The Birthday That Almost Wasn’t

A special relatonship – the Mulroneys and Reagans together at a White House State Dinner on April 27, 1988 –White House photo, the ReaganLibrary

L. Ian MacDonald

March 20, 2021

For Brian Mulroney, as he turns 82 on Saturday, it’s the birthday that almost wasn’t.

“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Mila,” Mulroney said of his wife. “She saved my life.”

They had just arrived at their winter home in Palm Beach, and were settling in for the Christmas holidays. Suddenly, he was having a hard time breathing.

It was one of those times, when a couple has been together for many years, that she could tell something was seriously wrong just by looking at him.

“We’re going to the hospital,” she said. “Right now.” She didn’t even call for an ambulance, but helped him to the car and drove him to the nearby hospital. They examined the former prime minister in the emergency room and immediately performed surgery for an abdominal aneurysm. Within two days, the Mulroneys were told he was doing well enough to recuperate at home.

When they returned to the hospital for a follow-up exam a few days later, the surgeon told Mulroney: “It’s a good thing your wife didn’t call for an appointment. You wouldn’t have made it.” He explained that the mortality rate was 60 percent of those stricken who never even make it to the hospital, with another 20 percent who die in surgery. Mulroney was told he was among the lucky 20 percent who survive.

And so, he has. For his birthday on Saturday evening, Mila  Mulroney has invited three other couples for a quiet dinner. There is no pandemic lockdown in Florida, they’ve been vaccinated and they’ll be eating outdoors.

So, not a milestone birthday at 82. The milestone, as he says himself, is that he’s still here.

It will be a far cry from the party she organized on his 80th birthday two years ago, which the Palm Beach Post wrote up at the time as the talk of the town. The Canadian musical stars Michael Bublé and David Foster had flown in for the occasion, Bublé bringing his band with him. Both performed for free. The Mulroneys had hired Bublé, then  unknown, to perform at their daughter Caroline’s Montreal wedding in 2000. Foster, the musician and award-winning producer, was a guest who was seeing him for the first time and took him under his wing. The Mulroneys had paid Bublé $3,000 for the gig but by the time of the Palm Beach party 20 years later, his price was $1 million per show.

Back home, Mulroney’s birthday also falls in the political context of the Conservative Party policy convention this weekend. Normally, as the only Conservative leader since Sir John A. Macdonald to win consecutive majority governments, Mulroney might have some pertinent comments on the party’s electoral prospects and the challenges facing new leader Erin O’Toole heading into his first campaign. Of O’Toole’s evident struggles between the SoCon and moderate wings of the party, Mulroney knows better than anyone that elections are won in the mainstream.

Those centrist voters are in places like the 905 suburbs  around Toronto, the 604 Lower Mainland into Vancouver and the 450 ring around the island of Montreal. Swing voters who decide elections, and who look at leadership as well as issues.

That starts with leading a united party into a campaign. It’s simple, as the voters read it—if you can’t run a party you can’t run the country.

Mulroney understood that from the moment of his accession to the PC leadership in 1983, and kept the caucus close until his retirement a decade later. “You can’t lead without the caucus,” he used to say, pointing out that divided Tory caucuses ruined the leadership of John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark. Even when Mulroney’s approval rating and voting intention plummeted to the teens in his second term, the caucus stood by him.

Mulroney says he’s reached the stage in life where he doesn’t want or need any coverage for himself.  “I’m past that point,” he says, and at 82 his agenda and Mila’s is more about the lives of their four children and 15 grandchildren.

“They’re all absolutely gorgeous grandchildren, and the children are wonderful parents,” he said on Friday. “That’s why I want to stay around for a while, to watch and enjoy them all.”

But he is at the stage where serious assessments are being made of his legacy on policy and leadership.

Last Saturday, for example, marked the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Acid Rain Accord, or the Clean Air Act, as it’s known in the United States, between Mulroney and the first President George Bush.

“Thirty years after Canada and the U.S. signed a treaty on reducing acid rain,” wrote Bob Weber of the Canadian Press, “the deal has become a landmark and a guidebook on how nations can work together to solve environmental problems.”

“I had completely forgotten about that,” Mulroney said of the anniversary. From his first days in office, he had been after Ronald Reagan and then-Vice President Bush on the issue. At the 1985 Shamrock Summit in Quebec City, he got Reagan’s agreement to name former Ontario Premier Bill Davis and former U.S. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis as special envoys on acid rain. Two years later at a working lunch at 24 Sussex before Reagan’s April 1987 address to Parliament, Mulroney asked him for his agreement on acid rain and a Canadian right of way through the Northwest Passage. Reagan agreed and had it written into the speech as a new closing paragraph that “the Prime Minister and I agreed to consider a bilateral accord on acid rain” and that on “the Arctic waters issue” they were “determined to find a solution based on mutual respect for sovereignty and our common security.” Nearly 35 years on, the impact of acid rain and Arctic sovereignty are important starting points for Canada in coming bilateral and multilateral talks on climate change.

Bush, who had once famously said “I got an earful on acid rain”, from Mulroney, completed the deal during his own presidency. And Mulroney, in his eulogy for Bush at his state funeral in 2018, sang his praises over acid rain, and free trade, NAFTA with Mexico having been negotiated on his watch, as well as his statesmanship at the end of the Cold War in which Canada was an important partner of the U.S. in terms of both presence at the table and influence in positive outcomes for a new world order. Mulroney had given a eulogy for Reagan in 2004, making him the only foreign leader ever asked to speak at the state funeral of one U.S. president, let alone two.

And as he liked to say: “The door to the Oval Office opens all the other doors,” in Washington and around the world.

It is now 50 years this spring since I first met Mulroney with a Friday-at-five group for drinks at the Carrefour bar of Montreal’s Place Ville. He was a young labour lawyer and an organizer on the make for the Tories.

We met often after that, in the fervid political town of Montreal. He became a member of the Cliche Commission on corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, which made him a political star, leading to his first run for the Tory leadership in 1976, and later his successful 1983 run, leading to his landslide victory in the 1984 election.

And when he asked me to work for him as a speechwriter in 1985, I thought, you don’t say no to a prime minister, and it’s an honour to serve one of any party. And so it was. Years later when I was asked what it was like to write for him, I always said it was like riding Secretariat in the Belmont, you just let him run and win by 31 lengths.

But if I had to pick one speech, it would be his 1988 address to a joint session of Congress, on the Canada-US relationship as well as free trade and acid rain.

The other speech I recall is Mulroney’s maiden address as opposition leader in September 1983 on French language minority rights in Manitoba. He wrote every word himself, and it remains the finest speech he ever gave in the House. Pierre Trudeau, father of the Official Languages Act, was equally splendid that day.

Then in 1988, Mulroney amended the OLA to “advance linguistic duality and enhance official language minority communities,” as a government synopsis put it decades later. It would be something for Justin Trudeau to think about as his government considers updating the OLA in a pre-emptive election year response to Quebec expanding workplace rules for its Charter of the French Language, Bill 101. Neither Ottawa nor Quebec should expect Mulroney to be keep his silence over that.

Finally, a personal note. Just over two years ago in Montreal, I was hospitalized at the McGill University Health Centre recovering from stomach surgery. Mulroney was a frequent visitor, to the point where the nurses all knew him and senior staff would turn up asking for autographs and selfies. I wasn’t always aware of his presence, and more than once didn’t recall he had been there.

One day I finally said to him: “You have more important things to do than sitting around here.”

“I want to make sure they take good care of you,” he replied.

Did they ever. Thank you, Prime Minister. And happy birthday.

L. Ian MacDonald, Editor of Policy Magazine, is the author of the 1984 bestseller, “Mulroney: The Making of the Prime Minister”. He was Principal Speechwriter to the Prime Minister from 1985-88. This is an extended version of an article that first appeared in the National Post.