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A nightmare like Pearson's -- but Pearson survived

The Liberals have seen this movie before. It was four decades ago. They can only hope -- and it's a slim hope -- they get a similar ending.

Four decades ago, Lester Pearson took the reins of government and, like Paul Martin, soon fell upon one land mine after another. The reviews were strafing. Biographer John English wrote that Mr. Pearson's first full year in power, 1964, was "one of the worst political years in Canadian history."

A series of Quebec-based scandals, not of the prime minister's own making, undermined the reputation of his government. At one speech, the battered Mr. Pearson was greeted with signs saying "Crime Minister."

Mr. English used the word "dithering" to describe his early performance. In The Distemper of Our Times, Peter C. Newman did the same, and compared Lester B's government to that of a leaking steamship liner "lurching from port to port, with the captain making up the schedule as he went along."

The resemblances to the present-day Liberals are too striking to be overlooked. Like Paul Martin, Mr. Pearson bore the handicap of overly high expectations. He was to foreign affairs, having won the Nobel Peace Prize, what Mr. Martin was to finance. About the same age as the current PM, he, too, had only a parliamentary minority. He was a man of ideas and ideals who tended not to preoccupy himself with political strategy. In front of the cameras, he was rarely comfortable.

He was charged, like Mr. Martin, with repairing Canada-U.S. relations after the bruising they took under John Diefenbaker. He was criticized, like Mr. Martin, for being a decentralizer.

One of Mr. Pearson's first big measures was Walter Gordon's nationalist budget. It went up in smoke. Key Canadianization provisions had to be scrapped. The fall of his economic lieutenant was followed by the collapse of his Quebec leader. Justice minister Guy Favreau tumbled under the weight of the Lucien Rivard scandal. The Montreal narcotics smuggler had connections to government that extended all the way up to the PM's parliamentary assistant, Guy Rouleau, who was forced to resign. Other scandals (the Hal Banks fiasco, the Munsinger affair, furniture-buying scams of cabinet members) ensnared him.

But none of them bore the seriousness of the sponsorship scandal. Moreover, Mr. Pearson was heading up a new government, not one more than a decade old. And he had an Opposition Leader in Mr. Diefenbaker who had been turfed out of office.

He was able to stay afloat and, although he could never win a majority, measures like the introduction of the flag and the Canada Pension Plan eventually earned Mr. Pearson a place as one of Canada's most admired prime ministers.

Despite the litany of disappointments, the people maintained a respect and fondness for him. The same might be said, at least thus far, for Paul Martin. Canadians tend to view him as a quality person, a knowledgeable man with the best of intentions.

But whereas Mr. Pearson's problems never moved him to the tipping point, Paul Martin is at that point now. He could win another minority government and perhaps go on to become another Lester Pearson. Or he could collapse under the strain and enter the chamber of crestfallen might-have-beens.

The outcome will turn mainly on the question of integrity. Canadians aren't about to blame Paul Martin for not accomplishing great things in little more than one year in power. What other prime minister ever did? It is a foolhardy charge.

But if the Conservatives can tie him to the duplicity of the old regime, as they are devilishly trying to do now, the election will be a rout. A Stephen Harper majority is possible. With a thousand TV ads, Mr. Martin needs to drive home the point that this isn't his scandal. "Paul Martin had an option," the ads need to say. "He could have swept the Auditor-General's report under the rug. Or he could have called an inquiry to get to the bottom of it. Did he do the right thing? You be the judge."

In order to survive, the campaign slogan "He did the right thing" needs to be plastered on every billboard.

But his chances are diminishing. Mr. Harper is scoring points. The financial ties of Mr. Martin's old finance department to the Earnscliffe shop raise doubts of his probity, as do his alleged relations with Claude Boulay, as did his alleged offshore tax dodges with his steamship company.

There is much to suggest that the besieged Paul Martin is a man of Pearson-type qualities. But there is also much to suggest -- this not being a rerun of old movie -- that he will never get the chance to show it.

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