In December 1957, a future prime minister of Canada received the Nobel prize for peace. In December 2007, a former prime minister is forced to explain to a skeptical country why he received envelopes stuffed with cash.
It is hard to imagine a more striking contrast in political character. Yesterday, Brian Mulroney, Canada’s 18th prime minister, appeared before a committee of parliament to explain why he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash from a businessman who wanted him to help sell armored vehicles when he left office.
Fifty years ago, almost to the day, the man who would become Canada’s 14th prime minister received the Nobel peace prize and the adulation of the world for his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East. Lester Pearson, whom his friends and much of the country called “Mike,” originated the idea of the U.N. peacekeeping mission while he was Canada’s minister of external affairs.
It is, to much of Canada and to many observers around the world who note such matters, astonishing that Mr. Mulroney, just weeks after stepping down from the highest elected office in the land, would stoop to dealing on the basis he did with someone who has admitted that it was his practice to travel across the country in the 1970s and 1980s with briefcases full of cash. The money was dispensed to accommodating politicians in the hope of receiving support for business opportunities. Even while Mr. Mulroney was still a sitting member of parliament in 1993, he accepted the first envelope of cash. The exchanges -he claims they totaled $225,000, but other reports place the figure at $300,000- took place in secret in hotel rooms on three separate occasions. To compound the appearance of impropriety, Mr. Mulroney placed the cash in safety deposit boxes in New York and in Montreal, not in bank accounts. He never issued a receipt for the funds. There were no written invoices for the work he claims he did. He says he destroyed any notes he made about the matter. Most damning of all, he failed to report the money or pay required taxes until six years after the payments began. And that was only after the source of the funds, a businessman named Karlheinz Schreiber, was arrested on an extradition warrant issued by Germany, where Mr. Schreiber was born and is wanted for trial on a number of criminal charges. Both Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Schreiber agree that a meeting took place at the prime minister’s official country retreat at Harrington Lake while Mr. Mulroney was still in office, but Mr. Mulroney denies Mr. Shreiber’s charge that there was any talk of doing future business together. Nevertheless, future business was clearly done, to the former prime minister’s apparent regret.
Over the years, I have been approached by business titans and political luminaries across a wide geographical and ideological spectrum wanting to discuss how they wish to be remembered. The word legacy often comes up along with questions about how it is achieved. By the time I have outlined my thoughts on what constitutes the enduring milestones of a well-lived and esteemed career, they usually come to the conclusion that we should have had the conversation much earlier. It is often sad to see those who have worked so hard to climb to the top but have nevertheless remained inadequately attentive to the larger issues that become important in defining what a person has stood for and how they are remembered. It is an omission that can lead to some unfortunate errors of judgment, as Mr. Mulroney, and a certain prominent ex-Canadian, are now discovering.
Ironically, Mr. Mulroney’s sometimes contrite, widely televised appearance came in the same week that saw the high profile arrival in court of one of his long-time friends for sentencing on criminal charges of fraud and obstruction of justice. Conrad Black was one of Mr. Mulroney’s most ardent supporters throughout his political career. Mr. Mulroney appointed Mr. Black to Canada’s privy council, which was a first at the time for a non-government personage. And Mr. Mulroney was among a group of prominent people who wrote character letters on behalf of Mr. Black prior to his being sentenced to six and one-half years in U.S. federal prison. Money was the common element in the problems of both men, who were trained as lawyers.
Lester Pearson was not without his faults, of course. And Brian Mulroney accomplished a number of laudable things as Canada’s chief executive. But rarely do the high and low points of political figures collide with such symmetry as they did this December. Scandals will never stop when it comes to politicians and money. But it can be hoped that before another succumbs to a misjudgment of the kind Mr. Mulroney has admitted, they will take the time to ask how they would like to be remembered: as a respected world figure, like Lester Pearson, or as someone who could not say no when an envelope of cash was dangled in front of him.
Author’s Note: I would like to dedicate this posting to my mother, who celebrates her 86th birthday today. Her resilience and unswerving moral compass is also an important lesson for family, friends and the occasional politician on the ideal of a well-led and honorable life.