Monday, October 17, 2005

The Secret Mulroney Tapes: A Review

The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister
by Peter C. Newman
Random House Canada - 462 pages

Peter C. Newman's new book, The Secret Mulroney Tapes, is without doubt the Canadian political book of 2005. Upon its release this book had no shortage of attention, and opinions were as varied as they were numerous. Canadians seem drawn to it the way people feel compelled to look at a traffic accident. With its much-hyped promise of extensive, though unimaginative, profanity it is being sold as an unvarnished glimpse at a man who held sway over our nation for almost a decade.

The media saturation revolving around The Secret Mulroney Tapes means that it will be more read about than read, but those who do take the time to peruse its pages will probably come away unsatisfied. There is precious little in this book to dispel any of the existing prejudices about the former Prime Minister. Though at times Mulroney comes across as more thoughtful and compassionate than previously thought, overall his narcissism is blinding - especially to himself.

For political professionals, this book is the equivalent of a $1.99 discount pack of sugary donuts at the grocery store - an impulsive purchase catering to your base desires that ultimately leaves you unsatisfied and slightly ashamed for indulging yourself. But only after you have consumed the entire pack.

It is unlikely that anyone will come away from this book without realizing it is crap - but boy, is it good crap. And to be frank, when was the last time Canadians were treated to such headline sensationalism about a book on Canadian politics? I'll take this book any day ahead of another earnest tome from Jeffrey Simpson or that quickly forgotten memoir from Derek Burney. Frankly, Canadian political writing tends to be boring. There is no shortage of colourful characters and outright jerks on the political landscape in Canada, but by the time anything reaches print it has been sanitized and repackaged into a virtual literary anesthetic. If people are going to take any interest in the political life and times of our nation we need a more frank and bald account of its players acting badly, shared with us in print.

Peter C. Newman is a proficient, clean writer, and except for his all too frequent bursts of self-promotion, the book sticks to the facts and presents them as they are in simple prose. But the real selling point of this book is Newman's spectacular original research compiled from years of taped interviews with Mulroney and his close associates. Only a small segment of these conversations made it into the book. The full interviews, some 7,400 pages of transcripts, will someday be available through the University of Toronto's Thomas Fischer Rare Books Library.

With so much source material, the book had to be selective. Yet its abridged and highly edited nature is the source of its shortcomings. Instead of providing the reader with context and detail, the book offers a quick précis of a situation, followed by a succession of sometimes titillating quotes referring to it. It is this absence of context and detail that so quickly exposes the book's lack of depth. Considering the events that took place under Prime Minister Mulroney's leadership and the intense feelings they created, many of which still exist today, this shortcoming is astonishing.

It is shocking that this book has been in the works for decades, and in spite of the energy and time Mulroney and Newman put into conducting these interviews, that the book is so feeble. There is little here that is new, except for the explicitness and vigour of the profanity.

The back-story to the creation of the book is turning into an interesting side story. These interviews were agreed to on the understanding that Newman write a full, detailed biography of Mulroney. Newman and Mulroney had been friends since the early sixties and Mulroney had even been one of the best men at one of Newman's weddings. Given that relationship, it is reasonable for Mulroney to have felt confident that he would get a favourable shake from his pal Newman. That prospect was no doubt Mulroney's hope to change the opinion of an 'ungrateful' public.

They did have an explicit agreement that Mulroney would have approval over final drafts of the biography as originally planned. This did not happen. Instead, when it appeared a couple of years ago that Newman was not going to write a favourable biography, Mulroney backed out of the project. Newman, who did not want to let all this research go to waste without getting a book out of it, proceeded to write this volume without Mulroney's knowledge. Production was sped up when it was learned that Mulroney had became seriously ill this summer. And that may be why it seems somewhat rushed and incomplete.