Leaving aside for the moment that the last time I remember a prominent Canadian protesting his goodness by saying he didn't “knowingly” do anything wrong it was the disgraced runner Ben Johnson who didn't knowingly use banned steroids in 1988, let us take former prime minister Brian Mulroney at his word.
“I have never knowingly done anything wrong in my entire life,” Mr. Mulroney said yesterday several times as his cross-examination by Richard Wolson, lead counsel for the Oliphant commission, wound to a close.
Let us accept that Mr. Mulroney's dealings with the grubby German-Canadian businessman Karlheinz Schreiber were part of a perfectly legal “commercial relationship” between two private citizens, in the private sector, and that it was no one's business but theirs.
Let us accept that Mr. Mulroney didn't disclose the relationship or the $225,000 in cash he received while under oath in Montreal 13 years ago because he wasn't directly asked the question and because his lawyers had advised him not to volunteer anything.
Let us accept that he disclosed the $225,000 only in 1999, six years after he accepted the first $75,000 payment, because that was when the money came out of safety deposit boxes in Montreal and New York City and into his personal revenue stream. Let us accept that Mr. Mulroney went the voluntary disclosure route because his tax lawyers advised him this was the way to go. Let us accept that although he ended up paying tax on only half of the $225,000, that was the deal the lawyers worked out with the tax people and he had nothing to do with it.
Let us accept that the CBC's the fifth estate and Miss Stevie Cameron (Mr. Mulroney always calls her “Miss”) and others (including sometimes The Globe and Mail) were and always are out to get him.
Let us accept that after being investigated seven ways 'til Sunday, he has emerged as honest as the day is long, and wronged to boot. Let us pronounce him cleared, utterly innocent and wholly vindicated of anything criminal or illegal.
You know what?
Nothing changes. His obviously cherished legacy as prime minister has been dirtied, as well as the much-invoked honour of his late father and his family's good name, and it is Mr. Mulroney himself who is the primary architect of that destruction.
Consider the clarity of the following picture, pointed out to me by a reader named Stephen Hastings.
The moment comes from Mr. Mulroney's first day of questioning last week by his own lawyer, Guy Pratte.
Mr. Pratte was asking how Mr. Mulroney's first meeting with Mr. Schreiber, held at a Mirabel airport hotel on Aug. 27, 1993 – two months and two days after he stepped down as prime minister – came about.
Mr. Mulroney said that his old friend and former senior aide turned Schreiber lobbyist Fred Doucet had called, saying Mr. Schreiber would like to meet with him when next he was in Canada. A second call from Mr. Doucet followed, by which time he had ascertained that Mr. Schreiber wanted “to meet with me to discuss an international mandate.” Mr. Mulroney agreed to meet, and shortly afterwards, Mr. Doucet phoned back to say Mr. Schreiber was between flights, and could Mr. Mulroney meet him at the CP hotel there?
“How did you get there?” Mr. Pratte asked.
“How did I get there?” Mr. Mulroney replied. “I was driven to the Mirabel hotel and escorted to the room, Mr. Schreiber's room, by the RCMP. I had RCMP duty officers with me at the time as a former prime minister … the two officers drove me to the hotel and walked me to the room.”
In other words, the Canadian taxpayer paid for Mr. Mulroney to be driven by two police officers to this meeting where, in short order, he accepted an envelope filled with $75,000 in $1,000 bills that after many years, by which time he had had two more such meetings and collected a total of $225,000 in cash, the former prime minister declared and was taxed on only half its value.
As my reader Mr. Hastings said, “He just doesn't get it. Having your government-supplied bodyguards drive you to a hotel to pick up an envelope of cash is, well, gross, and well over any ethical line.”
For all Mr. Mulroney's subtle but relentless efforts to blame others – it was Mr. Doucet who arranged the meeting; Mr. Schreiber who explained that cash was how he did business; the RCMP who drove him there – no one forced him to go, to take the envelope, to put it in a safe at his home and keep it there.
Everything else may be someone else's fault, but this wasn't.
He was alone in that room with Mr. Schreiber, and in the intensely private battle between his finer instincts (Mr. Mulroney admits he hesitated before taking the cash) and his shabbier ones, the latter won out. That he has belatedly and fairly grudgingly acknowledged that this was a mistake doesn't make it go away. It's easy to do the right thing when Parliament is watching; when your wife's there; when your kids or friends are.
It's when a man does the right thing when no one is looking that matters.
How cruel that it is this very thing – Mr. Mulroney's self-described conduct as a private citizen in a private commercial transaction in the private sector in a private hotel room – which takes his temperature and his measure better than anything else.
In 1965, the magnificent British band The Kinks had a hit with a song called A Well Respected Man about a fellow who actually wasn't. Every time I saw the “Right Honourable” before Brian Mulroney's name on my TV screen yesterday, the song played in my head. That's his legacy, I'm afraid.