FORMER PM DEPLORES DECLINE OF COMMONS
The other night, the Liberals were honouring the 50th anniversary of Mike Pearson becoming PM, which gave me a chance to chide another former PM, Jean Chretien, for turning me down when I asked him to be a Sun columnist.
Chretien took a break from "earning a living'' to spend time at U of T with academics and Grits remembering Pearson. Then he was at a private dinner also remembering the baseball nut who became PM before he flitted off again. At 79, there's no sign the "petit gars de Shawinigan" is slowing to a retired pace.
I fetched him a drink at the private function which I can't describe because it was off-the-record. So I can't tell you that he gave an impromptu witty speech which managed to lament the passage of the nicer days of Parliament while taking a swipe without names about MPs not being able to speak out whenever they wanted.
I would continue but it was off-the-record, which wouldn't have stopped all the Grits from shooting off their mouth about the event to all their friends who weren't lucky enough to make the cut.
Fortunately we were chatting before the cloak dropped. I was surprised that there was no need to refresh Chretien's memory about the job offer because, I suppose, he first hought it strange at the time and faithful Sun readers would have been apoplectic.
I hasten to add it hadn't been my idea but it grew on me. Chretien had just retired because of that defeat by John Turner and he was riding the crest of popularity over his unlikely bestseller Straight From The Heart. So his publisher Anna Porter had a party for the book he wrote with Ron Graham at the old Campbell House on University.
It was Doug Creighton's idea when he found out that I was going to the reception that Chretien as a Sun columnist would be like a rock through a stained glass window for our readers but it might actually get more Liberals to buy the tabloid they loved to hate. So he told me to make the pitch.
As the new Editor, I wasn't about to say no to the founding publisher but I was mortified at the prospect of being made to look like a fool when an agile parliamentarian rejected me with ridicule.
I agonized over the approach because Chretien was always ringed by admirers. But by some miracle, we ended up at the end of the bar at the same time looking for replenishment. So I introduced myself and said we thought he would be a provocative addition to our barrage of columnists.
He laughed and laughed. He turned away and shouted at some party workers that "Downing here wants me to be a Sun columnist. How ridiculous is that?"
The hell with this, I thought. But in for a penny, in for a pound. So I persisted, pointing out that I doubted he had really retired from politics and this would be a useful way to keep his name and his thoughts before the people. Much better, I pointed out, than if he was in the Star because people wouldn't find that remarkable.
This gave Chretien pause. His amiable scorn started to evaporate. He was thinking about it, egged on by two insiders he had roped into the conversation who thought it was a "helluva idea," providing I wasn't pulling a stunt.
Then Porter called on him for a speech and he left me. He promised to think about it and call me from Montreal. He never did.
Except it turns out the idea didn't die. Chretien told me the other night that there had been a proposal to match his new Liberal column in the Sun with a new Conservative column by Peter Loughead, who had just retired as Alberta premier.
And then I remembered that the Porters - Anna, the publisher, and Julian, the noted libel lawyer and son of Tory royalty - for years hosted receptions in their home for all the big shots of Alberta. So that must have been the hothouse for the Chretien-Loughead duet in opinion.
It has always surprised me that Chretien's book was such a huge success. Was it due to him or Graham?So I asked how it all came about. He said that Anna, the head of Key Porter Books, told him she thought he had a good book in him. "I told her Madam I am not a writer. She asked again. I said Madam I don't write books. And she asked again. I said Madam I am a lawyer. And she asked again. I said Madam I am retired from politics. And she wrote a cheque. And I wrote a book."
It would be a mistake to think Chretien disliked everything about the Sun because he had a special relationship with Doug Fisher, the legendary Sun political columnist after he defeated a Liberal giant, C.D. Howe, and become an MP. Chretien said when he arrived on Parliament Hill in 1963 as the nervous rookie MP from Saint-Maurice-Lafleche, he was the uncomfortable outsider from small-town Quebec in an English city. "The very first person I saw was Doug Fisher. And he took me everywhere and showed me everything. He didn't speak much French and I didn't speak much English but I never forgot that."
Chretien is proud of how many books he sold. When a Canadian book sells at least 2,500, it's called a best-seller. Chretien boasts that his book sold several hundred thousand. I wonder how many extra papers his column would have sold for us. I certainly wouldn't have looked forward to the mail.