Jean Charest’s elegant exit

‘Thank you from the bottom of my heart,’ exiting premier tells Quebec. ‘You’re just marvelous.’

For a guy who has slogged for nearly three decades through some of the nastiest swamps of Canadian politics, Jean Charest didn’t look or sound so bad as he delivered a restrained, reflective resignation speech this afternoon. As he spoke, anybody who has followed his career with even a bit of sympathy would have been thinking about the number of times he was dealt a miserable hand.

In 1990, Brian Mulroney asked Charest to chair the committee charged with salvaging something, anything, from the smashed Meech Lake constitutional deal. (Fat chance.) In 1993, the Tories turned to Charest, having earlier rejected him as leader in favour of Kim Campbell, to somehow prevent the party from disappearing entirely after Campbell’s disastrous election performance that year. (Gee, thanks.) In 1998, when Quebec’s only home for federalists, the provincial Liberal party, looked in awful shape, he was prevailed upon to tackle that fixer-upper. (Fun times.)

He wasn’t asking anybody to feel sorry for him today, though. After all, he had a pretty improbable run—nearly a decade as premier in a province that isn’t known for the stability of its political landscape. And at just 54, he’s got plenty of time for another act.

“As a father who will be very shortly a grandfather, life is sending me a signal,” Charest said, nearly tearing up, in the personal part that was inevitably the most poignant moment in his resignation remarks. “I want to tell my family that they were a great source of inspiration for me.”

But you expect a man to hit the right note when it comes to appreciating his own family. Almost more affecting, to my ear anyway, was Charest’s tribute to his whole unruly province. “I tell all Quebecers, thank you from the bottom of my heart, you’re just marvelous,” he said simply, going on to describe them as “dreamers” and “builders.”

Steeped as we are these days in the family-image-mongering of the U.S. presidential nominating conventions, and their over-the-top expressions of American exceptionalism, Charest’s low-key mention of his family and understated expression of affection for his province’s people sounded almost minimalist. And better for it.

His track record as a premier will be hashed over by pundits today and historians tomorrow. Charest said in his resignation address that he’s left the province’s books on track to be balanced soon, and that’s a reasonable claim—but did he preside over too much profligacy before turning the corner in the past two or three budgets toward fiscal realism? He boasted of achievements in health and education, specifically reducing the dropout rate—but Quebec’s spending and performance indicators in both areas, compared to other provinces, are hardly stellar.

Watching Charest’s elegant exit today, however, his skill as a political performer, rather than the substance of his mixed policy legacy, is top of mind. Few of his era could match his knack for finding the right rhetorical pitch for the moment. His stem-winding speech at the 1993 Conservative leadership convention in Ottawa, when the party had pretty much already decided on Campbell, left many Tories in the room with the queasy feeling that they were about to make the wrong choice. His famous gambit of waving his Canadian passport as a campaign prop in Quebec’s 1995 referendum was terrifically clever politics. And his way of talking about Quebec’s place in Canada—equipoise between two loyalties—did the federalist cause long service.

Casting back over it all, it’s hard not to wonder what he might have done if he’d hit a straight, flat, dry stretch on the treacherous political road he travelled.

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