The battle of the books: Mulroney v. Chrétien

L'affaire Mulroney-Schreiber

The late Arthur Campeau, who once practised law with Brian Mulroney, said of him: "If I had to do a psychological profile of Brian Mulroney, I would stress his sense of inferiority despite all his achievement ... He never saw himself as part of the establishment, never saw himself being accepted, even as prime minister."
At frequent lunches with Mr. Mulroney, his friend found him obsessed with self-justification. "The whole discussion had to do with how far he had come from Baie-Comeau."
What's striking about the analysis is that you could often hear it in respect to another future prime minister from small-town Quebec. Little-guy Jean Chrétien bore an inner rage against how the high and mighty looked down upon him. He was forever driven to prove them wrong.
He and Mr. Mulroney, never seen to be much alike, actually had much in common. Each was a strange combination of contradictory forces - of narcissism and inferiority complex. Their careers were desperate attempts to kill off the latter through a triumph of the former. They both, remarkably, reached the ultimate career goal but could never fully relish it out of fear they were still not seen as worthy enough.
Their last grand opportunity for justification comes now. By great coincidence, they are publishing their own versions of their histories at the same time. Mr. Mulroney's volume is out today. Mr. Chrétien's follows next month.
The political cognoscenti are taking side bets as to which chronicle will capture the largest audience. Each man served a decade or so in power, each bears scars, each bears triumphs, each did much to shape Canadian history. Their autobiographical match-up is intensified by a personal relationship that is toxic. In his taped interviews with Peter C. Newman, Mr. Mulroney called Mr. Chrétien a "mean dirty bastard" who hadn't read a book in 20 years.
Nothing grates on the old street-fighter as much as being portrayed as unlettered. But he is less likely in his memoir to engage in name-calling or a hard-driven settling of scores. While tainted in his last years in power by charges of corruption, Mr. Chrétien is comfortable with how he left the country in terms of the economy (big surpluses), unity (the Clarity Act) and foreign policy (no to Iraq).
By contrast, although Mr. Mulroney's book has yet to be assessed in its entirety, it is apparent from his prerelease interviews that the ache in his ego still looms large. If he has chosen the warpath over the high road, it will not serve him well. He can excusably, for example, condemn Pierre Trudeau, whom he called a "son of a bitch" in the Newman book, for undermining his Meech Lake accord. But to suggest that the Quebecker's wayward beliefs as a college student somehow made him unfit to become the nation's leader decades later is spurious.
While strafing him for not enlisting, many would be curious to know how Mr. Mulroney, a close friend of the Bush family, views George W.'s avoidance of service in Vietnam and whether he still glowingly endorses his Iraq invasion.
There are two sides to Brian Mulroney. One as a prince of charm and compassion who goes far out of his way to comfort friends in need. The other as a master of malice who still can't figure out why Canadians don't love him.
His record of governance has justifiably become more appreciated as time has passed. He should savour that and build on it as opposed to reigniting old quarrels with intemperate outbursts.
He has a mammoth publicity blitz scheduled that will enhance his book sales, particularly among elites. But whether many working-class Canadians will be moved to buy his 1,100-page tome is a more dubious prospect. As for the Chrétien memoir, the test will be whether his appeal can approach the level it did when he published Straight from the Heart, the 1985 memoir that shattered Canadian sales records.
Although he ultimately held to his blue-collar roots, some of Mr. Chrétien's common touch eroded. Like Mr. Mulroney, he still has a deep craving for vindication. During the sponsorship inquiry, we recall him lashing out at Mr. Justice John Gomery for referring pejoratively to his small-town upbringing.
But, as their big books will likely demonstrate, it is in the boy from Baie-Comeau, whose appetite for self-aggrandizement knows no bounds, where the fissures run deepest.

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