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Nostaglic for Jean Chrétien

April 15, 2013

This week, I stopped in Toronto briefly on my way home from a conference, and as I often do, I invited my friend John English out for a coffee. It just so happened that he had co-organized a major conference at the University of Toronto on the legacy of former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. He invited me along.

With Jean Chretien

I swear I’m not normally a political suck-up

The program was packed with prominent Liberal leaders, past and present (Bob Rae, Allan Gotlieb, John Turner, Lorna Marsden). [John happens to also be one of the most famous Canadian historians around and a former MP which makes it easy for him to do this kind of thing.]

I arrived at the end of the day’s program, just as former PM Jean Chrétien was about to take the stage with former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bill Graham. Chrétien had decided to do a Q&A session with the audience rather than a more formal interview with Graham. At that moment, I knew that this was going to be fun- our former PM had just changed the format to encourage audience interaction. Whereas politicians in office inevitably give scripted speeches with no surprises, ex-politicians are usually pretty frank about their experiences. And Chrétien was no exception. [Get them over dinner after a few glasses of wine, and the stories get even more interesting.]

Here are a few things that he talked about that I thought were worth sharing:

[Please note that I've paraphrased and changed the order in which he made his comments.]

On politics and Canadian values:

Don’t be too strategic. Do what is right. The votes will follow. Do what you feel good about. The debate is about values.

We [Canada] were extremely respected. Generosity, respect for minority. These were values that everyone wanted to copy. We were always ahead of many countries on many issues.

On not going to war with Iraq, and breaking with our closest allies on foreign policy:

I knew that Saddam had nothing to do with 9/11.

[Chrétien to Bush] The policy is not to be with you if you don’t have the support of the UN.

Bush offered to brief Chrétien. Chrétien said that this wouldn’t be necessary- he had been briefed by his own people. He told Bush: For the UN, you need better proof of WMD. I’m not convinced.

After many years as PM, Chrétien was treated as an elder statesman on the UN Security Council. Other countries and leaders were consulting him. Bush was particularly unhappy with Chrétien because Mexico and Chile had decided to follow Canada’s lead.

[Chrétien to Blair] Saddam and Mugabe are not the same. If you have the UN, I might be able to go. You need to convince George to go to the UN.

Blair had urged him to go to Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Bush was talking about WMD. Chrétien said to him: “I don’t want to be in the business of replacing people that we don’t like.”

On the social community of parliament:

Chrétien also spoke of how the social dynamics of parliament had changed. He described how politicians used to make their home in Ottawa and that there was much less travel back to MPs’ ridings. There were many consequences of this practice, but one was that politicians from all parties formed a community. Their children went to school together; they ate together; and they socialized together. [They probably also drank brandy and smoked cigars together while their wives put the kids to bed- but that's another story altogether.] Political fights didn’t get personal.

On the role of TV:

He talked about how allowing television cameras in the House of Commons wrecked the collegiality of parliament. He lamented how relationships with colleagues changed as soon as the TV cameras were switched on.

Old school politics:

One last thing that I hadn’t quite appreciated was how parliament had become less spontanenous over the years. (Chrétien was first elected to parliament 50 years ago.) Politicians used to be expected to speak off-the-cuff. They would make just a few notes for a speech in the House. Reading your speech would have broken a social norm, never mind hiring a speechwriter to write your speech for you. Chrétien said that it was simply “not allowed”. On a more practical level, two MPs used to share a personal assistant between them, and the resources just didn’t exist for anything fancier.

* * * * *

All of this made me nostalgic for the days of Jean Chrétien- when Canada was doing both great and good things in foreign policy and at home; when our economy was in order; when my government was projecting values that I was proud of. And then, just as I was bathing in the afterglow of Canadian goodness, my political conscience spoke up and I remembered the sponsorship scandal. And yet…. I couldn’t help but long for the Chrétien days.

How to square that circle- especially since I spend a fair amount of time railing against corruption? Well, after many years of following politics in the news, meeting politicians, and studying politics, here is what I’ve realized: dig deep enough into any seasoned politician’s past and you will find skeletons. (Or at the very least, severe compromises in her principles.)

The longer her time in politics, the more skeletons there are likely to be. Those who have no skeletons are the ones who are the most principled and the least likely to make compromises and do deals. They are also the ones who are least likely to be re-elected. Think Mulroney on Airbus, Obama on Guantanomo and soft money, or in this case, Chrétien on AdScam. I could go on.

Call it the principle of political Darwinism- only the compromised will survive. Without wanting to seem fatalistic about politics in general (in case my students mistake me for a cynic), I’ve just decided to accept the bad with the good, and enjoy what is left of that golden era of Canadian politics.

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