Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney had one thing in common, which was to demonstrate that there is still a great deal to be said for retaining the queen as the head of state. Both of them moved Canada farther toward a "presidential" system of government, and as the Americans have long demonstrated, a chief executive who is also a head of state always becomes a sort of monarch, a symbolic, moral and mythic incarnation of the nation, at least as much as a political chief executive.
Both prime ministers had large capacities in one of these fields while being horrendously deficient in the other.
Trudeau, aristocratic, disdainful, fashionably and superficially leftish, resolute and icily witty, had an intuitive and rational sense of how to be a monarch, respected even by those who loathed him. But he was a disastrous chief executive, leaving a heritage of failed policies and splendid theatrical moments.
Mulroney was a capable political leader, with plenty of permanent achievements, but was temperamentally ill-fitted for the moral and mythic role. He reminded Canadians less of his admired U.S. contemporary, Ronald Reagan, than of the similarly capable but flawed Richard Nixon.
Mulroney clearly now hopes for the approval, if not of the general population, of history and the historians. But he appears to be as maladroit as ever in making his own contribution to the agonizing reappraisal. His current comments on Trudeau, and on his great betrayal by Lucien Bouchard, are entirely understandable in ordinary human terms, and Mulroney, especially when driving a sword into his own entrails, has always been more of an ordinary human being than Trudeau, an oracular Sphinx.
Mulroney also probably believes that his memoirs will be not only his great payback time, but a necessary correction of his existing assessment by Canadians, which he regards as unjust.
This combination should at least make his book readable, but it appears unlikely that it will lead to a great revision in the status he holds right now. Those of us who voted for him and approved of his economic policies were frequently as appalled by his disastrous constitutional adventures as Trudeau Liberals were, and those who opposed the free trade initiative will not forgive him just because it was successful. Mulroney can be expected to repeat his past claims that he sacrificed popularity to achieve great and necessary changes in direction for the country, but while there is some truth in this claim, he and his scandal-plagued administration had convinced most Canadians that he was entirely untrustworthy well before his successful fight for NAFTA and his drowning in Meech Lake.
Liberals are jumping on him for his attacks on Trudeau, especially hauling out Trudeau's unheroic behaviour in the Second World War, arguing not only that Trudeau early abandoned his youthful follies, but that Mulroney himself had been full of praise for Trudeau at the time of the latter's death.
Writing as both a very minor historian and as one of the minor thorns in his side in 1989-1994, I don't think these counterblasts have been all that effective. Like Salvador Allende and a number of political figures drawn in youth to ultra-reactionary and even fascist politics in the 1930s and 1940s, but later moving to the left, Trudeau did not so much see the error of his past ways as recognize their total political failure after 1945, retaining thereafter an unlovely combination of authoritarianism, statism and cynicism.
As for Mulroney's previous kinder words on Trudeau at his passing, we all did that. When a man dominating the political life of a nation for a decade or more dies, even his bitterest enemies suspend hostilities for a while, sometimes weeping for real monsters like Stalin and Mao, just for the recollection of living through their time.
There will be tears for Brian Mulroney at his passing, especially in Montreal, where he has always been genuinely popular. But he might have to console himself with his family, friends, and financial success until then. Like many politicians, he always appeared hungry as well for the love of the people, but Canadians seldom love their prime ministers, whether they remind us of kings or headwaiters.
Neil Cameron is a Montreal historian and was an Equality Party MNA in 1989-94, with a ringside seat at the Trudeau-Mulroney constitutional follies.