Monday, November 12, 2007

Bart's Books - Mulroney's Memoirs

It’s been interesting reading through Brian Mulroney's Memoirs over the past two weeks, especially given the whirlwind of controversy that has enveloped him. Although the book is over a thousand pages long, it’s a great source of information and fascinating enough that I could probably have read another couple hundred pages. And even though Mulroney is arrogant, spiteful, and incredibly self-biased throughout the book, I can’t help but feeling a little bit sorry for him over the Schreiber stuff. And that sympathy alone is proof enough that he has injected some personal humanity into the book. In short, Memoirs is one of the best political books I’ve read in years.

Unlike Bill Clinton’s equally lengthy autobiography, Mulroney doesn’t dwell on his childhood and plunges into content that will appeal to politicos within 30 pages. Mulroney’s recap of young Tory events, political conventions, and his early encounters with politicians of the day like Diefenbaker or Paul Martin Sr. are as interesting as the stories from his time as PM. Mulroney also manages to tie early events to later ones by including journal entries from his time as PM throughout the book.

As for the man himself and his record? Mulroney was one of the most successful Prime Ministers on the international scene in Canadian history. He led the charge against apartheid in South Africa, negotiated Acid Rain and Free Trade treaties with the Americans, and certainly appears to have managed G7 politics with finesse – at least by his accounts. Given the amount of ink he uses to recount his many fights with Margaret Thatcher on apartheid, it’s clear that Mulroney regards it as his finest accomplishment as Prime Minister and he certainly deserves full marks for moving Canada into a leadership role internationally on the file.

That’s the good. As you might expect, Mulroney glosses over the black marks on his government. The parade of ministerial resignations is casually ignored and some clever accounting numbers are used to paint his lackluster economic record in a positive light. However, Mulroney does anything but ignore his largest failing – instead, the national unity struggles of the day are centre stage throughout the book.

Mulroney’s university thesis was on Quebec politics and he won the PC leadership on a promise of a Quebec breakthrough. For Mulroney, this was really his raison d'être in politics and, because of that, he considers the end of Meech “a death in the family” that has left him with “a throbbing sense of loss for one of the greatest might-have-beens in Canada’s 140 year history”. It’s truly remarkable just how many references Mulroney makes to Meech throughout the book and how virulent and vindictive he becomes when discussing the deal which was “suffocated in a cruel act of political infanticide by the premier of Newfoundland.” That’s just one of at least 20 or 30 pejorative references to Clyde Wells throughout the book. And Wells got off easy compared to the man who haunts Mulroney still.

When Memoirs was first launched, there was a big brouhaha over its attacks on Trudeau. Mulroney is a vicious critic of the 1982 constitutional repatriation in the book and takes every opportunity to belittle Trudeau and his accomplishments. The weird thing is, the journal entries pre-1987 where Trudeau is mentioned are mostly positive – it's clear that Mulroney can’t forgive Trudeau for having the audacity to speak out against a constitutional deal that P.E.T. (and many Canadians) clearly could not accept on an intellectual level. Just as it was Trudeau’s right to attack Meech, Mulroney certainly has the right to fight back in his memoirs but he loses all credibility when he resorts to ad hominen attacks, trying to discredit Trudeau because he didn’t serve in the military 40 years before the Meech affair (and, in that sentence, the “he didn’t serve in the military” refers to Trudeau, although it should could just as easily apply to Brian). It appears Mulroney himself would agree with my assessment in a deliciously ironic passage, just 12 pages after his attack on Trudeau’s military record:

I may well be wrong, but I think [Trudeau] mitigated whatever value his arguments might otherwise command by such a violent and vicious diatribe against so many people –living and dead – that he appears unhinged.

But these are just the sort of fun contradictions that make the book an enjoyable read, even for Liberals. How can you do anything but chuckle when Mulroney attacks the Liberals for their free trade flip flop when he railed against Crosbie’s free trade proposal during the ’83 PC leadership convention? Or when he attacks Joe Clark for allowing provinces to opt out of a federal program? That’s all to be expected in a memoir and when I move on to Chretien’s after this, I wouldn’t expect it to be any different. After all, this is Mulroney’s version of events, not a historical dissertation. A historical dissertation might say that criticism of Mulroney over his lack of experience in ’76 was fair game. A historical account might conclude that the Tories ’88 victory was not solely because of Mulroney’s soaring popularity. A historical account might not quote hundreds of positive newspaper stories about the PM and then dismiss all criticism as being part of media bias.

That said, as a historical document this book is incredibly invaluable. Appendices at the end recap behind-the-scenes conversations between the PM and Premiers about Meech and Charlottetown. And, having written a history essay or two on this time period during my years at University, I would have loved to have a resource like this book to get the official Mulroney position on such a wide range of topics. Beyond that, Memoirs works as popular political literature too. Getting a glimpse of private conversations between Mulroney and the likes of Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev makes the book worth its sticker price ($50 in Canada, $40 in the US). And the chapter where Mulroney recounts the betrayal of Lucien Bouchard has everything you could want in a political book. Compared to current hot topic political debates on Senate abolition and 1% GST cuts, the content of this book is quite riveting.

So, despite his flaws – or maybe because of them – Mulroney has written a truly impressive memoir.


Recommendation: Get a hard cover copy. Personally, I'm very glad to have a signed copy.

Other Reviews: Jason Cherniak, Pample the Moose, Kerplonka

A copy of this book was provided by Random House for review.

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