Wells: Poor Paul Martin—the bitter werewolf of Ottawa

Martin cuts a dark figure: nakedly ambitious brutally combative, and in massive denial

In Danse Macabre, his 1981 book about the horror genre in pop culture, Stephen King wrote that all monsters can be divided into three archetypes. There’s the Vampire, which we read about in Bram Stoker’s Dracula; the Creature Without a Name, which starred in Frankenstein; and the Werewolf, who appeared, in only slightly modified form, in Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde.

The Vampire is in control. He is ancient, implacable, smarter and stronger than you. The Creature Without a Name is an abomination, lost or misunderstood or simply put together wrong, doomed from the outset. The Werewolf is a good man who loses control. He is pure in heart and says his prayers by night. But sometimes things get a little hairy. There are blackouts. After he revives he can’t recall or believe the things he did when he wasn’t himself.

As it happens, King’s archetypes are handy for decoding the personalities of political leaders. Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper are Vampires. Joe Clark and Stéphane Dion were Creatures Without Names. Paul Martin, we learn from his new autobiography, Hell or High Water, was a Werewolf.

Nobody doubts Martin’s big heart. Yet over and over again he cuts a darker figure: nakedly ambitious, brutally combative, unconcerned with the niceties of consistency or fair play—and trapped in massive denial. Bad things happen around Paul Martin, but he is quite sure it’s not his fault. “I had not entered politics with the intention of becoming prime minister,” he writes in a chapter about his debut as an MP, in 1988. “If I had a political role model, it was C.D. Howe . . . It was that dream that initially led me to fix on becoming minister of industry.”

I suppose it depends what you mean by initially. Or fix. Martin neglects to cite his father’s memoirs, which recite a 1979 conversation in which the younger Paul Martin says, “Now is the time for me to begin to become a candidate for the prime ministership.” And when John Turner resigns the Liberal leadership six months after Martin gets elected to Parliament, his dreams of becoming C.D. Howe go out the window. He throws in his hat for a job he says he never wanted.

He is only occasionally master of his fate, and never of anyone else’s. He is forever amazed that his supporters’ actions are held against him. When a roomful of them call Jean Chrétien a vendu, or sellout, in the last days of the 1990 leadership race, Martin mourns that Chrétien and Eddie Goldenberg “allowed this moment to become a bitter shrine in their minds.”

Once the Liberals win power, Chrétien gives Martin the job he requested (finance—who’s C.D. Howe?) and unparalleled autonomy. But he still manages to get on Martin’s nerves. Indeed, Martin will take less sass from his boss than from anyone else. Martin’s epic budget meetings with officials and his eternal helpers are potty-mouthed shoutfests, yet it’s all good fun. “I’d raise hell and say, ‘That’s the worst idea I have ever heard.’ ” His staffer Terrie O’Leary “went up one side of me and down the other, fourteen ways to Sunday.” The next day he gives her a joke gift and everyone laughs.

Compare and contrast. “Our meetings were bruising ones,” he says of his early conferences with Chrétien. “ ‘I disagree with you,’ he would tell me.” Oooh.

Eventually these punishing verbal assaults from Chrétien—one can barely imagine; perhaps “How about them Blue Jays?” or “What’s that cologne? It’s musky”—wear Martin down. In 2000, his staff has a secret meeting at a Toronto hotel. Caught out, Martin claims he knew nothing about the meeting. “It became apparent that my replies weren’t satisfying the reporters,” he says. They sure weren’t. He was lying. It showed.

Many times, each paragraph in Martin’s book rebuts the paragraph before. “Bide your time,” a Chrétien intimate tells Martin after the 2000 election. Martin concludes: “It was time to move the leadership preparations into high gear.” Because that’s how sane people bide their time.

At a cabinet meeting in 2002, Chrétien orders leadership candidates to stop organizing. “It was a stunning suggestion,” Martin writes. Yet he returns to work, unruffled. It’s only hours later that he realizes “Chrétien had launched a full-scale attack.”

Depends what constitutes an attack. Chrétien’s office asks for changes to a speech. “This has never happened before and to hell with them.” I checked with four Chrétien ministers: amendments to ministers’ speeches were routine. Martin announces he’s thinking of leaving. Goldenberg wants a letter saying it’s by mutual agreement. “But I wasn’t interested. There was no mutual agreement. I knew that I was almost certainly going.” You know what? When you want to go and the boss wants you gone, that’s an agreement.

The Martin-stacked party executive schedules a leadership convention months earlier than Chrétien wanted. Chrétien takes the hint and quits before Christmas. Later, Martin is furious because he has to handle the sponsorship audit. Chrétien’s circle “had chosen, with great deliberation, to throw the responsibility for dealing with their mess into my lap.” But in the preceding paragraph Martin describes Chrétien “wisely” appointing Ralph Goodale in 2002 to “find out what was wrong in the department and fix it.” John Gomery would eventually conclude, in his first report, that reforms introduced under Chrétien had fixed the program’s abuses before Martin ever came along.

When the Werewolf writes his own story, the authorial voice is that of the Unreliable First-Person Narrator. The creature in human form cannot bring himself to tell the real tale. The tragedy lies in his attempts to hide. Mostly from himself.