Friday, May 15, 2009

Things I Never Knew About Brian Mulroney

Most Americans probably don't know who Brian Mulroney is.

He was the Prime Minister of Canada between 1984 and 1993. Americans might know him best as one of the three people who delivered eulogies at Ronald Reagan's funeral. The two others being former President George H.W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Mulroney led the Progressive Conservative Party to back to back majority governments in the 1980s. Something no Tory leader had done in Canada since Sir John A. Macdonald a century earlier.

Yet by the time Mulroney left office he was loathed by the Right as by the Left and his party was in shambles. They were reduced to 2 seats in the House of Commons in the 1993 federal election. It took more than a decade for a viable Conservative Party to again take shape in Canada.

The current Conservative government of Stephen Harper called a public inquiry into Mulroney for cash payments he accepted from German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber after he left office in 1993-1994 to determine if he broke any laws. It is alleged that the deal was made two days before Mulroney left office. Mulroney has spent the past several days testifying before the inquiry.

In the mid-1990s, Mulroney was accused of accepting kickbacks from Schreiber for the sale of Airbus planes to Air Canada. Mulroney would sue the Canadian government for libel and would settle out of court for in excess of $2 million to cover legal expenses and an apology from the Government of Canada. However, the cash payments to Mulroney from Schreiber were revealed after the settlement. So Schreiber continues to hang over Mulroney's head to this very day.

I must admit I was one of those Canadians who loathed him. Even before he became Prime Minister he came off as arrogant and pompous. By the early 1990s it was almost a universal sentiment in Canada. I was living in Ottawa at the time and my grandparents came to visit. My grandfather recounted something he had seen on the way to my aunt and uncle's house from the airport. There was somebody with a sign, "Honk if you think Mulroney is an a#*hole." My grandfather said, "The noise was deafening." We all laughed.

Mulroney could be very blunt and caustic. When he had a falling out with Canadian journalist Peter C. Newman over his biography he said this at the 2005 Canadian Press Gallery Dinner. And you thought Wanda Sykes was rough at the White House Correspondents Dinner last weekend.

I never met Mulroney although I did hear him speak on one occasion at a very different dinner altogether. It was at the Canada-Israel Committee Annual Dinner in March 1993 at the Ottawa Congress Centre. Shimon Peres was the guest of honor.

Mulroney gave a sterling speech extoling Israel's accomplishments and virtues. He frowned on those who would lecture Israel about how to conduct itself. Mulroney noted how Israel had accepted Bosnian Muslim refugees from the former Yugoslavia with little fanfare. It was the first time I ever saw Mulroney in a positive light.

Over time I have softened my view towards Mulroney. It is not to say that I accept how he governed wholecloth but he was certainly right about some things. Before there was NAFTA, there was the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. The 1988 federal election was fought over it. Many thought Canada or at the very least its economy would be absorbed into the United States thereby creating a North American economic and political union thus ending Canadian sovereignty.

Well, 20 years later the Canadian flag still flies. It is an imperfect agreement as all agreements are. But Canada is better off for it and as it turns out Mulroney was right to pursue it.

But there is a side to Mulroney I never knew. Until today. Remember the Ethiopian famine of 1984-1985? It turns out he had a lot to do with co-ordinating the international relief effort before the Bob Geldofs and Harry Belafontes of the world stepped into the picture.
Brian Stewart, Senior Correspondent of CBC's The National, has an article on Mulroney's generosity and how he did it with little fanfare.

That doesn't mean Mulroney is above the law. If he did something illegal he should be charged and face justice. But having seen and heard people villify George W. Bush for nearly a decade I came to realize that I was guilty of the same thing when it came to Mulroney. Some of my criticisms were legitimate but many were not. Discerning between constructive criticism and ad hominem attacks are a part of growing up. So is coming to an understanding about people with whom you disagree. They might be wrong about a particular matter but it doesn't make them bad people. It isn't to say that Brian Mulroney doesn't have negative qualities. Those qualities helped him get into the mess he finds himself in right now. But if Mulroney didn't have some positive qualities then why help people a world away and not toot his own horn? In the final analysis there is good and bad in all of us. Even if Mulroney behaved badly and broke the law it doesn't invalidate the good he did for the people of Ethiopia nearly a quarter century ago.

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