WINNIPEG, MB - The mantle of leadership rests differently on every shoulder, but on the shoulders of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, it took on a certain grace before his caucus.
He was nothing like the persona painted by a media steeped in the rude and arrogant ways of his predecessor, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Brian Mulroney was a man cut from a humbler, but no less worthy, cloth. Raised in an isolated part of northern Quebec by an electrician father who valued education for his children, Brian did not live a life of privilege. He grew up fluently bilingual, attending Catholic school in Baie-Comeau and going on to a “residential” high school in Chatham, N.B. He went on to attend St. Francis Xavier University, thanks to his father, who worked overtime to ensure his son was educated. He then studied law, first at Dalhousie in Halifax and then at Laval in Quebec City. He later practiced labour law, negotiating contracts for big employers.
Brian had an engaging personality and the ability to reconcile opposing views and so he became a noted negotiator, settling a number of important labour disputes. Along the way at school and in his practice, he came to the notice of several important people who helped him move forward. Many later became key figures in his political life.
It is not Brian Mulroney’s political record I want to talk about here, but rather my observations about him as a man and how he handled leadership in a way that inspired his followers no matter how much his detractors disparaged him.
My first experience of him in a personal way was when he appointed me the chair of the 1991 Progressive Conservative annual meeting and policy conference. I was summoned to a meeting with him at his Centre Block office, a stiffly formal room commanded by a large desk with a lamp on one corner and two office arm chairs set at angles in front of it.
Brian greeted me and pointed to the chair in front of the lamp although I had been heading for the chair with no obstruction between us. From that and his upright, stiff-backed posture, I gleaned that he needed to set a certain tone of separation. He was undoubtedly unconscious of giving off these clues. But to a writer and people-observer, the body language was clear. He was nervous. I, who had been trembling until now, immediately relaxed and, to help him, I relaxed my own body language, slouching a bit in the chair, casually allowing my arms to rest on the chair arms and leaning slightly backwards. It worked. He did the same. As we talked, he became more animated and comfortable – almost exaggeratedly so. Thinking back, I guess he did this instinctively, picking up the language of the people he was with, and it may have had something to do with his success as a negotiator.
Suddenly, totally at ease now, he leaned back in his swivel chair and swung his feet up on his desk. We talked and I told him my plans for the conference. There was laughter and accord. Before I left the office, he took me over to a credenza where all the daily newspapers were lined up, open to the political stories of the day. He pointed to the ones about him, speaking good naturedly about the criticisms of himself.
This story tells a lot about who he was – warm and generous, a little vain but insecure, perhaps still in awe of the position he had reached. It reminded me of the first time I was ever in his presence. It was at an election rally in Winnipeg, where he was giving an impassioned speech to a thousand people. I was positioned right behind him and was astonished to see his body vibrating and his immaculate white shirt gradually becoming drenched with perspiration as he spoke. I was told later that this always happened and that Mila kept spare shirts at hand so he could change before moving to the next event.
But if these events demonstrated insecurities, you would never have guessed this during our caucus meetings every Wednesday. He seldom missed them. He was in his element there.
The Quebec caucus would line up in solidarity in one bloc of the room, right in front of the podium. Bob Layton (father of the late Jack Layton, former leader of the NDP) was our caucus chairman. Sporting one of the beautiful handmade, silk ties his wife sewed for him, mild-mannered Bob would deal with the housekeeping items and take questions from the floor before introducing the “Boss”, as his Quebecers called him.
Brian, seated at a head table with his other senior ministers such as deputy Prime Minister Don Mazankowski, would patiently listen to all the questions – sometimes the rants –and carefully take notes. He would never seem impatient or interrupt, although sometimes he asked a question for clarification. When the question period was over and everyone had had his say, Brian would step up to the podium. He would acknowledge the questions or comments, sometimes passing on an instruction for action, often praising a speaker or offering congratulations, and he would provide thoughtful answers where they were needed. He would speak about the issues of the day, sometimes of the issues just brought to his attention. He moved easily between French and English. He made us laugh. He rallied the troops with words of encouragement. Everyone in the audience was rapt.
Brian’s style of handling caucus was hugely different, Don Mazankowski once told me, from that of former leader Bob Stanfield, who was largely loved by the public. “Sometimes we would disagree in caucus,” Maz said. “And sometimes it came to fisticuffs. Soon the whole room would be brawling. Bob would just stand there, waving his hands and saying, ‘Now, boys. Now, boys’.” Nothing like that ever happened in Brian Mulroney’s meetings. And nobody told tales out of school afterward, although the media would be hanging about the doors like vultures. Not even Pat Nolin could get the prime minister’s goat, although Pat was eventually expelled from caucus because he sucked all the oxygen from the room with his sometimes fluidly fuelled rants. I liked Pat though. And I think Brian did too.
Brian Mulroney was considerate and warm, the first to pick up the phone if someone on his team had a family or personal problem. He would call and offer his sympathy and kind advice. “We’ve all been through it, but it will pass and you will be all right,” was the general tone of the call. I know. I had one of them.
He was generous to his opponents, too, although he could give as good as he got in a fight. Bill Blaikie recently told me of a call Brian made to him when he was facing an obnoxious opponent during an election campaign. “I hope you kick his ass,” Brian told him.
Now he is being generous to young Justin Trudeau as he was generous in his assessment of Donald Trump. These are the qualities of leadership that we all have to respect.
Brian Mulroney was a very good leader.
By Dorothy Dobbie
Photo supplied by Lifestyle 55