Life of Brian
A comfortable breeze from north of the border.
Feb 18, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 22 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
In June 2004, the former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney spoke at Ronald Reagan's funeral. The two men had become good friends while in their respective offices. They shared not only an Irish working-class background, but also a similar vision of democracy, liberty, and freedom. As Mulroney said, Reagan was "the leader we respected, the neighbor we admired and the friend we loved. . . . Ronald Reagan was a president who inspired his nation and transformed the world."
For many Americans, this was the first real exposure they had to Brian Mulroney. Even though this former prime minister had shared the world stage with powerful leaders, and was involved in issues that earned international coverage, Mulroney's legacy in the United States rested squarely with a few politicians, business leaders, think tanks, and publications.
But there is now a way for American readers to become acquainted (or re-acquainted) with Mulroney: through his autobiography, Memoirs: 1939-1993. To be fair, it's a hefty volume with a significant portion dedicated to his role in Canadian politics. At the same time, it's a well-written and important book by one of Canada's most interesting, colorful, and controversial leaders.
Brian Mulroney grew up in a non-political family. His parents, like many postwar Atlantic Canadians, traditionally supported the Liberal party; but when Mulroney attended St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, he was approached to join the campus Progressive Conservative (PC) party. He acknowledged that PC ideology was "compatible with my own views" but was more struck by "the challenges that membership would represent." The Liberals had been in power for 20 years, and Mulroney likely saw an opportunity to help initiate political change in a country that was starved for it.
Even early in his political career, Mulroney was industrious and ambitious. He joined the PC youth executive committee, and helped John Diefenbaker win his 1957 and 1958 federal election victories. (The latter campaign stood as the biggest landslide victory in Canadian history--until Mulroney topped it in 1984.) In the early 1960s Mulroney's political connections allowed him to work briefly in Ottawa as private secretary to the agriculture minister, and he maintained those connections when he went to Laval University in Quebec and became a lawyer.
But Mulroney's role in the PC party, and his views on a successful political formula for conservatism in Canada, were starting to change. Like other party members, he had become disillusioned with Diefenbaker, who was "increasingly alienating both young voters and French Canadians." It became so bad that the party chairman, Dalton Camp, issued a leadership review and ultimately led a rebellion that toppled Diefenbaker. This period of political turmoil taught Mulroney a valuable lesson: "Caucus solidarity is indispensable for long-term success and only the leader can bring that about, provided he works at it relentlessly." It was a lesson that he would carry with him throughout his political career.
After a few years practicing law, Mulroney ran for the federal PC leadership in 1976. He had never served as a member of Parliament, and did not have strong popular support. But he was an inspiring speaker, and wanted to make an impression: As he said in one speech, "Democracy is best served by challenge and change; politicians become true public servants only when they understand the limitations of power and acquire the humility that accompanies defeat."
Mulroney put the focus squarely on rebuilding his party and working towards defeating the "one-party state" that the Liberals had created in Canada. Mulroney ultimately lost the leadership fight to Joe Clark--then a fierce political rival, later a political ally--but had given party members something to think about for the future. When Mulroney came calling again in 1983, the PCs stood up and took notice. He defeated Clark in the leadership race. This gave Mulroney the chance to travel the country and speak not only to PC supporters but potential voters. He was seen as a fresh face beside Clark--who had served as prime minister for a mere eight months--and especially compared to Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the left-wing Liberal prime minister.
In the 1984 federal election, Mulroney described his philosophy to attain political success:
That was the beginning of the Mulroney coalition. He brought together Blue Tories (right-leaning conservatives), Red Tories (left-leaning conservatives), and Canadians from all regions. He ran a brilliant campaign, crushing the Liberal leader John Turner and exposing Liberal weaknesses at every turn. And he won an incredible victory: 211 out of 288 parliamentary seats, and 50 percent of the popular vote.
The Mulroney years (1984-93) were an astonishing period in Canadian history. Mulroney patched up his differences with former opponents--Clark, John Crosbie, and Michael Wilson, who had run against Mulroney for the PC leadership--and all played prominent roles in Mulroney's cabinet. As he writes, "I was determined to work closely with the former prime minister and his key supporters to ensure that any leadership-race bitterness was banished and forgotten. My overriding goal was to build a strong, united government that could win elections and face challenges at home and abroad in times of crisis." And his government remained united until the end.
Mulroney's greatest success was achieving the historic free trade deal (NAFTA) with the United States, which was later extended to Mexico. He increased the role of private enterprise in Canada, and made the country desirable for foreign investors. He was an environmentalist, and signed an agreement on acid rain with the first President Bush. He was a driving force in ending apartheid peacefully in South Africa. He forged strong relationships with other leaders--Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Helmut Kohl--and repaired Canada's mediocre reputation as a player on the world stage.
He also faced innumerable challenges. His friend Lucien Bouchard, who he brought into federal politics, ultimately betrayed him and helped form a separatist political party, the Bloc Québécois. The Reform party, under the leadership of Preston Manning, blossomed and began to challenge the PCs for conservative support. He "rolled the dice" twice with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords as a means to bring Quebec back into the constitution--and was unsuccessful both times.
When Mulroney retired in 1993, he said, "I did not always succeed, but I always tried to do what would be right for Canada in the long term--not what could be politically popular in the short term." To his credit, these memoirs reflect that view. He advertises his successes, but is brutally honest about his failures. The Memoirs are the man.
Michael Taube, columnist and commentator, is a former speechwriter for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.