Make no mistake. Brian Mulroney is guilty of a lot of things. Take, for example, the completely shameless way he uses his family as props. His young son Nicholas used to be known as "the prop" for the cute way he'd spontaneously show up to hug his dad around the knees during photo ops.
Nicholas is all grown up now. But he's still a prop, poor guy. He's still obliged, along with his sister and his brother and his mother, to buff up the old guy's public image. The family choreography at the ethics committee hearing this week was carefully produced to yield precisely the photos you saw in your morning paper.
Mr. Mulroney is hardly the first politician to haul out the family in a pinch. Still, it can't be fun. If only their dad had never touched the cash. Without it, there'd be no headlines, no investigations, no scandal. The story of Brian Mulroney and Karlheinz Schreiber and Airbus and the umpteen-year-old money trail would be as cold and dead as John Cleese's parrot.
Why did their father do business with such a shady character? The Schreiber he knew then was not the Schreiber he knows now, he explained, although Mr. Schreiber's odour was well known throughout Ottawa. It's hard to believe that such a seasoned politician was such a lousy judge of character. What he was, was a lousy judge of consequences.
Back in the '90s, Mr. Mulroney was no doubt well aware of Mr. Schreiber's generous contributions to the party. In return, Mr. Schreiber got invited for breakfast at 24 Sussex and had unusual access to powerful people in Ottawa. Unlike Peter Lougheed, Mr. Mulroney never shut him down. The moment he was out of office, he gratefully accepted Mr. Schreiber's cash. He stashed the bills in various safety-deposit boxes for six years, at which point Mr. Schreiber was indicted for fraud and bribery in Germany, and Mr. Mulroney decided it was prudent to declare the whole amount as income and make his peace with the tax man.
For many years, Mr. Mulroney neglected to share these embarrassing details with his friends, even as they commiserated with him over his persecution at the hands of the Chrétienites, the Mounties, the CBC, Stevie Cameron, and, latterly, The Globe and Mail. He concealed his relationship with Mr. Schreiber until it was exposed by the media, and didn't bother to explain himself until long after he should have come clean.
All these are faults. Big faults. But are they crimes? Nope. And now that Mr. Mulroney has taken his turn in the spotlight, it's clear this story is running on fumes.
Despite the inconsistencies, the changing stories, the unanswered questions and all the messy loose ends, the case for a public inquiry has melted away. After all these years and all this digging, we've reached a dead end on all the substantive issues. There is nothing to link Mr. Mulroney to Airbus bribes. There is nothing to suggest that any procurement deals made during his time in office were improper, or that the schmiergeld Mr. Schreiber spread around made any difference. There is nothing to implicate the current government. There's not a shred of proof that Mr. Mulroney did anything in office that was personally corrupt. There is no apparent reason for challenging the $2-million settlement he got from the government over Airbus, even if he did neglect to mention his subsequent relationship with Mr. Schreiber.
As for the tax man, he's satisfied. I have no idea if Mr. Mulroney contemplated not declaring the money. All I know is that the contemplation of tax evasion is not tax evasion. A good thing, too, because we'd all be guilty.
On the other hand, if self-aggrandizement and puffery were crimes, then Mr. Mulroney would surely be in jail. Yeltsin, Mitterrand, Reagan and Bill Gates were just a few of the 10-ton names he dropped on Thursday in an effort to impress. These were the people he wooed to earn his retainer from Mr. Schreiber, although how much wooing went on is something we'll have to take his word for. In any event, he made it clear he was no common shill. He was a statesman. He was sure that Mr. Schreiber's military vehicles would enhance world peace. He was hopeful that once Bill Gates heard about the pasta machine, he would be inspired to launch a global campaign against obesity, although the connection between the pasta machine and fat people was not entirely clear to me. In any event, he argued that he worked hard for his money. He even subsidized this noble work from his own pocket, once he decided it was prudent not to claim any of the $225,000, or however much he got, as expense money. He left the impression that, if anything, he should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Schreiber were two men who had a lot in common, for a while. Both were skillful operators, who understood how the world worked and whose real business was making connections. Each has portrayed himself as the dupe and victim of the other. But Mr. Mulroney brought us back to earth this week by reminding us of one basic fact. Although his own credibility may be flawed, his nemesis has none at all. And with only the say-so of a fast-talking con artist, this story's over. Sure, you can nail the parrot to the perch and pretend it's not dead. But it is. Time to move on.
A note to readers: Two weeks ago I described floaters and flashers in your eyes spot and lights as normal signs of aging. Occasionally, however, they are symptoms of retinal detachment, a much more serious condition. Any onset of floaters and flashers should be checked out right away.