans author Peter C. Newman, he once said Mulroney "knows every dictator in the world on a first-name basis?" Munk denies having made the comment.) Suharto, however, had a last-minute change of heart, and gave the concession to another company. That was a lucky thing for Barrick, Bush and Mulroney: What was supposed to be the world's biggest gold deposit ended up being the world's biggest mining fraud.

By 1998, Mulroney was crisscrossing Europe on Barrick's behalf. He was hired by the gold industry's World Gold Council to persuade European central banks to stop dumping their stocks of the precious metal willy-nilly into the market. Seconded by former Bank of Canada governor John Crow, Mulroney lobbied the continent's most powerful central bankers, presidents and prime ministers. The result was an agreement that is credited with stabilizing the metal's price.

Barrick occupied much of Mulroney's time during his early years out of office. But he earned far fatter paycheques from his speaking engagements during that period. Despite his oratorial prowess, Mulroney had no desire when he retired from politics to keep making speeches. When he was approached by Harry Rhoads Jr. of the Washington Speakers Bureau - the same agency that then represented Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher - Mulroney initially declined. It was Mila Mulroney, her husband says, who made him change his mind. "She said, 'Listen, you've made 11,000 speeches as a politician for nothing. Now it's time to get out and make a couple that you get paid for.' " Mulroney did far more than that. He took on dozens of engagements during his first few years out of office, talking largely about trade and leadership issues. At $45,000 (U.S.) a pop - plus expenses - Mulroney pocketed as much as $1 million (U.S.) a year from the gigs.

By late 1995, however, Mulroney would have neither the time nor the inclination to do much public speaking. His energies were consumed by a much more important endeavour - clearing his name. His reputation in Canada was already in tatters when he left office, one of the most unpopular prime ministers in history. But any chance of restoring his name seemed dead when it leaked out in 1995 that Mulroney had been named by the Canadian government in a letter requesting assistance from Swiss authorities in an RCMP investigation. The Mounties were looking into alleged illegal commissions paid on then government-owned Air Canada's $1.8-billion purchase of Airbus aircraft. The letter referred to "an ongoing scheme by Mr. Mulroney, [lobbyist Frank]Moores and [Karlheinz]Schreiber to defraud the Canadian government of millions of dollars."

News of the letter risked diminishing Mulroney's poor public standing even further. It also risked killing his business career.

"My wife and family and I had some very difficult times," Mulroney says. "There were some very sad moments when we were fighting off these accusations against this army of lawyers and experts financed by the taxpayers of Canada." But fight is exactly what Mulroney did, launching an unprecedented $50-million libel suit against the federal government. "Had the Chrétien government not tried to ruin my family and I with those false and malicious allegations, you would never have heard a peep out of me," says Mulroney, who had consciously kept a low profile in Canada after leaving office. "But I had to defend myself, the honour of my family and the good name of my government."

Mulroney had effectively called the Chrétien government's bluff. In January, 1997, the two parties reached an out-of-court settlement that saw Ottawa acknowledge that the allegations were unjustified and cover Mulroney's legal and public relations fees - a $2-million tab. Far more important than the money, however, was the apology that went with it. Still, it would be six more years before the RCMP closed its investigation in the case and fully exonerated Mulroney.

This "Kafkaesque nightmare" behind him, Mulroney is circumspect about the whole affair. Maybe he is saving the best for his memoirs. But he cannot resist turning the knife ever so subtly: "I've made it a practice for many years never to comment on the work of the police or their informants," he says with evident satisfaction. Then, turning to a cryptic quote from his political idol John Diefenbaker, he announces, "It is a long road that has no ash cans." Mulroney laughs heartily at this. Translation: What goes around, comes around.

When the Airbus allegations became public, Mulroney sent offers of resignation to Ogilvy Renault and all of the companies on whose boards he sat. They were rejected. Indeed, Archer Daniels Midland called on Mulroney to help it restore its own reputation.

Mulroney's appointment to the ADM board, his first after leaving office, seemed curious. It was a massive Midwestern agribusiness that made staples like vegetable oil and corn syrup. Mulroney had no expertise in that field. The company was known as a personal fiefdom of CEO Dwayne Andreas, who had run it with an iron fist for a quarter of a century, affording limitless opportunities for career advancement to his own family.

Andreas knew Paul Desmarais, and sat on Power's international advisory board. Another member of Power's board - and ADM's board - was Mulroney pal Ross Johnson, the Canadian-born ex-CEO of RJR Nabisco, whose spectacular attempt to take over his own company had been famously chronicled in Barbarians at the Gate.

But if personal relationships helped him land a job, Mulroney proved that they did not stop him from exercising his fiduciary duty. In July, 1995, ADM tapped Mulroney and former company chairman John Daniels to co-chair a board committee to craft the company's response to price-fixing allegations. The result was a massive overhaul of ADM's board and the departure of several Andreas cronies, including his son and heir apparent Michael Andreas, who later spent time in jail in connection with the scandal. Mulroney was the key figure in negotiating a settlement on the price-fixing charges that saw ADM pay $100 million (U.S.), a record antitrust fine at the time. Mulroney went head-to-head with Dwayne Andreas, then 78, who resisted the radical strategy, especially the sacrificing of his son.

Mulroney's work was lauded by analysts, who described him as "an important agent of change." The day the settlement was announced, ADM's shares hit a 52-week high. Mulroney had earned high regard within ADM too. After Dwayne Andreas stepped down in 1997, his successor, his nephew Allen Andreas, brought Mulroney into his inner circle as a member of his executive committee. "Brian was instrumental in guiding us during a period when we brought in a new code of ethics and revamped the entire structure of the board to meet new requirements that have since been put in place by the Securities and Exchange Commission," Allen Andreas says.

Dwayne Andreas was not the only high-powered CEO that Mulroney met through Paul Desmarais. In 1996, Mulroney went to a party at Desmarais's Montreal home that was also attended by Gustavo Cisneros, who sat with the host on the international advisory board of the Chase Manhattan Bank. Mulroney and Cisneros hit it off immediately. The two shared a common passion: free trade. "I had always had the greatest respect for Brian Mulroney as prime minister," says Cisneros, whose personal wealth is estimated at $4.6 billion (U.S.) and whose empire includes Venezuela's largest broadcaster, Peru's largest brewer and the Miss Venezuela contest. "Brian understood more than anybody else how important free trade was to Canadian prosperity. And I had been very involved in free trade discussions from a Latin-American point of view. So, I knew all about him."

Mulroney and Cisneros stayed in touch. The following year, when Cisneros was looking for directors for his Latin-American pay-TV company Ibero-American Media Partners Ltd., he thought of his new Canadian friend. Eventually, the friendship grew to include both men's wives and children. In 1999, they all went on a two-week safari in southern Africa. It was there that Cisneros learned just how plugged-in Mulroney really was. "He slept with a radio," Cisneros laughs. "So, in the morning, we would get a briefing on everything that was happening in the world. We were the most well-informed safari ever."

Mulroney recommended Cisneros - a fierce opponent of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has accused the media baron of complicity in the country's short-lived 2002 coup d'état - to another friend, Peter Munk. Cisneros joined Barrick's international advisory board in 2003, and its board of directors later that year.

Cisneros's partner in Ibero-American was Dallas-based leveraged buyout wizard Tom Hicks. By the late 1990s, his firm, Hicks Muse Tate & Furst Inc., had done deals worth more than $50 billion (U.S.) during its 15-year existence. Hicks also had become a major figure in pro sports, after personally buying the Dallas Stars and the Texas Rangers. The latter purchase in 1998 enabled Hicks's friend George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, to pocket a profit of at least $15 million (U.S.) on his initial $600,000 investment in the team.

After Cisneros recruited Mulroney for the Ibero-American board, Hicks asked the ex-prime minister to sit on Hicks Muse's Latin-American strategy board, scouting out investments and offering advice about the region's volatile political climate. Eventually, Mulroney became the chairman of that board and of the firm's European strategy board. Over dinner in Chile, in 2000, Hicks asked Mulroney to join the firm on a full-time basis. Mulroney declined, instead opting to become a senior counsellor with an undisclosed equity interest in the firm. In addition to identifying new investment opportunities, Mulroney was charged with recruiting high-profile names to the firm's advisory boards. His first catch? Henry Kissinger. "Brian's proven to be just what we hoped for. He's a sage adviser and he's got great judgment," says Hicks, citing Mulroney's involvement in Hicks Muse's $406-million purchase this year, with two bank-owned equity funds, of Canadian cable company Persona Inc.

Hicks also credits Mulroney with saving his partnership with Cisneros. After the 2001 merger of Ibero-American with El Sitio Inc., an Argentinian internet company, Cisneros and Hicks reached an impasse while renegotiating the terms of their ownership in the merged company, Claxson Interactive Group Inc. Mulroney summoned Hicks and Cisneros to a meeting at the latter's New York home. "It was one of those things that could have gone either way," says Hicks. "But because Brian had the trust of both sides, we were able to reach an agreement to redo our partnership very effectively."

Just what is the Mulroney magic that turns antagonistic rivals into concordant, if sometimes reluctant, partners? As a labour lawyer, Mulroney settled more disputes than a thousand schoolyard monitors put together. As a politician, he built the most impressive coalition in Canadian history. And now, as a business globetrotter, he continues to play matchmaker and marriage counsellor with uncanny success. "Instead of focusing only on the problem at hand, he focuses on human nature and the way people react," says his long-time confidant and former deputy chief of staff in Ottawa, Luc Lavoie, now an executive vice-president at Quebecor Inc. "He never bullies people and he makes sure that both sides in any negotiation come out of it with their dignity intact. And he never wears out. He can go on for hours, always with his eye on the ball."

Grupo Cisneros and Independent News are the lesser-known, in Canada, of the three media leviathans with which Mulroney is most closely associated. In early 1997, Mulroney reunited with his mentor, Pierre Péladeau, joining the board of Quebecor Printing Inc. Already overburdened with his other corporate and charitable obligations, Mulroney expected his involvement with the Péladeaus to end there. Fate would determine otherwise.

On Dec. 2 of that year, Pierre Péladeau suffered a massive heart attack. He lay in a coma for three weeks before his death on Christmas Eve. His sons, Pierre Karl, then 36, and Erik, 42, were ill-prepared for the loss of their father. Pierre Péladeau had left no clear succession plan in place. Chaos could have ensued. "A couple of months after Pierre died, the boys asked me to have lunch with them at le Club Saint-Denis," Mulroney says. "With the loss of their dad, they felt it might be helpful to have someone around with some grey in his hair, someone who knew the family, who knew the culture of the business, and who wouldn't be pushed around by anybody."

For the first couple of years, the relationship was mostly conducted through Ogilvy Renault, Quebecor's law firm. Mulroney offered advice or opened doors as requested. He was instrumental in Quebecor's first major foray into the English-language media business, the gutsy $983-million purchase of the Sun newspaper chain in 1998. And he played matchmaker the following year in Quebecor Printing's $1.4-billion (U.S.) bid for U.S. giant World Color Press Inc. New York leveraged buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts owned a quarter of World Color's stock, and was reluctant to tender its shares. "At a certain point we faced a deal-breaker," Pierre Karl P{Zcaron}ladeau says. "Because of his personal contact with Henry Kravis, Mr. Mulroney was able to get the parties together and get the transaction done."

Since then, Mulroney's role at Quebecor has grown exponentially. In 1999, he became chairman of Sun Media, stepping in as interim CEO of the country's second-biggest newspaper chain when his friend Paul Godfrey left in early 2000. Later in 2000, Mulroney defused an explosive battle between Péladeau and John Weaver, the CEO of newsprint producer Abitibi-Consolidated Inc.

Mulroney also put Péladeau and Ted Rogers back on speaking terms. In the venomous battle for Quebec cable giant Groupe Vid{Zcaron}otron Lt{Zcaron}e in 2000, Quebecor killed a friendly deal between Vidéotron's controlling shareholder, Andr{Zcaron} Chagnon, and Rogers Communications Inc. by enlisting the deep pockets of the Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec and going to court to quash a lock-up agreement between Chagnon and Rogers. Mulroney used an invitation to his daughter Caroline's wedding in September, 2000, to get his friends Rogers and Péladeau to bury the hatchet and begin thinking about deals they could do together. Rogers's cellphone unit has since become one of the principal sponsors of Star Académie, the mega-hit reality show that runs on Quebecor's TVA network, acquired in the Vidéotron deal.

Whether or not Péladeau views Mulroney as a father figure, there is no denying how deeply he values the older man's counsel. Despite their closeness, Péladeau remains unflinchingly deferential toward Mulroney, always addressing him with the polite "vous" and never the more familiar "tu." "Pierre Karl says 'vous' to a lot of people, but there are not many whom he has known for a long time that he still calls 'Mr.,' " says Péladeau's partner, TV producer and host Julie Snyder. "Mr. Mulroney represents for him the past, present and future. He is a reassuring presence, because he was a friend of his father and his father had so much respect for Mr. Mulroney."

Péladeau is not the only jeune loup Mulroney has taken under his wing. He is a big backer of New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord, and has dispensed career advice to the ambitious 38-year-old, who considered running for the federal Conservative Party leadership this year. "He wouldn't push me one way or the other," Lord says. "But he told me what to expect." In anticipation of Lord's eventual rise to the national stage, Mulroney has also helped the young premier to network. In July, 2002, he organized a retreat with Lord at Larry's Gulch, a provincial government-owned lodge on the Restigouche River, famous for its salmon fishing. The guest list included Péladeau, Paul Desmarais Jr., then-Barrick CEO Randall Oliphant, Tom Hicks, Allen Andreas and a special guest--the elder George Bush. The latter remembers the weekend fondly, although, he laments, "the promise was to get some fish, which we got none of." Adds Lord: "What struck me in those few days was the real friendship [Mulroney]had with these people, especially Mr. Bush."

Bush, Hicks, Cisneros, Desmarais, Péladeau, O'Reilly, Andreas, Munk, Forbes. This is the core of Mulroney's international network. It remains so solid, Desmarais Sr. explains, "because he works at his relationship with people. If you read the newspapers, you'd think nobody likes Brian Mulroney. But the fact is, he is much more than Gucci shoes. He's an extraordinary man."

He has also become an extraordinarily wealthy one. Mulroney has pocketed millions in stock option gains over the past decade. A cursory glance at a few recent management proxy circulars indicates that he will get $200,000 (U.S.) this year as a director of ADM, $188,000 (U.S.) at Cendant (where he holds 420,625 options and shares) and a $75,000 (U.S.) director's fee at Barrick, in addition to an undisclosed salary as chairman of the company's international advisory board. In the past, Mulroney's consulting on Barrick's behalf has earned him an annual stipend of as much as $462,000 (U.S.). Mulroney also holds 350,000 Barrick options. He shares in the profits at Ogilvy Renault and owns equity in Hicks Muse Tate & Furst. Were he a CEO, his annual take from all of his business activities would likely place him near the top of the best-paid list.

And, at retirement age, he shows no signs of slowing down. Next month, Mulroney will be in New York, Texas, Beijing, Shanghai, London and Dublin on business. It's as if the past year, marked by his exoneration in the Airbus affair and the reappraisal of his legacy as prime minister, has energized Mulroney. Indeed, more than wealth, it is recognition that the boy from Baie Comeau values most. "He enjoys the contrast between where he came from and where he is today," says Mulroney's friend Jonathan Deitcher, a Montreal stockbroker. "It makes what he does more meaningful to him." Deitcher recalls a dinner in the ballroom of the Chateau Frontenac hotel in Quebec City during the 1987 royal visit. Deitcher was eager to know what Mulroney was whispering to the Queen as the two sat at the head table. He was telling her, his friend recounted, that his father was one of the electricians who wired the room decades before.

Mulroney must have been imbued with this same pride at his glittering party in Palm Beach. He had not invented a past to gain a spot in the rarefied world of the rich. He had written the story himself.

Mulroney's Network Paul Desmarais (MONTREAL): The Power Corp. patriarch is the source point of Mulroney's global web

Pierre Karl Péladeau (MONTREAL): Mulroney's longest and deepest involvement is with Quebecor, lately as counsel to hot-tempered "PKP"

Allen Andreas (DECATUR, ILL.): The Andreas clan called on Mulroney to clean up after a scandal at agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland

Steve Forbes (NEW YORK): The publisher made Mulroney chairman of Forbes Global

George Bush Sr. (HOUSTON): He and Mulroney bonded during the Reagan years, and later collaborated on NAFTA

Tom Hicks (DALLAS): Mulroney is a senior counsellor to the LBO wizard's firm, Hicks Muse Tate & Furst

Gustavo Cisneros (CARACAS): The Latin Rupert Murdoch esteems Mulroney's advice at AOL Latin America

Tony O'Reilly (DUBLIN): Mulroney is on the global advisory board of the media baron's Independent News and Media Group

Peter Munk (SWITZERLAND/ TORONTO): His Barrick Gold was a focus of Mulroney's first post-PM work.

Munk relies on Mulroney for contacts and problem-solving around the world

Follow Konrad Yakabuski on Twitter: @konradyakabuskiOpens in a new window

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