The making of a Prime Minister

One day, just before Pierre Trudeau took his celebrated late night walk in the snow outside 24 Sussex Drive to decide he didn’t want to be PM anymore, I received — as most columnists do — an anonymous phone call.

The voice — to this day, I still do not know who it was — said, “Watch out, Fotheringham, Paul Martin Jr. is going for the Liberal leadership.” The voice hung up.

I’m not sure I even knew at the time there was someone called Paul Martin Jr. I checked him out — Power Corp, Canada Steamship Lines — and ran a blind item in my column, suggesting a Paul Martin Jr. might be sniffing at the Grit leadership.

Several weeks later, I was walking out of the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal when a couple approached me. “You’re Fotheringham?” the male enquired. I gave the standard answer: “Depends on whether you’re gonna kick me or kiss me.”

“Mulroney has warned me about you,” he said. “He says you invent politicians, blow them up like a large balloon, then stick a pin in them.”

“Of course,”I said, “that’s how I make a living.”

“Come with me,” he instructed. He dropped off his wife, took me up to his office -this now being midnight — opened a bottle of Scotch, and Paul Martin and I became friends — as much as this perilous trade of journalism can allow a scribbler to become a semi-friend of a politician.

He explained he couldn’t make up his mind — having obviously made a fortune — whether to go into politics or fulfill a dream of helping out the African colonies the Empire had deserted. I thought that a 40-something millionaire who couldn’t make up his mind was not really an ideal politician.

In my long study of that peculiar animal, the politician, the only thing I know is that Richard Nixon, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney announced at age 17 to schoolmates that they planned to be president or prime minister, and all achieved that goal. Someone who waffled between entering politics or saving Africans, I didn’t quite understand.

After that blind column item appeared, I was further amused to see in the Globe and Mail the fine digging of two senior reporters, two young Liberal acolytes, Terrie O’Leary and David Herle. They drove from Ottawa to Montreal to check out this mysterious candidate to make sure he wasn’t a “political dud.” And the two are now the powerful backroom spinners who have become the major stickhandlers of the future prime minister.

The reason the PM detests Martin is that he thinks he is so indecisive as to be weak, which led to the arcane occasion when Martin, driving back to Ottawa from his Quebec farm, learned on his car radio he had been fired as finance minister.

We all know we are going to become the laughing stock of the world when, on Nov. 15, the Grit machinery, having been hijacked by Martin, will anoint him Liberal leader at the party convention in Toronto. The wily Chrétien maintains he is sticking around until February 2004. We will have two prime ministers — just like a banana republic.

The last time I saw Martin was at a swish Ottawa evening where he starred as an auctioneer at a society function. I upped to him and asked when were we going to sit down again for a long and thoughtful interview. He said, “Allan, for you, anytime.”

That was before the famous I quit/you’re fired weekend. Since then, I’ve talked to his hired flacks to solidify the previous promise. The result: complete silence.

P.S. to Paul: Ever the consummate politician with the perfect memory, you know my son was once involved with the Young Liberals in B.C. You ask about him frequently. Brady is now in Seoul, South Korea, on a year’s contract teaching English and writing a book. Hope he’s going to tell the truth.