Chretien, Volume I:
The Will to Win

404 pages,
ISBN: 1895555752

Post Your Opinion
Praise, with a Muck-rake
by Scott Disher

If, as the adage says, we deserve our politicians, there is some solace to be had in the fate that awaits them at the hands of their biographers.
More often than not, justice prevails in the realm of political biographies: for instance, the great, mid-Victorian voice of moderation, Disraeli, is preserved indelibly-rouged cheeks and all-in Robert Blake's critical tribute; similarly, Aneurin Bevan, the great twentieth-century Labour politician, is rescued from oblivion by Michael Foot's sympathetic account.
Whereas John and Robert Kennedy's auras have undergone extensive retouching by admiring acolytes (notably Arthur Schlesinger), the monstrously deceitful Lyndon Johnson, hounded from office by the Vietnam debacle, gets to twist for all eternity in a multi-volumed purgatory invented by Robert Caro.
On the Canadian front, our "greats"-with the possible exception of Donald Creighton's epic two-volume life of Sir John A.-have attracted biographers whose literary skills were unequal to their emotional identification with their subjects.
But of that peculiar sub-genre, the contemporary biography of the living politician, several excellent, though flawed, examples come to mind: Peter Desbarats' René: A Canadian in Search of a Country, Peter Newman's Renegade in Power: The Diefenbaker Years, Denis Smith's Gentle Patriot: A Political Biography of Walter Gordon, Stephen Clarkson's and Christina McCall's Trudeau and Our Times, Vol. 1: The Magnificent Obsession, and Cameron Smith's Unfinished Journey: The Lewis Family.
Recently, Canadians have witnessed a revival of an old art-form, the shamelessly antagonistic "attack-bio". Partisan detractors have savaged our two most reviled post-war politicians, Robert Bourassa and Brian Mulroney: Bourassa, in two vicious volumes covering the Meech meltdown and the Charlottetown fiasco, written by a journalist turned Parizeau aide, Jean-François Lisée; and Mulroney, in the Liberal insider Stevie Cameron's shrill but inadequately documented accusations of corruption and venality, On The Take.
Mulroney has achieved a new nadir in biographical indignity, meted out by the ultimate Canadian power-maven raconteur. Peter Newman was granted limitless access, but abandoned the project, citing his erstwhile subject's habitual mendacity-thus relegating him to a sort of biographer's netherworld.
Now, barely two years after the Liberals swept back into power, the first volume of the former Globe and Mail reporter Lawrence Martin's assessment of Jean Chrétien's more than thirty years in Canadian politics awaits the Christmas rush at local bookstores. Key Porter Books, which published his engagingly self-serving memoirs, the runaway bestseller Straight From the Heart, gambled a hefty $100,000 advance from its Lester Publishing affiliate for a pop bio of our populist PM.
The glossy dust-jacket, with its sepia-toned, grim Grit photograph of a mid-career Chrétien and Ayn-Randian sub-title (The Will to Win), touts this book as "one of the most revealing portraits of a Canadian prime minister ever written". Because the cover price is merely for the first instalment of what was originally intended to be a single volume, the backflap blurb assures us that the author "conducted over 250 interviews" in order to capture "the first Canadian prime minister who is both a populist and an establishment man...the closest a politician has come to being all things to all people."
Like its subject, Martin's book is a hybrid. Written in the jaunty, off-hand manner of the sports celebrity bio-warts and all-it aims to please a wide variety of tastes. Not unlike his protagonist, Martin (who entered the major leagues of Canadian journalism via the sports pages) has little patience for painstaking detail work on the political process. In recounting the early years of the sports-obsessed natural politician, whose austere, demanding father toiled in the sooty Belgo mill next to the hardscrabble, hinterland industrial town of Shawinigan, Martin's stripped-down sentences shimmer with empathy. Martin was raised not far from the blast-furnace purlieus of Hamilton, Ont., where pool hall fights and streetfighter politics were conducted with an even deadlier abandon than in the rough-house milieu of Chrétien's hometown.
Given Chrétien's own reticence in Straight From the Heart about details of his childhood, the significance of Martin's volume lies mostly in the chapters on the beginnings: the years in and around Shawinigan and boarding schools, the law school years in Quebec City, and his brief professional career as a hick town lawyer. Unfortunately, Chrétien's circle of friends and extended family exist in the narrative largely as bit players in the rich tableau that Martin paints of an ambitious, working-class hero on the make in Duplessis' Quebec.
But the heretofore undiscovered mother-lode of personal material that Martin mines is the by-product of a common Chrétien family trait, unbridled candour. Chrétien's five brothers and two of his three sisters regaled his biographer with unvarnished tales of his unruly temperament, warmth and generosity, irrepressibility, and his compulsive need to dominate friends and classmates, as well as the shame and pain he experienced as a physically and developmentally handicapped child.
Seen through Martin's lens, the household inhabited by Wellie Chrétien, his wife Marie Boisvert, and their nine surviving offspring (nine others died in infancy, including the first Jean) is a mythical mélange of French-Canadian stereotypes-part Maria Chapdelaine, part Le gros Bill, part Les Plouffe, and part Les filles de Caleb. Unlike most of their Shawinigan neighbours, the Chrétien clan had a pan-Canadian outlook that grounded the children with the conviction that Canada's dual political culture offered them boundless opportunities, while protecting their heritage from the feared assimilation of the Québécois diaspora in the New England mill towns.
Canadians who have been lulled by the carefully cultivated, folksy charm of Jean Chrétien as patriotic bumpkin are in for some rude surprises: as an adolescent, he was a deeply troubled loner with penchants for schoolyard brutality and for boastful, bully-boy tactics that continued into his adult life as a ruthless machine politician who would lie and cheat whenever it suited him. The somewhat one-dimensional character that emerges from Martin's workman-like profile of a politician's progress is uniquely endowed with his sombre father's boundless store of common sense and prodigious capacity for hard work, together with his maternal family's ebullient energy and rollicking good humour.
Through a series of revelatory anecdotes, Martin also exposes the less attractive side of Chrétien, who, over the years, has emerged in the popular imagination of the majority of French Quebeckers as a demonized Uncle Tom figure: an embarrassing anachronism with the feeble intellect of a crass, country cousin who tells off-colour jokes at family reunions from which he cannot be excluded. Aside from a rash of youthful altercations involving fisticuffs, one shocking incident of Chrétien's crudeness stands out: as president of the Treasury Board, he publicly threatened Yves Duhaime, the Parti Québécois minister who represented Shawinigan in Quebec's National Assembly, with a beating while the two were wrangling at a local political event. "He is not," noted Duhaime, "a sophisticated man."
The remainder of Martin's pedestrian account of Chretien's over-achieving odyssey as Pierre Trudeau's relentless snake-oil salesman and spear-chucker sheds little new light on this political warhorse. Nor does it question Chrétien's preference for stocking his staff (and later his cabinet) with mediocre minds and meek yes-men, bereft of intellectual curiosity or even a rudimentary awareness of recent social and political trends and developments. Another unnerving tendency is Chrétien's total disregard for the complexities and management skills required for the maintenance of a diverse, grass-roots political organization.
Martin's book suffers from having been hastily written and researched and indifferently edited. One of the disappointments of this "character study" biography is the absence of any off-beat, personal details about Chrétien, such as his atrocious driving and his insistence on taking the wheel when relaxing with friends and family. Key elements of the puzzle are merely hinted at or glossed over. Since his wife, Aline Chainé, is credited with turning his life around while he was still a teenager, her role is crucial. Not only is her personality neglected, aside from a few superficial observations, but Martin drops and then declines to pursue coy hints of a dark side to the idyllic family life generally evoked throughout the book.
Also left for later sleuthing are Chrétien's acquisitive habits as a real estate speculator, a raft of business dealings with his rich friends, and large amounts of government largess larded out to once-prosperous Shawinigan during the years Chrétien sat on the powerful Treasury Board and occupied major economic cabinet posts. Perhaps mindful of future access-Chrétien spent a mere seven hours talking to his first and only biographer while Mme Chrétien declined to be interviewed for the record-Martin also overlooked some scrapes involving Chrétien's brothers.
Frequent references are made to Chrétien's longtime confidants, Eddie Goldenberg and John Rae, a Power Corporation executive (and Bob Rae's older brother), but Martin never delivers the goods on these ties. Goldenberg, a partisan, abrasive, and bumptious lawyer (whose father was an influential Liberal legal and constitutional adviser), is referred to by Chrétien as his "pocket computer....If you talk with Eddie, he will say what Chrétien will say." In fact, many Liberal insiders call Goldenberg Chrétien's Edgar Bergen.
Although he itemizes a substantial list of humiliations Chrétien suffered from coldly contemptuous Montreal intellectuals such as Michael Pitfield, Marc Lalonde, Claude Ryan, and Pierre Trudeau, Martin's monochromatic take on what are, in real life, much more complex relationships, is an unwitting reflection of Chrétien's own pugnacity, egotism, and severe inferiority complex.
In taking to the airwaves to promote his oeuvre, Martin has been pushing the Chrétien company line that the separatists have sandbagged themselves. According to this scenario, Chrétien will survive the latest referendum squabble, keep the country intact with few real changes, and prevail against all comers, in wily, Mackenzie-King-like fashion for years to come. Perhaps, but I suspect Martin's concept of Chrétien's "special appeal", which he likens to Ronald Reagan's embrace of simpler, patriotic virtues and "ability to communicate great truths in homey phrases", is an illusion.
When I was a kid growing up in the posh Québanglo confines of patrician Westmount, we used to poke fun at the illiterate "Jean-Guys" by aping the sort of joual we picked up from the streets but seldom understood. Our parents, insecure in the face of the aggressive new class of nationalist politicians who were increasingly dominant in post-Quiet-Revolution Quebec, recoiled in horror at René Lévesque and embraced the new anti-nationalist avatar, the debonair rich-kid dilettante, Pierre Trudeau.
While Trudeau proclaimed his French Power takeover in Ottawa, Chrétien was one of the leading proponents and beneficiaries of what Martin terms a "cultural revolution" in Canada. But in Quebec, Chrétien's self-effacing "pea-souper" and "frog" jibes-big crowd-pleasers to English Canadian audiences in Ontario and the West-were regarded as odious and repugnant. To elite English Quebeckers, Chrétien was a clown, albeit a necessary one, who could stick it to the separatists in streetsmart joual out in the boondocks.
Those days are gone forever; the well-oiled Quebec rouge political machine of the Trudeau era is in tatters and Jean Chrétien is a despised bogey in the very places where he swayed so many hearts and minds during the divisive 1980 referendum. Chrétien's and Trudeau's inability to fulfill the oft-repeated promise of renewed federalism to Quebeckers and their subsequent machinations in killing the Meech Lake pact caused a sea-change in the ebb and flow of Quebec political life.
Building on the 1984 PQ-Tory alliance of convenience and the federalist-separatist coalition of the Charlottetown Non vote in Quebec, the Bloc Québécois swept nearly all of the traditionally federalist regional strongholds in the 1993 federal election. The only federalist leader with any credibility in the Quebec heartland is a man without a party, Jean Charest, who, like Chrétien, couldn't hold his own riding against Lucien Bouchard's forces in the referendum. A sad indicator of how far things have gone is that many of the PQ faithful at Montreal's Palais des Congrès cheered Parizeau's vile "votes ethniques" remark on referendum night.
Nothing in Lawrence Martin's biography leads me to believe that Chrétien has the will, the imagination, or the capacity to effect symbolic and meaningful changes in the Canadian federation. Martin, who never really penetrates the moody, wooden façade of Chrétien's public persona, has failed to capture the warmth and genuine personality Mike Pearson seems to have perceived in Chrétien when he took the mainly unilingual backbencher under his wing in 1965.
Thirty years on, Martin's endorsement of Chrétien's faded political instincts rings a hollow note in much the same way Chrétien's recent speeches on national unity sound flat and false. In his first major speech after the referendum, which he gave to a Bay Street crowd at the Liberal party's annual "Confederation" fund-raising dinner, the prime minister, a baseball fanatic, wondered why the Non side's squeaker was being called a loss. He gestured dramatically in the direction of Toronto's Skydome and said, "When Joe Carter hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth [to win the World Series], nobody called him a loser!" Incredibly, Chrétien and his camp followers believe he hit a homer in the closing frames of the referendum (by addressing the nation on TV), though his entire referendum output amounted to nothing more than a bloop single straight through the middle of the infield.
Those who pick up the first biography of Jean Chrétien expecting to find an engrossing, behind-the-scenes description of his considerable exploits when he held many of the key cabinet portfolios during the critical political battles of the Trudeau era will be bitterly disappointed with this book and with the man it portrays.
In a recent conversation, I asked Martin why, instead of producing an intellectual examination of a shining political past, he had chosen to cobble together a hodge-podge of Chrétien's political ups and downs-much in the manner of a bygone sports hero's forgotten triumphs and defeats. Martin wisecracked in Chrétien-like fashion, "If one wants to be rude about it, there can be no intellectual biography of Jean Chrétien because the guy hasn't got one."
Contemplating Canada's prospects under his shaky stewardship, I am reminded of the cheerful warning he gave supporters of his ill-fated 1984 leadership bid: "Hang on to your seatbelts, we're in for a hell of a ride."

Scott Disher is a Québanglo writer and media consultant. He is currently at work on a novel.


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