Sunday, November 25, 2007

Bart's Books - Straight From the Heart 2

After finishing up the Mulroney tome, it was time for another round of prime ministerial memoirs - Jean Chretien’s My Years as Prime Minister. Reading the two back to back means this review will likely feature a lot of comparisons between the books which might not be fair because the two are vastly different.

Mulroney approached his almost as a historical essay on his time in office, going into lengthy detail on most decisions and arguing his case vociferously with as much supporting evidence as he could find. Chretien’s book, meanwhile, is ghostwritten in the same folksy style as Straight from the Heart and you get the sense that he didn’t approach it with the same intensity that Mulroney did. From the start, he’s frank that his book isn’t a weighty account of his time in office since that “should be left to the historians and scholars”. The result is a book that is written at a lower political reading level than Mulroney’s; it’s clearly targeted more to the mainstream population than to political junkies. Elections and “inside baseball” government decisions are glossed over and content is grouped by subject rather than chronologically.

Because of this, My Years as Prime Minister cannot be considered the defining book on the Chretien years – there’s probably more meat in the Eddie Goldeberg, Lawrence Martin, or Susan Delacourt books. Where Chretien's memoirs excel is by treating the reader to very personal recollections of events like the break in to 24 Sussex, the “Shawinigan handshake”, and non-political conversations with the likes of Bill Clinton, Queen Elizabeth, Tiger Woods, and Fidel Castro. On the downside, major accomplishments of Chretien’s government like Same Sex Marriage recognition or the innovation agenda seem glossed over. Contrary to Peter C. Newman’s review, Chretien does use a considerable amount of ink on the various “gate” scandals that hit his government, although he does dismiss Adscam rather off handedly. It is a shame that the book ends with his resignation as Prime Minister, if only because Chretien recounting his “golf ball” testimony at the Gomery inquiry would have been quite enjoyable.

Chretien admits in the introduction that he couldn’t bring himself to write a “warts and all” recap of those close to him although he is certainly willing to point out the warts on Paul Martin. In his review, Cherniak concludes that Chretien’s jabs are uncalled for because Martin wasn’t planning a putsch. Well, maybe. And, if you’re in the 4% of the population who believe Martin wasn’t organizing against Chretien, you’ll probably find Jean a bit vindictive in this book. But really, he doesn’t dwell on it, he’s a lot nicer than Sheila Copps was, and, with the exception of his Afghanistan jab, you don’t get the sense that Chretien is going out of his way to smear Martin in this book the way Mulroney set out to attack his enemies. Instead, he tries to get his revenge by pushing hard on the story that he wouldn’t have run for a third term if Martin hadn’t been organizing against him – true, or not, (and I have some doubts) it is somewhat fitting to think of Martin’s over ambition as being the cause of his downfall.

Apart from Martin, the only former Cabinet Minister getting a noticeable amount of attention is Stephane Dion, who Chretien says nothing but good things about. This is probably partly to help the party out but you really do get the sense that Dion was his favourite Cabinet Minister. It was Aline Chretien who suggested he bring Dion into politics and the two men worked closely together on the unity file which was near and dear to Chretien’s heart. Like Mulroney, this was probably the issue he felt strongest about, even if his view was vastly different from Brian’s. Reading the two books back to back, it’s amazing just how different their recaps of the constitution repatriation, Meech Lake, and Charlottetown accord were…the two didn’t agree on much except from their disdain for Lucien Bouchard. It was also interesting to hear of Chretien’s frequent behind the scenes discussions with Trudeau on unity topics – although Trudeau appears to have influenced his former Cabinet Minister’s view of federalism, the two did disagree at times on the more pragmatic side of politics.

If you’re looking for a detailed recap of the Chretien years, then there are probably better reference sources. But Chretien has injected so much life into his memoirs that it will certainly make for an enjoyable read, even for those who aren’t huge political buffs. Because of that, I imagine Chretien’s book will find its way into more stockings this Christmas than Mulroney’s (also, it would take a really big stocking to hold Mulroney’s book).



Recommendation: Certainly worth asking Santa for it, even if you only have a passing interest in politics.



For more Chretien goodness, be sure to check out Jean and Rick's return to Harveys.



A copy of the book was provided by Random House for review

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4 Comments:

  • That wasn't what I said at all. I said that Chretien overreacted in 2000 after Martin handled a situation badly, and that things disintigrated from there. I also suggested that if Chretien had understood that Martin already controled the party following the 2000 election, Chretien probably would have handled things differently and the public war wouldn't have happened. Finally, I suggested that both men put personal pride before the good of the country when it came to Chretien's resignation date.

    Otherwise, though, a very good review. You succeeded in avoiding the garbage that I couldn't help getting into.

    By Blogger Jason Cherniak, at 9:59 AM  

  • While the decision to not fight the court decisions was made under Chrétien's government, most of the actual parliamentary debate took place under Martin's, so it would be outside the scope of the book.

    The Ontario Court of Appeal decision was very clever. Since there was no statutory definition of marriage, only a common law definition, the Court recognized there was no need to give parliament time to bring legislation in line, since there was no legislation.

    This gave the PM of the day a stark choice. An appeal would be meaningless, as people started getting married the same day the ruling came down. Chrétien could only choose between imposing the notwithstanding clause retroactively, or letting equal marriage stand.

    Fascinatingly, Vic Toews recognized (and complained bitterly in public) that the Court's and Chrétien's actions made it impossible to roll back marriage. Every statement he and Harper later made talking about rolling back marriage rights was a bald-faced lie. They knew full well it was impossible to do so without both the notwithstanding clause and forcibly nullifying perfectly legal marriages.

    By Blogger Reality Bites, at 2:18 PM  

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