Brian Mulroney can't stop laughing. Sunk into the well-upholstered couch in his eleventh-floor, downtown Montreal law office, he is trying to read out loud from a glossy report - but keeps breaking into guffaws. At first, the object of his merriment seems curious: a brochure put out by International Trade Minister Sergio Marchi. In it, Marchi is quoted as celebrating the "unqualified success" of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The problem is that the brochure celebrates "five years of NAFTA" - and ignores its forerunner, the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, put in place by Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives. In fact, it makes no mention at all of the Tories. Nor does it acknowledge that Marchi was, in the 1988 election campaign, one of the most vociferous opponents of free trade. "Ah, those Liberals," says Mulroney, wiping his eyes before adding sarcastically: "Such elegance on policy reversals can only come from people with vast experience in the area."
Say this for Brian Mulroney: he sometimes forgives, but he never forgets attempts to chip away at his political legacy. Bit by bit, he is ending his self-imposed retreat from the public eye. In addition to a recent 90-minute interview with Maclean's, Mulroney will appear at a high-level conference marking 10 years of free trade hosted by McGill University's Institute for the Study of Canada on June 4 and 5. Other guests include former U.S. president George Bush, former U.S. secretary of state Jim Baker, and business executives ranging from Laurent Beaudoin, the chairman of Bombardier Inc., to Charles Sirois, the chief executive officer of Teleglobe Inc. "It's our chance," Mulroney jokes, "to speak one more time before the Liberals airbrush us out of history."
Mulroney, who turned 60 in March, does not watch Question Period any more, and says he "probably could not identify" many ministers in the present government. But other habits remain. "The guy has the most impressive Rolodex I've ever seen," says his friend and sometime media adviser Luc Lavoie. "He always knows what everybody's up to." Mulroney spends hours on the telephone, networking with chums who range from Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest - one of his former cabinet ministers - and former British prime ministers John Major and Margaret Thatcher to Bush and, occasionally, Bill Clinton. ("I was in a limousine in New York a while ago when the phone rang, and it was Clinton," he recalls. "I had to say I'd call back when I got a more secure phone.")
On the dark side, there is the undeclared, ongoing war of words and wits with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. The two men, in short, loathe each other. For Mulroney, the cause is the Airbus Affair, in which he spent 14 months fighting the government to clear his name of allegations that he took kickbacks in Air Canada's 1988 purchase of Airbus jets. In January, 1997, the government apologized, and agreed to pay his legal fees and other related costs.
Mulroney, who insists he is "not bitter, but deeply wounded" by the incident, believes that the Prime Minister, among other things, allowed the investigation into the charges to linger for political gain. "If such an accusation had been made about a predecessor when I was in office, I would have said, 'Give me proof in 24 hours, or I'll fire everyone involved with this,' " says Mulroney. "But that guy, he didn't care about my wife and children. He knew I'm an honest man." (In response, an adviser to the Prime Minister said: "We see no point in debating the issue. Mr. Mulroney is free to express his views.")
In fact, the two men's antagonism is relatively recent. Through the 1970s and first half of the 1980s, Mulroney and Chrétien were well-acquainted associates who went on at least one group fishing trip together and shared some close social ties. (Chrétien's daughter France is married to André Desmarais, son of one of Mulroney's closest friends.) When Chrétien quit politics in 1986 to join an Ottawa law firm, Mulroney says he "put out the word it was OK to do business with his firm. Ottawa is such a company town that without that, I thought he'd be cooked." The breakdown came in 1990 in the dying days of the Meech Lake Accord: Chrétien, running for the Liberal leadership, was uneasy with it. In the aftermath, Chrétien was vilified in Quebec and he, in turn, blamed Mulroney for "cozying up to the separatists."
Now, Mulroney cites a litany of slights. Although he was a leading figure in Commonwealth efforts to get South Africa to renounce apartheid, Mulroney was not part of the Canadian delegation under Chrétien for Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994. When Jordan's King Hussein died earlier this year, Mulroney was not invited to join the Canadian delegation - although he and wife Mila were such good friends of the Jordanian ruler that they were among about 100 people invited to the 20th wedding anniversary celebrations in June, 1998, of Hussein and his wife, Queen Noor. "We lack the nonpartisan traditions that other countries put forward to the rest of the world," says Mulroney. "And that won't change under this guy." But, he adds, slipping in a dig, "I bet it will when Paul [Martin] takes over."
Today, Mulroney appears fitter and arguably younger than when he announced his resignation in February, 1993. Longtime close friend Jonathan Deitcher, a Montreal investment banker, went on vacation with Mulroney that year. One night, he recalls, "Brian talked about how tough it was to try so hard, and be so unpopular. He said he took solace that he'd done the right things, but it bothered him." Now, Mulroney has lost weight, along with the puffy, hunted look he had in his final Ottawa days - and again during the Airbus ordeal. He plays tennis, skis and has taken up golf. "Brian," says Deitcher, "is the happiest I have known him. The shadows have lifted." He is also a rich man - the result of sitting on close to two dozen boards of directors and advisory groups worldwide, working as "rainmaker" or senior partner at the law firm of Ogilvy Renault, and giving speeches at $75,000 an appearance. As a corporate director, Mulroney wins raves. "Brian has chosen boards where he can really contribute - because he'd be bored to tears being a yes-man," says Stanley Hartt, his former chief of staff who is chairman of Salomon Smith Barney Inc. investment bankers. Peter Munk, who has controlling interest in Barrick Gold and TrizecHahn - two Mulroney directorships - says: "There is nothing Brian can't do. He knows everyone everywhere."
That is reflected in Mulroney's travel schedule. In one recent three-day period, he flew to the University of Southern California to give a lecture, then went to New York City for a board meeting, then returned to California to meet an investors' group in Palm Springs that included record producer David Foster and former talk-show host and hotelier Merv Griffin.
In his personal life, Mulroney says, "Mila and I feel more blessed than ever." Of their four children, the youngest, Nicolas, 13, remains with them in their Westmount home. Two others - Caroline, 24, and Mark, 20 - are studying in the United States, while Ben, 23, is finishing his second year of law at Mulroney's alma mater, Laval University. The family spend major holidays together - often at a home Mulroney bought several years ago in Palm Beach, Fla. Later this summer, they are going on safari in South Africa at the invitation of Mandela.
Scars remain from his years in politics: Mulroney is convinced that his unpopularity was driven by the "English-language Ottawa media who didn't like me because they were opposed to my agenda." That group, he says, gives Chrétien "the softest coverage of any prime minister in history." But there are signs his antipathy towards Ottawa life is softening. Asked whether he would encourage his children if they wanted to enter politics, he answers "absolutely" - and volunteers that Caroline "would be a natural." And though Mulroney considers Pierre Trudeau's condemnation of the Meech Lake accord "a betrayal," he wrote him a sympathy note after the avalanche death of Trudeau's son Michel, and received a letter in return.
Now, Mulroney is tanned, rested and ready for almost anything - except a political comeback. Some time ago, he says, he read a "particularly egregious" statement by Chrétien and remarked to Mila that it was enough to make him return to politics. When she didn't answer, he realized she had stopped in her tracks, so he added innocently: "Did you hear me, dear?" Mila beamed and answered: "I'm sure you and your new wife will have a great time then." The story finished, Mulroney laughs, then adds: "Of course, I have no intention of coming back." After another pause, he continues, jabbing the air for emphasis: "But if I did, this guy in the Prime Minister's Office might laugh for a week - and then he'd realize he finally had some real opposition on his hands." Failing that, living extremely well constitutes Brian Mulroney's best revenge.
Maclean's May 24, 1999