I eagerly opened the package that contained advance proofs of Paul Wells’s Right Side Up: The Fall of Paul Martin and the Rise of Stephen Harper’s New Conservatism, since I had always admired his astute reporting and enjoyed his witty writing, and this was his first book. Whatever quarrels I had to pick with him pertained to his questionable taste in jazz, but he could justifiably say the same about me.
Little did I realize, until I read the review copy’s accompanying note from Ruta Liormonas of McClelland and Stewart’s promotion department, that this volume was meant to be my professional obituary. Her letter described Wells as “the new Peter C. Newman” and claimed that “this book … will stake his claim to that title.”
We writers may not be good at home repairs or filling out tax forms, and shy away from any toys or gadgets that carry the warning “batteries not included.” But being Canadian scribblers, we know about survival. My first thought was that perhaps the prescient Ruta knew something I did not, so I rushed to the bathroom and took my blood pressure: 136/86—not bad, considering my new status in the literary purgatory to which she had consigned me. Then I settled down to contemplate my fate. After all, my most recent books (the autobiography Here Be Dragons and The Secret Mulroney Tapes) had together sold more than 100,000 copies, and my uber-agent, Michael Levine, was actively negotiating a contract for my next three works with, among others, Doug Pepper, who heads McClelland and Stewart.
But what if Ms. Ruta was right?
Obviously, this was the moment to activate my high-priority fallback position: if Paul Wells was going to be me, why couldn’t I be him? I would rejoin Maclean’s as its Ottawa editor, a job I had held with distinction during the heady days of the Boer War, and we could both go our merry ways. It seemed like a fair trade under the circumstances.
Paul Wells’s new book is a useful and often amusing guide to Canadian politics of the past decade or so. First as a National Post columnist and later as Maclean’s Ottawa pundit, he has covered the Ottawa scene with verve and just the right dollop of cynicism. Except for three central chapters, previously published in Maclean’s, it is new material and reads like it.
Non-fiction books flow out of three disciplines: research, writing and structure. Wells’s research is impressive because he was there, on the spot during the decade that this book covers, taking notes, analyzing trends as well as reporting the news. Right Side Up’s structure is so smooth that the text seems seamless, as alternating chapters switch between describing each of Wells’s defining characters in motion, at the precisely appropriate moments.
The book suffers from its writing style: Wells has talent to burn, but is too stingy with his grace notes. Because his prose at times verges on police-blotter reportage (“Just the facts, ma’am”), Right Side Up lacks the literary dimensions that might have made it a political classic.
The book’s otherwise breakneck pace is lumpily disrupted by his use of stage directions. Every few pages, Wells inserts a redundant aside to readers, as in: “As we’ll see”; “Look, I’ll understand if you don’t buy it”; “We’ll get back to that”; “Probably I’m overcomplicating things”; “Let’s pause to consider how scary this was” and so on.
The assignment of a chronicler dedicated to bottling the authentic vintage of a political era—or any other sustained activity with heavy consequences—is not only to report what was being said, but also to describe the participants’ gestures, habits, manners, glances, poses, accents, blink rates, hand signals. Recreating in greater detail the ambiance of the dramatic events that animate this book would have helped obliterate the distance between the author’s observations and his audience’s perceptions. Too often Right Side Up readers will feel they are once removed, merely observing the author watch his cast perform the painful interactions between their character and the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Our mother tongue is body language, and it never lies. Yet Wells hardly ever resorts to its verities. Most of his subjects remain talking heads—torso-less, inanimate mouthpieces who trumpet their mantras like members of a walk-on Greek chorus, chanting from their sheet music.
Observed reality can only be turned into felt life if the author’s approach is visual, sensual and emotional. Wells fails to realize that to evoke the mood of an event is as vital as summarizing its substance. In Canada, geography determines destinies and ought not to be ignored. Wells goes with dialogue instead, so that his book occasionally reads more like a stage play than the thoughtful synthesis of a country in painful—and occasionally farcical—transition, as we searched for new political gods.
Nietzsche argued that language was originally developed to shield humankind from the bewildering welter of reality. To be effective, writers must nurture their individual voices instead of hiding behind the institutionalized anonymity of their publications or imprints, even one as distinguished as Doug Gibson’s. That voice—the writer’s identity—is the most essential element in validating the author’s claim to authenticity. It has long been my contention that storytellers, which is what good non-fiction writers must be, succeed by emphasizing feelings over facts. This Wells does not attempt to deliver, I would argue, to the readers’ loss.
Now, since the “current Newman” has felt obliged to review the “future Newman” by advancing some modest suggestions for his consideration (or, more likely, rapid rejection), the question remains: does Wells deliver the goods? What do we actually learn about the last decade of federal politics in Right Side Up that we didn’t know from our morning Globe and Mail?
Quite a lot, actually, and, despite my critique, well worth the price of admission.
Some of the era’s key mysteries remain unsolved, such as what Paul Martin really knew about the annual $50 million that leaked out of his budgets to finance the Quebec advertising scandals. We never find out why the RCMP abandoned normal procedure and at the climax of the 2006 campaign revealed its criminal investigation into alleged income trust leaks, grievously wounding the already crippled Liberals. Who fed the Ottawa bureau of Canadian Press the details of the Liberals’ 2006 campaign before they were due to be announced?
Wells is at his best describing Martin’s descent into dithering irrelevance. He also gives a good reading of Martin’s praetorian guard—Terrie O’Leary, Tim Murphy, David Herle, Elly Alboim, Scott Reid and a few others—who, in another life, must have been Japanese kamikaze pilots and now exercised their suicidal skills on his behalf. They were the agents of Martin’s downfall in the sense that they encouraged his tendency to live in denial. “If he could get the job done by running away from the plain evidence of his actions, he would keep running,” Wells notes. “He learned nothing was his fault. He learned his friends could do no wrong. He learned to be ruthless toward dissent—or rather to send hard men to be ruthless on his behalf. He learned to believe he was owed high reward without serious competition. He learned to value platitude over decision.”
In other words, Paul Martin evolved an unerring instinct for his own jugular. It never failed him; as described in Halifax columnist Brian Flemming’s felicitous phrase, “none of his good intentions went unpunished.” He was the Inspector Clouseau of Canadian politics.
Stephen Harper, who is the beneficiary of Wells’s most astute analysis, is shadowed by the author in his journey from his days as an earnest policy wonk who acted as if he had been weaned on a pickle to the cool-dude prime minister he has since become. He was not always that supremely rational creature staring us down on our TV screens. Wells recalls the home stretch of the 2004 election, which found Harper unprepared and stumbling, lashing out at his entourage: “I can’t fucking believe there’s no fucking script for tomorrow,” he bellows at them. “I want some fucking answers! And I want a fucking script!” Then he stops, ponders for a moment and adds: “I also want to know why nothing ever happens unless I use the word fuck.”
By the end of that campaign, which Martin’s advisors had predicted he would win with 220 ridings, Martin salvaged only 135 seats, the first Liberal minority in a quarter century. He blamed everyone except himself, and pushed aside such valuable party stalwarts as the ardent Sheila Copps, the visionary Stéphane Dion and the invaluable Francis Fox, who had been his principal secretary. Scott Reid’s remark about parents using their Harper-sponsored daycare subsidies to “buy beer and popcorn” will go down in political infamy (even if he was right). Martin received only 30 percent of the votes, the lowest share for the Liberals since Confederation, except for John Turner’s 1984 annihilation.
Wells describes turncoat trade minister David Emerson as “one of the most beatifically gormless amateurs ever to stumble into electoral politics without pausing to consider how it works.” He has a masterful take on Jean Charest reluctantly accepting his transition from federal Conservative leader to become a candidate to head Quebec’s provincial government: “Charest really didn’t want to go; he left fingernail marks along Highway 417 halfway to Montreal.”
The book’s last 50 pages are an anticlimax in the sense that Wells dives into the political quicksand of trying to make sense of the Liberal leadership race without accounting for its latest pratfalls. He would have done better to end Right Side Up with Paul Martin’s abdication and Stephen Harper’s move into office.
The Wells book is essential reading for anyone interested in tracing the long, winding road we travelled from the thuggish stewardship of Jean Chrétien to the tragicomic interregnum of Paul Martin and the current reign of the enigmatic Stephen Harper. I predict that Right Side Up will be the first of many Paul Wells bestsellers. Even if he isn’t “the new Peter Newman” (which requires a body of work), he may well be the next Peter Newman. I hope so.
Peter C. Newman wrote many books, including Mavericks: Canadian Rebels, Renegades and Anti-Heroes and Heroes: Canadian Champions, Dark Horses and Icons.