An Insider Speaks

A handbook on the practical art of politics comes by way of story-filled memoir.

Memories and memoirs are two very different species. The latter are usually like leisurely train trips through concerns, ideas and causes that define the author’s life, career and worldview. They can on occasion suffer from a touch of self-importance. Michael Decter’s Tales from the Back Room: Memories of a Political Insider is more like a whirlwind helicopter tour that drops in on different times, events and people. “Stories are as important to politics as facts are to science,” he notes with characteristic conciseness in his introduction. “In the end, politics must be entertaining just as life must be entertaining or who could bear either?”

His velocity and flight path are not burdened by self-importance, but by a traveller’s delight at discovery and nuance during different epochs of a life that has included roles as deputy minister, cabinet secretary (in not one but two provinces), author of vital and analytical reports, sought-after potential federal Liberal candidate, leader of healthcare reform, and accomplished financial advisor and money manager. Modesty makes the political stories from each of these career phases come alive. It unveils, in ways that self-importance only obscures, the true nature of the events and personalities described. The result is a gem of a book whose lack of self-reverence contributes significantly to its readability and fun.

Decter’s years as a political insider, lasting from the 1970s to the 1990s, were largely spent working for NDP stalwarts such as Ed Broadbent, Ed Schreyer and Howard Pawley. For a time, he did yeoman’s service for the Bob Rae government in Ontario, although, as his reminiscences make clear, this turned out to be an extremely challenging period that precipitated some intense soul–searching and resulted in a major shift of professional focus. His commitment to the NDP was the result of an intensely political upbringing in Winnipeg as the offspring of a well-off surgeon and a left-wing activist.

Once he returned to Canada after his graduation from Harvard in economics, he was already making his mark as a pragmatically minded Young Turk in the party—one whose staunch party loyalty was coupled with a welcome taste for policy complexity. Decter makes it clear that his early career working in the Manitoba administrations of Ed Schreyer and Howard Pawley was particularly rewarding, and it is in describing these years that his penchant for nostalgic reminiscence is most in evidence. From his dealings with Pierre Trudeau (whose “icy Gallic intellect” merits Decter’s evident respect) to John Diefenbaker (who receives equally -glowing -treatment thanks to his skills as a rhetorician), Decter describes the who, what and where of different events and circumstances with good humour and occasional childlike awe, beneath which lurks an economist’s analytical bent.

There are times when Decter lavishes with praise or pulls no punches. Those deemed callow, self-preening or unable to walk by a microphone or who cannot be less than forthright are identified, often humorously but identified still. One need not agree with all of Decter’s judgements to benefit from their clarity. That he is kinder in this regard to those endowed with an honestly admitted character flaw or to those on the centre-left should not surprise.

One of his more affecting stories features one of his heroes, Stanley Knowles, and the colourful Conservative federal politician George Hees on the night of a tribute dinner for Knowles:

The speakers and head table notables assembled in the green room before the dinner began. Stanley was tired and lay down on a long couch to gather his strength for the -evening.

George Hees, aging Tory front bencher with his mane of grey hair and handsome face, arrived in the room. He spied Stanley and knelt down on the floor beside the couch where he lay resting.

Hees began, “Stanley, none of us are here because we have to be here. We are all here because we want to be here.” He paused and then he added, “We all love you.”

We all heard his words and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

René Lévesque is treated in equally affectionate terms, as Decter relates an evening during his student days when he and a Canadian journalist gatecrashed the Harvard Business School where the Parti Québécois leader was giving an unexpectedly anodyne pro-business speech. The young Decter’s faith in Lévesque’s rebel instincts was salvaged afterward when he witnessed Lévesque’s heated argument with a vocal American pharmaceuticals executive:

—–Whatever he hoped to accomplish at the Harvard Business School, Lévesque could not abide being seen on the same side as this pharmaceutical company blowhard. He launched a long tirade against the global pharmaceutical industry, puffing on his cigarette all the while and jabbing at this pudgy representative of the American business class. This was more like the old Lévesque …

We toasted each other before parting—Lévesque, the woman journalist and I. We were three Canadians in the heart of the American Empire, three Canadians with quite different destinies but with a strange sense of camaraderie -nevertheless.

Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the author’s political preferences, Brian Mulroney is covered less lovingly, although even here Decter shows a dash of humour: “He is what my Irish mother would call a ‘chancer,’ a wonderful Irish expression which is much kinder than suggesting that someone might be dishonest, but, heaven forbid, not an outright liar.” Meanwhile Decter is nonpartisan enough at another point in his book to recall with approval Mulroney’s strong support for Howard Pawley’s attempt to introduce a bilingualism bill in the Manitoba legislature.

Not all of Decter’s stories deal with politicians. Particularly memorable is his recounting of the understated wit of Queen Elizabeth on the last day of one of her more exhausting Canadian royal tours. “I suppose I am doing something new and novel this morning before the plane home,” the Queen remarked with her usual clipped seriousness as she and Decter descend the hotel elevator in preparation for the day’s engagements. “Am I cutting a ribbon or unveiling a plaque?” “One of each, Your Majesty,” is Decter’s rueful answer.

Laden with vignettes such as this, Tales from the Back Room remains an appetizer for a fuller treatment that Decter is very much capable of. The rich mix of Canadian political, policy, business and cultural life sampled here suggests that an integrated memoir that attempts a more coherent analysis of broader meanings and linkages would, from this author, be a delight and gift. Leaving the reader hungry for more is, these days, no mean feat. Decter does it in spades.

People with Decter’s reach and breadth are few and far between. Unfortunately our public policy schools lack the deep resources of their American counterparts to retain the skills and deep knowledge of such individuals as intellectual sources for perspective, insight, context and understanding—especially on the complex financial and governance formulae at the centre of government. If Decter does attempt a more integrated memoir, then this reviewer would like to suggest that he could do worse than be inspired by Allan Gotlieb’s treatment of his time as Canadian ambassador to the United States under Trudeau and Mulroney. The Washington Diaries, 1981–1989 is not only a tour de force but also an inspired teaching tool for the art of diplomatic service for one’s country in one of the more complex imperial capitals of our time.

As for Tales from the Back Room, its entertaining mix of foibles, fun, nostalgia and amusing character assessments makes it a bed-and-breakfast travelogue through Canadian politics. Decter’s success and style in this book should evoke demands for the next. Whether his next book is formally a memoir or a cross-referenced analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the federal-provincial core at the governing centre of how we live our Canadian lives, Decter has much left to tell us.