John Turner, Brian Mulroney and the Grace of Bygone Grudges

On the passing of John Turner at 91, a look back at the moment that swayed an election without defining a friendship.


Lisa Van Dusen

September 19, 2020

There are few testaments to the Shakespearean reversals of political life more eloquent than the fact that, if someone had told you in 1984 that by 2000, Brian Mulroney would be on good terms with his erstwhile political opponent John Turner and no longer speaking to his old friend Lucien Bouchard, you’d have said they were crazy.

As the antagonists in one of the most intense, impactful moments in Canadian political history, Brian Mulroney and John Turner were cast by competition and for posterity as rivals — one a long-time, establishment leader-in-waiting trying to shed the whiff of a fin de régime status quo, the other who’d also served his time in the wings but was hungrier, and whose ability to seize on a weak defense delivered a knockout punch that, in 30 seconds, tilted history.

John Turner had everything: The smarts of a Rhodes Scholar, the looks of a Canadian Kennedy, the glamour of a guy who’d almost married Princess Margaret and the backing of a Liberal establishment who thought that math was rock-solid. That he did not remain prime minister after finally becoming prime minister having waited out Pierre Trudeau’s fraught relationship with Canadian voters says more about Brian Mulroney than it ever did about any flaws of John Turner’s.

That moment in the 1984 debate — an exchange about a list of patronage appointments Trudeau had consigned to Turner’s watch like a hunk of limburger cheese left in his bottom desk drawer — was not a game changer because of its drama. It changed the race because it was un-premeditated, entirely authentic as opposed to tactical and revealed a disproportionate amount of character cargo for the amount of time it took.

It turned one of Turner’s main strengths, his sense of loyalty, into a weakness by identifying it as a factor that, in political extremis, could backfire on the Canadian people. The chances of that happening with any opponent other than Mulroney on that stage on that night seemed — not just in retrospect but in the moment — slim to nonexistent. It was a flash of political alchemy that reminded voters that Mulroney, also a Kennedy-esque, one-time man about town, possessed advantages above and beyond his resumé.

On the Mulroney campaign in ’84 (I was a young press aide and while I moved leftward over time, we remain friends), the atmospheric shift following that debate was undeniable before it registered as a more-than 10-point swing in the polls. Getting off the bus in Quebec City two days later, the usual welcome crowd had suddenly become a rock-star swarm.

On Saturday, in the hours following the announcement of Turner’s death at 91, Mulroney shared his thoughts on the man who, in 1984, went from being the untarnished frontrunner to an inadvertent asset to Mulroney’s Election Day amassing of the largest Parliamentary majority in Canadian history.

“In defending Mr. Trudeau’s decision out of loyalty, he paid a very heavy price,” Mulroney said of their debate exchange in a fond, personal interview about John Turner with CTV.

“He was a brilliant lawyer,” he also recalled of the guy who was the up-and coming Liberal star in Montreal legal circles before, a decade younger, Mulroney soon filled the same spot on the Conservative  radar. “He looked like a Hollywood movie star. Hell, he was so good that my mother voted for him in the 1963 election campaign in St. Lawrence-St. George. All the women were crazy about him, including my mother. I finally got her switched around in time for the 84 election…He was formidable.”

And with that, the former Canadian prime minister who’s become known for his eulogies for friends — from Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush to John Crosbie — graciously memorialized John Turner among them.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.