The former PM is being honoured (in Toronto, of all places) for 50 years of public service. I wasn’t a fan (to say the least) while he was in power, but as an old Mark Steyn column points out, he was a much more talented political survivor than his successor:
Back in the early eighties, during the back-and-forth over patriating the Constitution, Jean Chrétien is said to have walked into Buckingham Palace and been greeted by the Queen with a cheery “You again!”
Him again! Who’d have thought we’d miss him? You can thank Paul Martin for that. It took Mister Competent, the genius budget-balancer, the supposed real brains of the operation, smoothly urbanely fluent in at least two more official languages than his predecessor, to reveal da liddle guy as a towering colossus. Mr. Martin, so ruthless and efficient in plotting and manoeuvring to seize the crown, never gave a thought to what he would do with it once it was on his head. In the final chapter of his new book, M. Chrétien reveals that, with Sheila Fraser’s report on the sponsorship scandal looming, he offered to stay on a few weeks and take the hit for it on his watch. But Martin was in a hurry, and wanted the old man gone. And so he came roaring in, and all the stuff that never stuck to the wily Shawinigan ward-heeler stuck to King Paul like dog mess on his coronation robes – Adscam, Flagscam, Earnscam, Crownscam, Alphonso Scammiano, the Royal Scamadian Mounted Police — until the new broom swept himself into a corner and wound up running against the legacy he’d spent the previous decade claiming credit for.
What would Chrétien have done? He’d have said, “Waal, da scam is da scam and, when you got da good scam, dat da scam. Me, I like da scam-and-eggs wid da home fries at da Auberge Grand-Mère every Sunday morning. And Aline, she always spray da pepper on it. Like Popeye say, I scam what I scam. Don’ make me give you da ol’ Shawiniscam handshake …” Etc., etc., until it all dribbled away into a fog of artfully constructed incoherence, and the heads of the last two journalists following the story exploded, and he won his fourth term. If you follow the headlines, Chrétien’s memoir supposedly “blames” Martin and “rips” Martin and “blasts” Martin. But, of course, ripping and blasting isn’t the Chrétien style, and this amiable book could use a bit more of it. Telling the tale from election night in 1993 in his A-frame on Lac des Piles to his final walk from the Governor General’s office through the grounds of Rideau Hall and into private life, My Years As Prime Minister is a rewarding read if you’re prepared to do a bit of decoding. Thus, throughout the text, his preferred designation for his successor is “my successor” (“Unfortunately, when my successor took too long to make up his mind …”, etc.). In Britain, Edward Heath used to refer to Margaret Thatcher as such, because her very name used to stick in his craw. So the formulation, intended as condescension, sounded merely pathetic: Mrs. T. was the consequential figure and Sir Ted was merely the flop warm-up act. By contrast, Chrétien pulls the condescension off brilliantly. It’s a cool sneer — and, for a successor distinguished only by his conspicuous lack of success, wholly deserved: say what you like about Kim Campbell, but she didn’t spend her entire adult life scheming for the role of designated fall guy.
Is he a nice guy? I like to think not. I’m a nasty piece of work myself, and I always had a sneaking affection for the rare public glimpse of Chrétienite viciousness — the moment when he seized that Toronto Star reporter by the wrist and snarled “Get outta da way!” (I believe, after two months waiting for wrist surgery, the journalist was eventually treated in Buffalo, and, after a federal retraining course, now works happily as a tour guide at the Museum of Canadian Literature in Shawinigan.) But that’s the p’tit gars: he got everyone outta da way — Martin, Mulroney, Campbell, Manning, Day, Clark, Charest, Bouchard, Parizeau … No one will remember NEPAD or any of the other acronymic global-summit-fillers he claims credit for, but he kept the Liberal show on the road, which, as “my successor” discovered, is a lot harder than it looks. In his own autobiography, Paul Martin would be ill-advised to try to respond in kind.