[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Douglas Gibson’s new book Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others, running every Friday. The following is taken from the chapter on Prime Minister and author, Brian Mulroney.]
Unlike Mr. Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney wrote his Memoirs himself. Every word. In longhand. That had not always been the plan, after Avie Bennett used his excellent contacts with people like Mulroney’s old pal from St. Francis Xavier, Sam Wakim, to entice Mulroney to sign up with M&S to publish his memoirs. At the outset, there had been some thought of having a writer work with him, and I had secretly approached one or two likely candidates. But in the end Brian — as he soon became — decided to do it himself, with the aid of a hard-working researcher based in Kingston named Arthur Milnes.
I know that Arthur — a sturdy, down-to-earth fellow who has always been fascinated by political history — now spends a fair portion of his life explaining that, no, he did not write Brian Mulroney’s Memoirs. In fact, his role was clear. He was the researcher who went on ahead of the author, producing research notebooks that reminded Brian what he had been doing, week by week in, for example, 1986. Armed with these reminders — and often with the results of specific follow-up research requests — Mulroney sat down and wrote his memoirs.
This hands-on approach is so unusual in the world of political memoirs that as the book’s editor and publisher I decided to emphasize the fact that Brian Mulroney really had written it himself. That’s why the hardcover edition has endpapers, right beside the book jacket, that show, clearly and legibly, pages from his hand-written manuscript.
The front cover of the book is predictable — a full-face, fullcolour, smiling photograph of Brian Mulroney in his prime ministerial prime. It’s instantly recognizable, it’s a good photograph of a beaming, good-looking man, with even the slightly undersized mouth (about which the cartoonist Aislin was so fundamentally rude) showing a fine set of white teeth. And the author liked it. That’s the way that ninety-nine percent of publishers around the world would have “packaged” the book.
Yet, on reflection, I think it was a mistake. A mistake, because it showed the side of Brian Mulroney that many people love to hate. The super-confident — even cocky — guy who’s got it made, the guy who loves the limelight, loves the prime minister’s role that leaves him waving to the crowds like a star on a red carpet somewhere.
Only a national psychologist could explain this fully, but I believe that one of the reasons why so many Canadians came to dislike Brian Mulroney, viscerally, in his role as prime minister is that he enjoyed it too much. This star “presidential” role — and you can think of Brian Mulroney beaming alongside Ronald Reagan onstage in Quebec City, their Irish eyes-a-smiling — played very badly in a country that liked the idea of Marion Pearson mending the curtains at 24 Sussex Drive. We want our prime ministers (unless they’re named Trudeau) to reflect the great cares of office, and to do so with humility.
By contrast, Mulroney was the guy who beamed his way through events, loved leaping out of limos in his Gucci shoes (and you remember how controversial his Gucci shoes were?) and was delighted and proud to be where he was, a Hollywood prime minister. I fear that the cover we chose played to that unpopular image and prompted the emotional response: “Oh yeah, Mulroney — I never liked that guy.”
On reflection (and I did suggest this at the time, knowing that it was a long shot) I think that on his Memoirs we should have run a cover showing Brian Mulroney as a little boy — shy, squinting at the Brownie camera — back in Baie Comeau.
I first met Brian — and he was always Brian, just as Diefenbaker was always Mr. Diefenbaker — in Montreal. I was in the city and had arranged to meet him in his office at Ogilvy Renault, in a glass and steel skyscraper on McGill-College Avenue in the heart of downtown. And what, you may wonder, is a celebrity lawyer’s office like, once you penetrate the reception area, then the corridors with lines of filing cabinets and doors leading to conventional lawyers’ offices, with English and French both floating in the air, and are ushered in by Francine, his assistant? Why, a comfortably furnished room with a couch and the sort of informal yet expensive furniture that you’d find in the living room of a well-to-do family’s modern cottage. There are even framed, signed photographs from old friends like Teddy Kennedy, and what with the comfy couch and the armchair, it’s more like a relaxed living room or den than an office — even if Francine is only a few steps away.
That was where we first met, and where I had my first fun with him. At the time, Brian’s hated nemesis, Jean Chrétien, was going through very hard times in Ottawa, his leadership threatened by the Martin forces baying at his heels. Putting on a concerned expression, I suggested to Brian that it was terrible what was being done to poor Mr. Chrétien, implying that as a former pm and party leader, he must be sympathetic to Mr. Chrétien’s plight.
He gaped at me. Then, seeing the grin break out on my face, he started to relax, laughing and saying in, almost, these words: “That son of a gun, it couldn’t happen to a better guy” — and we were off to a good start. And we were to remain on good terms, with only one major fight ahead of us.
He is such a controversial figure that dozens of people have asked me: “What was it like, working on his book with Brian Mulroney?”
There is often an unspoken hostility behind the question, so my reply often surprises people. “I enjoyed working with him, and I like him.”
Visit ECW Press to learn more about Stories About Storytellers: Publishing Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod, Pierre Trudeau, and Others. Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on Brian Mulroney.