Peter Newman’s new book, The Secret Mulroney Tapes, is basically a grab bag of comments by others, mostly criticizing Brian Mulroney, abetted by Mulroney’s own profanities and enormous self-praise (e.g., as Canada’s second greatest prime minister since Sir John A. Macdonald).

I think this is the poorest book yet in a score Newman has produced about Canadian politics, politicians, tycoons and companies. Poor, because it is so unfair. Neither man originally expected that this kind of use would be made of the tapes.

The greatest irony in the long relationship between the two men is that they are so alike as to be Siamese twins, bound together by high self-regard and hypersensitivity to criticism. Both are so thin-skinned!

I first met Brian Mulroney in 1958. He was 19 and I was a recently elected CCF MP from northwestern Ontario. Two years later I came to know Peter Newman. Then 31 and a writer-editor for Macleans, he was fairly new in Ottawa.

I’ve had on-again off-again relationships with both until recent times. In 1960, it wasn’t hard to figure that career-wise, the two would make it big. Each shared the other’s fascination with and great expectations of tycoons and “power.”

Since my first encounters with both men, I have had considerable to do with them, in part because of my quickly-given regard for their immense talents and ambitions. Nonetheless, Newman has several times sent me to “Siberia” for less than favourable mentions of one of his productions.

It wasn’t that I’d decided he was no longer the ablest, most interesting political writer of my years in Ottawa; simply that I disagreed with a lot of his judgments, especially his fascination with and reverence for corporate heroes like Conrad Black and Paul Desmarais.

[singlepic id=36 w=500 h=500 float=none]Peter Newman, Roy Peterson illustrations.

Once, in 1962, Newman and I were walking together through a restaurant. We passed a group of Conservatives gathered around a Tory cabinet minister who asked me in a loud voice why I was with a “Jew-boy.” I was dismayed. Peter was very hurt. I advised him to toughen up. He couldn’t do his kind of political analysis without arousing the ire of politicians.

He seemed to agree, but his skin never seemed to get thicker. I recall that the late Dalton Camp told me once that he’d given similar advice to both Newman and Mulroney.

As for Mulroney, I was more constantly but less intimately connected with him than with Newman. From well before he entered electoral politics in 1976 to the end of his parliamentary days in 1993, Mulroney helped me several times as I tried to advance reforms in forestry practices, Indian programs, and Canadian participation in world-class sport.
I was fascinated by how he kept on growing in public performance, demonstrating an oratory more commanding even than that of the polysyllabic wonder, Stephen Lewis.

Unfortunately, Mulroney has never been able to let go of the public’s view of him, insisting that Canadians really did not hate or distrust him and that his achievements as prime minister have been ruinously downgraded by a hostile media and an academe mesmerized by Pierre Trudeau.

The puffing up in Newman’s book of these so-called “secret tapes” combined with almost random opinions about Mulroney from rivals and some party colleagues, is engaging at times, but historically the book is of marginal import. Far less import, say, than Mackenzie King’s once-secret diaries.

Yet today fewer than two in 10 would know who King was, and far fewer would have any inkling of his diary’s contents. Sic transit gloria!