Deconstructing Brian

Sometimes, after a particularly profound interview, I need to spew the personal out of me, so that I can do my job properly. Such was the case after I interviewed former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, and before I wrote the story, The Soft Power (R)evolution: Lawyer Lobbyists, Strategic Counsel and Rolodexes of Influence (Lexpert, February 2008).

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Deconstructing Brian

by Marzena Czarnecka

It’s 12:30 a.m. I’m alone in a hotel room, ironing a wrinkle-free shirt and handwashing my underwear. All in honour of Brian Mulroney.

Let me rewind.

It’s 3:45 p.m. I’m in my house, reading Dr. Seuss’s Mr. Brown Can Moo to my 2.5 year-old, trying to convince my five-year-old to change out of his pajamas, brushing my teeth and cramming a laptop, a recorder, and a ziplock bag stocked with a tiny—non-threatening, unlikely to blow up a plane—toothpaste tube, toothbrush, and contact lens case into various pockets of a black leather briefcase.

Also, I cram in a notebook and a pen. And extra-batteries.

“We should leave in five minutes,” calls Sean—husband, driver. Generous owner of black leather briefcase, who, despite his own political affiliations—comes from a long line of NDP-voting Manitobans, my lover—desires me to look snazzy and professional as I interview the former prime minister and current lawyer.

“Ugh!” I holler. Two-and-a-half year old on hip and five-year-old attached to knee, I run into the bedroom. Clothes are laid out on bed. Skirt, shirt, socks. Brand new skirt. On the advice of my mother, who, I’m pretty sure, still hates Brian Mulroney on account of that GST thing. Or possibly just out of habit. Still, she’s an Old World duchess at heart, and no daughter of hers is going to go before a former prime minister wearing old rags. (Cost of skirt: $10. Plus GST.)

I cram the skirt, shirt and socks into the briefcase. It used to have a beautiful, streamlined look. Now it bulges. And I think it has toddler snot on it.

“We should leave now,” calls Sean.

“Downstairs, downstairs,” I command the kinder. “We have to get mama to the airport.” The kinder run down the stairs.

I brush my teeth, and throw a hairbrush into the briefcase. It now definitely bulges.

The two-and-a-half-year-old comes back upstairs and asks to be dressed in a panda costume. Fortunately, we have one. Except we can’t find the head. There is tragedy.

You’re thinking I missed my flight. I didn’t. One does not miss a flight if one is going to interview the former prime minister of Canada. A headless, teary-eyed panda blew me kisses as I raced through security. I made it just on time.

But I did arrive in Montreal with no underwear.

Hence—it’s 12:30 a.m. I’m in a hotel room in Montreal, all alone, blowing a pair of panties dry with a hairdryer.

And ironing the clothes I had crammed into the briefcase between the laptop and the recorder. My mother would be so proud. She probably thinks I can’t iron.

I have to confess, I don’t sleep much. I think I’m actually a little nervous. Not something I like to admit. I’d like to think myself more arrogant than that. Heck, I don’t even really like Brian Mulroney, do I? Never voted for him, and not just because I wasn’t old enough.

But I’m nervous. Because, let’s face it, he’s the former prime minister of Canada and if he wanted to, he could crush me like a little bug.

OK, he couldn’t. I’m too insignificant to start with to be crushed. Still, I’m a little nervous, and I miss my snotty children.

In the morning, when I stroll into the bathroom, I find my blow-dried panties floating in the toilet.

I wipe snot off the brief case and go meet Brian. Sans foundation garments. Fortunately, the skirt is long.

I will call him Brian in my head, I tell myself, because if I think of him as Mr. Mulroney, I will puke on his shoes.

I am so not a journalist at heart.

11 a.m. I meet Brian.

Rewind again. First, the warm-up act. Two lovely media and marketing people. They’re more anxious than I am. I relax. Then Norm Steinberg, managing partner of Ogilvy Renault, the law firm Brian practiced with before he ventured into politics and then re-joined after passing the reigns of the Progressive Conservative party to Kim Campbell in 1993. (You know what happened next, right?)

I know Norm. I like Norm. Norm calls Brian Brian. I no longer feel like puking. I am confident, powerful, pen-wielding author. Ha ha ha ha.

I think about all the other politicians I have known. Surprisingly, there are quite a few. And I have photos with many of them.

Number one: Ralph Klein. He’s the mayor of Calgary. I’m 10 or 11, and I probably don’t speak any English—we had just arrived in Canada a few weeks earlier. I’ve won some kind of art prize. Here’s the photo: a very young-looking Ralph, me, and a picture I’ve drawn of… the Calgary Tower? A giraffe? It’s hard to tell. But it’s very colourful.

By the way—I can’t draw. But Ralph can’t judge, so all is well.

Number two: Joe Clark. After he’s been prime minister the first time but before he was lured back to the fray the second time. Photo: Joe, me, and a half-a-dozen other pimply teenagers. We’re all holding plaques. I have no idea why. Joe looks sad.

Number three: Stephen Harper. Hey, can you tell I’m an Alberta girl? No one in this line-up but the divided Right. No photo this time. I’m in high school and the Reform Party is going to the polls for the first time. Harper comes to my high school—along with each of the Liberal, PC and NDP candidates—to show us all how the election process works.

I don’t remember the names of any of the other candidates.

Steve was much thinner back then. And, if memory serves, much more of an idealogue. But then, apparently so were we all. He won our high school mock election. The PC dude got the real one. For the record, I voted NDP. First and to date last time in my life.

That was Brian’s second majority government, and, of course, the first consecutive Canadian Conservative government since John A. MacDonald.

Brian reminds me about this later, when he shows me the desk in his office. It’s one of the three desks known to be used by John A.

Pretty cool.

I covet it, even though I’ve never been a conservative prime minister with two consecutive majority governments.

But I digress. Politicians I have briefly encountered, number four: Peter Lougheed. No photo, thank God. First week on the job at Bennett Jones—the Calgary law firm Peter… (no, that I can’t say, Mr. Lougheed it is, the indoctrination runs deep), the Calgary law firm Mr. Lougheed joined after he retired from politics. Anyway—first week on the job, I’m running down a marble Bennett Jones hallway with an armful of binders, and I careen into Mr. Lougheed.

I knock him over.

OK, I don’t really knock him over. I just run into him and jostle him a bit, and make him drop his papers. And drop all my binders. But when I tell the story, though, I say, “And on my first day on the job, I almost killed Peter Lougheed.”

Norm Steinberg laughs when I tell the story. It’s a good one. We make fun of Ralph Klein a little too, because it’s so easy.

We don’t make fun of Brian, though. That would be rude and impolitic.

I’ve interviewed Bob Rae, too. Remember him? But that was on the telephone and via e-mail. Ever interview a politician over e-mail? Good. Don’t do it. It’s a lot like interviewing Paul Martin live. Haven’t done that, by the way. That’s because he’s a Liberal and I’m an Alberta gel.

Number five: throughout the 1990s, I kept on running into Preston Manning. He was everywhere. We even talked once. It was an encounter very much on the Peter Lougheed model. Setting: Palliser Hotel. Preston walking out, me going in, tripping over a rug and pushing a luggage cart toward him.

It missed. “Sorry,” I said. “Don’t worry,” he replied. Good egg. An idealogue, though, and of the wrong sort.

After he left, I was going to call out, “Stockwell Day didn’t pay me, really,” but I didn’t.

This was about the time when Stockwell Day… but you know what he did. Was that fun or sad?

And now he’s in Stephen Harper’s government. I wonder if I will ask Brian about Harper.

I’ve met Stockwell, too. Well, met. Breathed the same confined air as he. In an elevator at Bennett Jones, where a BJ lawyer—now at Osler Hoskin Harcourt, gosh, the way these guys move around these days is indecent, isn’t it—was shopping him around to his potential donors and voters in the day when the Reform Party called itself the United Alternative. Or was that the age of CCRAP? Hee hee hee. That’s one of my favourite Canadian political moments. The Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance Party shall live in my memory forever.

Norm exits, and I run to the bathroom, Not to puke. I’m all good now. To pee. And to wash and wipe my hands. I have sweaty palms. I’m excited.

I wish I wasn’t. I want to be blasé and sophisticated and dismissive. Phi, phi, phi, I do this all the time. Brian Shmayan.

I’m totally stoked. I get to interview Brian Mulroney. My dad’s stoked too. He hasn’t been this stoked since the day I interviewed Hal Kvisle, the CEO of TransCanada, and, incidentally, my father’s boss’s boss’s boss. Granted, it would be better if I, child of immigrants who suffered untold—well, told, actually, and quite frequently—hardships to bring me to the land of plenty, if I would be prime minister of Canada. But the fact that I get to interview a former one—pretty cool.

I’m totally stoked.

11:08 a.m. Brian comes in and apologizes for being late.

He’s old!

I’m shocked.

It’s 14 years—13 of them under the theocracy of Jean Chretien—since he’s been prime minister. And I might have seen more recent pictures, but the ones burned in my head are of Mulroney in the 1980s, when he was in his early 50s. He’s 68 now. My grandfather is 68. And dead.

My palms stop sweating.

He actually looks pretty good. For an old guy. Still has his hair, although it’s all white now. And there’s less of it. The writer’s traditional arrogance returns.

Conventional suit. Nice tie.

We talk.

Well, mostly he talks, which is as it should be. We’re talking about his work as strategic counsel—not a lobbyist, ugh, ugly word, that is not what he does, he stresses—for the clients of Ogilvy Renault. If you want to read about that, you can read my article in the November 2007 issue of Lexpert magazine.

(Lexpert is “the” Canadian business magazine for lawyers. One day, I will write an insider’s story of the early days of the building of the Lexpert empire. And then I will let its founder, John Alexander Black, convince me not to publish it. Ha ha ha ha.)

(John Black, by the way, is also a lawyer. I don’t know if he knows Mulroney. But I guess he admires him. Crazy ultra-conservative right-wing man that he is.)

I’m impressed. And not because I’m young, anxious or nervous. I am now fully my regular arrogant, conservative, Green Party voting, shall-not-be-intimidated by former PC prime ministers thank you very much self. But I’m impressed.

Brian’s a pretty good guy. Super articulate, of course. Alternating between polished, practiced speech and unexpected frankness. I see how Peter Newman got what he got on those infamous tapes.

I briefly ponder if I should leech onto a proto-politician, establish a long-standing relationship with him or her, and then betray him or her for cash and self-aggrandizement.

Nah. I don’t have the stomach for it.

Back to Brian. Smart. Brilliant, really. He makes leaps and connections between ideas. And, obviously, between people.

We don’t talk about FTA and NAFTA, but I can see why he was the prime minister who presided over the free trade agreements. A big picture guy. One of those who saw globalization coming in the 70s, I bet.

He makes a few digs at Trudeau. One at the National Energy Program, of course. That’s for my benefit, because I’m an Alberta gel. Another over the deficit he inherited.

I’ve never met Pierre Elliott Trudeau, but I’ve had a lame-ass crush on his self from the 1970s.

He was hot.

For an old guy.

Brian asks me about my parents, and he likes the immigrating away from an oppressive Communist regime story. He draws a connection. My dad works for TransCanada. Another famous Ogilvy Renualt partner and Brian’s close friend—used to be on the board of TransCanada.

It’s a small, small world, we agree

It’s 12:10 p.m.—almost 12 hours since I was pointlessly blow drying my underwear in the hotel bathroom. (My mother would disown me. In fact, when she reads this, she will berate me for using underwear and Brian Mulroney in the same sentence. Or maybe not. She’s still angry over the GST.)

I’m in Brian Mulroney’s office, and it’s gorgeous.

Mila decorated it, he says. The woman’s got good taste.

Brian’s office is about as big as the main floor of my house. I have a small house. But he has a big office. They converted a boardroom into an office for him, and added another office as a “parlour” where his assistant Francine sits.

In Toronto, Ogilvy Renault partners and associates all have same size offices with the same modular furniture.

But this is Montreal.

Brian shows me his mementos and photographs. There he is with Boris Yeltsin, Margaret Thatcher, George the Elder and George the Younger, George the Elder and Barbara—he and Mila spend every Labour Day weekend with the Bushes, he says. He’s on the telephone with George the Elder—talking about fishing, as in “I caught more fish than you did”—when I walk into his office.

No pictures of Harper, Clark, or Klein, though. Preston’s not here either. Not surprising.

Hey, there’s a picture of the pope. “Your Polish pope,” Brian says.

I tell Brian I have a picture of me and the pope too. He doesn’t seem impressed.

“He kissed me,” I want to say. “Gave me a personal blessing. Phhht. Did he kiss you?”

But I don’t. I don’t want to brag.

I do ask him about Harper. Because they talk. “He’ll do well,” says Brian. “He worries about getting a majority. I tell him don’t worry about a majority. Just stay there.”

I don’t much like Stephen Harper, but I don’t tell Brian that. He’d be disappointed. He likes me. I’m not bad people, for a writer, I bet he thinks. No Stevie Cameron there, he thinks.

(I’m not sure that’s a compliment. But it’s true. I don’t have the stomach for it. I’m going to write murder mysteries… or children’s books when I grow up. Or children’s murder mysteries. Kids growing up so fast these days, surely there will be demand for a genre like that. Or incoherent reportages a la Hunter S. Thompson. My hero.)

I wonder if Brian’s ever read Hunter S. Thompson. But I mention neither Hunter nor Stevie Cameron. I don’t even mention David Frum, who has been metaphorically fellating Brian in The National Post this week.

I ask about his book.

He’s stoked. He’s stoked about the four hours of Brian Mulroney-rama on CBC next weekend too. And he’s a little nervous. He’s smooth and polished, but I can tell. He wants people to like his book.

Well, at least some people.

And even if they don’t like it, he wants them to read it.

At least some of them.

He wants, I think, at least some of them to understand him.

Which ones?

He doesn’t say, but I know. People like my parents. Who are among the many Liberal-hating Canadians who still dislike and resent Mulroney for the acronyms he left to the nation. GST. NAFTA.

It’s hard to be a big picture guy.