There are several types of political biographies. One serves to shower praise and burnish legacies once the politician in question has been put to pasture. Jean Chrétien has been the subject of more than one of these tomes, Bob Plamondon’s The Shawinigan Fox being only the most recent. As Lawrence Martin did in his mostly flattering take of Jean Chrétien’s life, Iron Man, Plamondon in his book revels in how the screw-faced little man from the Quebecois sticks fought expectations (not to mention separatists, Paul Martin, and Liberal party stalwarts) to become prime minister.
Another type, usually written while the politician is still active, exists to take stock and either quiet or amplify the noise made during his or her tenure. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, very much in the latter category, presents Donald Trump exactly as you’d expect: monstrously insecure, easily swayed, allergic to all truths—a beta man masquerading as an alpha male president.
In contrast, Paul Wells’s The Longer I’m Prime Minister, published in what turned out to be Stephen Harper’s last years in office, brought nuance to our twenty-second prime minister’s tenure. Yes, Stephen Harper is a bit of a jerk. No, he isn’t the hard-right religious and economic ideologue presented to us by his opposition and a fair chunk of the Ottawa press corps.
A third type is written as reappreciation of a despised political figure. With Duplessis, Conrad Black took a very respectable stab at the demonized Maurice Duplessis, making the case that Quebec actually flourished economically under the (admittedly very large) thumb of the late premier. In Hoover, Ken Whyte did much the same for Herbert Hoover, punting aside the narrative, echoed by mainstream historical record, that the U.S. president facilitated the collapse of the Western world’s economy.
Master of Persuasion, a look at the foreign policy of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, betrays its type and intent in its first two sentences. At a tidy 288 pages, the book, written by Fen Osler Hampson, a professor at Carleton University with a fine pedigree—his talents were honed at Harvard and the London School of Economics—nonetheless has lofty aspirations. Not only does it set out to make the case that prime minister Mulroney’s foreign policy was the most ambitious and successful since Lester Pearson’s—perhaps even more so, Hampson intones—it argues that Mulroney the diplomat is as crucial a figure today in this shambolic Trump era as he was during the good old days of the Gulf War and acid rain.
“This book was written to fill a void: there is no single-authored book on the global legacy of Brian Mulroney,” Hampson writes in the preface. “This is more than an oversight given the many tomes that have been written about the foreign policy achievements of Canada’s other post-war prime ministers, especially Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau.”
He doesn’t come right out and say it, but Hampson clearly believes that the oversight is intentional and exists because of the ideological persuasions of most journalists and historians. Conservative, conspicuously self-assured, and (worst of all) fervently pro-American, Brian Mulroney was a walking caricature to much of Canada’s political and journalistic establishment in the 1980s. Weaned on the anti-American tendencies of Pierre Trudeau, this establishment saw Canadian prime ministers as Asterix and Obelix figures, feisty, indomitable men who stood as bulwarks against America’s hefty economic, cultural, and military incursions. Mulroney’s chumminess with Ronald Reagan weakened this fortress; free trade with America destroyed it altogether. So the establishment demonized Mulroney during his decade in office and all but ignored him afterwards.
It’s a simplistic argument, and one made with the blinkered enthusiasm of a diehard Mulroney partisan. But Hampson has a point. Mulroney’s legacy has produced many scathing literary works, almost all focusing on his Airbus-related overindulgences. Some are worthy, like Stevie Cameron’s On the Take and Peter C. Newman’s The Secret Mulroney Tapes. Others, like Marci McDonald’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, marinate in useless anti-American hysteria. Mulroney’s transgressions effectively blinded journalists and historians to his foreign policy record; by focusing entirely on it in this downright friendly work, Hampson seeks to re-imagine the much-maligned eighteenth prime minister.
Hampson has it easy. Mulroney’s foreign policy is not a difficult record to defend or promote. His successes are many and undeniable—combatting acid rain, the push for an end to famine in Ethiopia, free trade with the U.S., and liberalized trade with Asia—though tempered by Mulroney’s own human rights concerns in China following the Tiananmen Square massacre. His loud anti-apartheid voice on the world stage helped put an end to the egregious South African regime.
In most cases, Mulroney achieved all these without the benefit of public opinion. As a point of comparison, Justin Trudeau rose to the top politically when it was safe, even necessary, to be pro-environment and smugly progressive. Mulroney railed against apartheid when other politicians were paying lip service to its horrors (as Pierre Trudeau did) or wholeheartedly in favour of its continued existence (see Margaret Thatcher), and the country’s business community was heavily invested in the South African economy. He took on acid rain when it was a problem obsessing only environmentalists, and in the face of yawning indifference from the Reagan administration. Mulroney brought Canadian resources to bear in Ethiopia, saving tens of thousands of lives in the process at a time when most Canadians couldn’t place the country on a map.
The gulf between Trudeau père’s words and Mulroney’s actions doesn’t escape Hampson’s attention—though he sets his targets more, and justifiably, on Justin Trudeau’s rhetoric, which is even more lofty than his father’s. “Canada must lead with tangible deeds—put its own skin into the game instead of making empty pious rhetorical pronouncements,” Hampson writes.
Free trade was Mulroney’s potential foreign-affairs Waterloo, if only because so much of the country’s establishment was so vociferously against it. For many, removing protective tariffs from American products was akin to treason, and it sparked all measure of rhetoric from Mulroney’s Liberal opposition. One Liberal attack ad from the 1988 election campaign showed two businessmen straight out of central casting erasing the Canadian border. “[Free trade] turns Canada into a colony of the United States,” thundered the Liberal platform.
This was a ripe time for Mulroney’s many satirists, who pilloried his penchant for extravagance and often-breathless love for America. Perhaps the most enduring spectacle of Mulroney’s foreign policy wasn’t curbing acid rain or tackling famine in Ethiopia. It was when he and Reagan took the dais at a 1985 meeting in Quebec City to belt out a warbly version of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” The event had it all: tacky spectacle, conspicuous power, and a far-too-close appreciation for America’s John Wayne president.
“The first prime minister of our country to have emerged from the working class, Mulroney courted the rich, luxuriating on their parvenu Florida estates, and dressed as if he hoped to be invited to pose for a GQ fashion spread,” wrote Mordecai Richler in 1993. Funny as they were, Richler’s words were just that: words. And considering the profile of our current prime minister—born into wealth, courted by the ultra-rich, splashed onto the pages of Vogue—they haven’t aged well. And at about the same time as Richler was writing them, Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien happily implemented the North American Free Trade Agreement—an expansion of 1988’s free trade agreement that Mulroney negotiated before he left office in 1993. In polite society, we’d call Chrétien a hypocrite. In politics, it’s called expediency. It was also the best compliment to Mulroney’s foreign policy legacy; even his enemies eventually came around.
There are certain advantages to focusing on Mulroney’s foreign policy for the biographer determined to rehabilitate his subject. Diplomacy is a charm offensive in which the diplomat necessarily accentuates the good at the expense of the bad. Mulroney could easily hide his excesses on the world stage. The mechanics of gaining power in the first place are a touch more messy—particularly when the would-be diplomat must make his bones in the caustic political culture of his native Quebec.
For a convincing (albeit brief) look into how Mulroney did this we turn to Luc Lavoie. A journalist-turned-political-advisor-turned-executive, Lavoie is perhaps best known to politicians and hacks alike for his long-running tenure at the dearly departed Café Henri Burger and the bar at Hy’s Steakhouse.
Slitty and gravelly-voiced, Lavoie loved to kibitz with the very people who either opposed or covered his boss. Appropriately, his memoir, En première ligne, is written in this folksy, mildly boozy style of Lavoie in the flesh. Like Mulroney, he came from a small Quebec town on the St. Lawrence. Like Mulroney, he knew instinctively the importance of learning the “other” language—English in his case, French in Mulroney’s.
Lavoie first met his eventual boss in 1981, when Mulroney was but a wealthy and telegenic mining executive. His singular pursuit of the Progressive Conservative leadership was something to behold. In Master of Persuasion, Hampson writes of Mulroney’s great regard for Joe Clark, by then foreign minister in Mulroney’s cabinet. In En première ligne, Mulroney is a shark who, in 1982, publicly supported Clark’s leadership while secretly ensuring its collapse. “No doubt Joe thought, with a naiveté of which I know he is capable, that he had control of his party,” Lavoie writes. Instead, Lavoie watched as Mulroney sank a dagger between Clark’s shoulder blades. Lavoie went to work for Mulroney as an advisor within the year.
Karma’s a bitch, in the words of a Riverdale-era Veronica Lodge. Mulroney suffered monumental treachery some eight years later at the hand of Lucien Bouchard. Mulroney plucked Bouchard, an old friend from his Université Laval days, to be ambassador to France. Bouchard would become a key minister in Mulroney’s cabinet before leaving its fold in 1990, allegedly over the incapacity of the Mulroney government to pass the Meech Lake accord.
This was bad enough, but then Bouchard made it sting. He went on to form the separatist Bloc Québécois, the federal party that existed only to aid Quebec’s departure from Canada. He then served as official Opposition leader before leading Quebec to the brink of separation in 1995. Lavoie, a devoted federalist and even more devoted Mulroney confidant, added diplomat to the list. To this day he plays envoy between Mulroney and Bouchard, passing along messages and massaging still-bruised egos.
And their breakup is nothing if not an enduring sore point in both men’s lives. Lavoie served as intermediary of sorts at Maurice Richard’s funeral, in 2000, to ensure the two men didn’t cross paths. “I had to negotiate with those in charge to make sure they weren’t placed close together,” Lavoie writes. “[Mulroney] called me when he was two streets away from the church to make sure Bouchard had gone in before he would show up.”
Thirteen years later, nearly a quarter century after their falling out, Mulroney again did much the same little dance to avoid Bouchard at the funeral of a mutual friend. It’s an abiding lesson from the Mulroney era. Treachery’s fine, as long as you’re not on the receiving end of it.
In concentrating on Mulroney’s foreign policy, Master of Persuasion is like a P.K. Subban highlight reel—all the seemingly effortless master strokes without the many self-inflicted mistakes. The Mulroney in En première ligne is scrappy, mean, precious, and occasionally petty. Taken together, they give us a very decent portrait of a man who worked to be appreciated despite himself.