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Brian Mulroney diminished

Globe and Mail Update

Before the Oliphant inquiry began, some people thought it was not possible for Brian Mulroney to inflict more damage on himself than he has already.

They were wrong.

Mr. Mulroney left the witness stand a diminished man. By yesterday, after six gruelling days of testimony, the bombast and the self-pity were gone. He was weary and subdued. Perhaps he realized that he had failed to defend the indefensible.

There was no plausible way to explain why he'd stuffed $225,000 in a safe and not declared it, then settled with the tax man six years later - after he realized his benefactor was a shady character who was about to expose his "tax problem."

His other explanations were lame or legalistic. He hadn't documented these unusual transactions because he was short on clerical help. He hadn't mentioned his business relationship while under oath to federal lawyers because they failed to ask him precisely the right question. Plenty of people now think he should pay back that $2-million libel settlement he got from the government.

Then there was his account of the last time he met with Karlheinz Schreiber, in a Zurich hotel room in 1998. He said he didn't know that Mr. Schreiber was a fugitive from justice at the time, having been charged with fraud, bribery and tax evasion in Germany. It was, he said, a "courtesy" call.

The drip, drip of revelation, contradiction and evasion must have discouraged even Mr. Mulroney's most ardent supporters. Last year he told the ethics committee that he'd declared the entire $225,000 and paid tax on all of it. But this week we found out that wasn't true. He only paid tax on half of it. It was all quite legal, but also quite damning.

I've been torn about the need for this inquiry. I'm not among those who loathe the man. His record as prime minister deserves respect. There's no evidence that he did anything illegal while in office. So where's the public interest in squandering $21-million to investigate his private business dealings 15 years ago?

Now I think I know. What we've learned is that a well-heeled, sleazy influence-peddler had no trouble buying access to the highest office in the land. For Mr. Schreiber, the door to the Prime Minister's office was always open. Some of the PM's closest associates profited handsomely from the Schreiber connection. Perhaps Mr. Mulroney looked forward to the day when he would profit too.

What the money was for is not as important as the fact that Mr. Mulroney took the bait. As of that moment, Mr. Schreiber had the former prime minister of Canada in his power. He had a secret that was potentially explosive, and he used it to avoid extradition and twist the system into knots. For Mr. Mulroney, the secret quickly turned toxic. He did everything in his power to make sure the relationship would never come to light.

He fought like a cornered animal. And for nine years he was successful - until the story of the cash payments broke in The Globe and Mail in 2003.

But the biggest question that remains unanswered is why he took the money in the first place. A pathetically small amount of money, which he didn't even need. Soon after leaving office, he had become a wealthy man. The only rational explanation is the simplest one. He must have thought nobody would find out.

For many years, Mr. Mulroney has been blaming his enemies in politics and the media for trying to destroy him. This obsession has become the leitmotif of his life. In his own mind, he is the victim - hounded and persecuted without mercy for imaginary crimes. I feel sad for him.

But he was morally obliged to tell the truth, and he did not. I feel sad to see such a gifted man so diminished and humiliated. But he humiliated his country too.

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