Deleted scenes (V)

This is referenced briefly in the print edition, but here’s a more expansive take.

One could argue that the defining characteristic of Liberal leaders over the last half century is recovery. Pearson, Trudeau and Chretien struggled and recovered. Turner, Martin and Dion struggled and did not. Pearson wins the leadership in 1958 and promptly leads the party to what was then its worst ever defeat. Trudeau nearly loses to Bob Stanfield in 1972 and loses outright to Joe Clark in 1979, and comes back both times to revive his fortunes and win majority governments. And then there’s Chretien.

He’s been referenced twice here as a model for Ignatieff, so consider Chretien’s first year as leader of the Liberal party, as related in the second volume of Lawrence Martin’s biography. Chretien wins the leadership in June 1990. He puts off running in a by-election and fails to articulate clear policy. He hand picks Denis Coderre for a by-election in a traditional Liberal stronghold in Montreal and Coderre is trounced by the Bloc. He bungles his position on the first Iraq war, struggles with Meech Lake and feuds with John Turner. By January 1991, he’s 10 points back of the NDP. His handlers try to remake him, right down to his pronunciation of the word “the.” He doubts himself. Questions are asked about the staff around him. In February 1991, doctors discover a growth on his lung. The growth is benign, but the surgery to remove it involves breaking some ribs and a 12-inch incision. He comes back too soon and goes wobbly during a speech in Winnipeg. Fears emerge of a split between Chretien and Martin loyalists, the start of a decade of infighting. Chretien steps into controversy on Quebec and the constitution. The Star runs a story under the headline, “Liberal Strategists Hope Chretien Will Quit.” He tries to deliver a major foreign policy speech, but continues to mangle the English language. He dispatches six MPs to sound out the opinions of Liberal supporters across the country. The advice: “Hire better staff. Get a think-tank going to develop policy. Be himself, the old Jean Chretien.”

Shortly thereafter he hires Jean Pelletier to organize his office and two years later he’s the 20th Prime Minister of Canada.

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