À hauteur d'homme

The ugly side of Landry

Most Quebecers were not aware our former premier was given to profanity, rudeness and desk-pounding tantrums


Friday, September 5, 2003
This week, the talk of the French-language media has been about À hauteur d'homme, a documentary by Jean-Claude Labrecque on Bernard Landry's last 100 days as premier. It shows a Landry most Quebecers have never seen. And many might not like what they discover.
It shows the profound contempt Landry has toward the press, the foul language he often uses in private and the personal attacks he sometimes resorts to during press conferences when reporters insist on getting an answer to questions. The vulgarities Landry yells out are sure to shatter the carefully manufactured image of the compassionate and refined grandfather he tried to project during the election campaign. Exit the Latin references he so loves to use in public, and enter the private, tavern-like lingo.
But what's even more fascinating is the spin Labrecque puts on his film. In it, he explained, we see Landry as a man of honour, being constantly harassed and persecuted by the press. He also repeated in every interview his complete admiration for Landry - adding he even filmed amorous shots of him ("des plans amoureux").
While it is metaphoric, Labrecque's words point to the film's main, and perhaps unredeemable, weakness: The total lack of critical distance from his subject matter. Labrecque obviously caught a very bad case of the Stockholm Syndrome. He grew to identify so strongly with the logic and interests of Landry that he lost all perspective. Giving the text-book definition of that syndrome, Labrecque said: "For three months, I was Landry." That's not analysis, it's osmosis.
With great naïveté, Labrecque portrays Landry as a tragic hero, a victim who suffers endlessly at the hands of nasty reporters who bear horrifying hidden agendas. To add more drama, the victim has yet another tormenter: Jacques Parizeau, the villain who steals Landry's spotlight during the leaders' debate. This approach is so Manichean the film plays like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western in which Landry is the good, Parizeau is the bad and reporters are the ugly.
Still, this whole scenario was Labrecque's second choice. In effect, he started out shooting the chronicle of what many thought would be the victory of the Parti Québécois on April 14. It was only when Jean Charest started picking up speed Labrecque decided to focus mainly on the "persecution" of Landry by the press. That looks like a quest to find scapegoats for Landry's defeat. It's as if the subtext of the film is he would have done a lot better without the so-called Parizeau affair and those bad, bad reporters.
But what's even more disturbing than the victimization and the scapegoating are the perceptions some have tried to create in the aftermath of the film. One perception is many of us have known about Landry's obsessions and tantrums for years. Therefore, it is normal behaviour, so why make a big fuss?
First, most Quebecers are not aware of this central character trait of the man who was their premier for two years. Second, it cannot be said this is a normal or acceptable way of behaving simply because he's been that way for years. The latter does not explain or justify the former.
Another myth is most leaders are like that. False. Thankfully for democracy, what this film shows is the exception, not the rule. Although most of Quebec's premiers threw tantrums once in a while, the scope and repetitive nature of Landry's anger, the coarseness of the language and, especially, the personal attacks he makes in place of arguing a point were not a trademark of Robert Bourassa, Jacques Parizeau or even Lucien Bouchard.
For one who has seen this behaviour up close for two years, I still don't see how this attitude of yelling, insulting and hitting the table repeatedly with one's fist in front of those who cannot respond without fearing consequences makes for a civilized, political discourse.
Last, but not least, Landry's complete lack of respect for the press and Labrecque's embrace of that point of view betray their own confusion between good journalism and complacent journalism. Asking hard questions is essential to democracy. It is those politicians who fail to answer with clarity and conviction who fail its test.
It's sad Labrecque didn't show the other side of the coin - where we would see Landry's spin doctors trying to influence reporters and columnists, where he had private dinners with a chosen few to spin them even more, where we'd see the unprecedented, extensive media- monitoring system his communications staff built to scrutinize every single word about the government in the electronic and written press.
We also would have seen journalism is not only a respectable profession but that it often leads to politics, and vice-versa. In fact, journalism and politics are joined at the hip. In Quebec, there are many journalists and columnists who come from the school of partisan politics: Jean Lapierre, Claude Charron, L. Ian MacDonald, Gilbert Lavoie, Sophie Langlois and even myself.
Then there are journalists who become elected politicians. Perhaps the most famous one here was the man Landry says he admires and reveres the most: René Lévesque.
No small irony for a party leader who shows no respect for the press.

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