No, I’m not referring to his announcement that he’ll retire in 2004, or the unfortunate fact that he’s let Paul Martin, the prune-faced corporate accountant who managed the Canadian economy during the 1990s exactly as Preston Manning wanted—and only caused it to perform 20 percent less well than if a chimpanzee in a coma had been finance minister—become more popular than he is. I’m referring to the recently televised interview with Peter Mansbridge during which he said that Western indifference to poverty and political inequity in the Third World was partly responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center. In this particular moment of truth he became a man willing to tell the truth, and for that he’s gained my admiration.
Jean Chretien hasn’t told the truth very often during his tenure as Canadian Prime Minister. His administrative style hasn’t required it of him, and his considerable political savvy keeps him from gratuitous truth-telling elsewise. He’s been very much a stand-back-and-see-how-the-chips-fall leader, initiating little on his own and following his pollsters interpretation of the political landscape to the point of tail-gating. This might be as much a response to the current Zeitgeist, which has every Western government acting as hand maidens to the spew of corporate capitalist nonsense issuing from their think-tanks and from the chubby-faced right wing ideologues that seem to be everywhere in the media these days. No one has ever accused Chretien of being a fool, after all.
His most truth-laden moment before this recent one was when he throttled that irritating professional activist a few years ago. Chretien’s demeanor after it happened made it clear that he’d enjoyed himself, wasn’t contrite, and would do it over if the shrill little bastard got past his security detail and into his face again. I liked Chretien for being so candidly human, and didn’t, as so many of my tut-tutting friends on the left did, see it as advocacy of generalized violence or the dawn of a new age of repressive police tactics. Instead, I thought that it was too bad that we haven’t seen the human and normal side of him more often, and I still feel that way. He’s arguably the most likable Canadian prime minister in living memory. Pierre Trudeau could be thrilling, or frightening, or intriguing, but he was never the sort of man you’d want to clap on the back or shoot the shit with. The rest of our recent PMs—Brian Mulroney at the front of the line—well, ugh…
But the aspect of Chretien’s personality that became visible during that interview on terrorism is more interesting than his normality. His careful clarity on the issue of Western culpability was without a trace of slick. It was thoughtful and heart-felt, and not so much a political statement as a moral cogitation, the implications of which were evidently dynamic and alive for him, and without ideology. Those who have since denounced or endorsed his position have missed the point, which is that we don’t know the precise degree of our culpability, and ought to make some open-minded effort to determine what it is.
The interview left me wondering if the general view of Jean Chretien—as a cynical, conniving and amoral politician might be inaccurate, and that it’s possible we’ve had, for the past nine years, a decent man deeply frustrated by his inability to do anything courageous and decent as Prime Minister. I guess we’ll see who Chretien really is over the next eighteen months. I have an instinct it could turn out better—and more interesting—than his first nine years would lead anyone to expect.
650 w. September 26, 2002