Farewell, Jean Charest
This afternoon, I took some time away from watching federal Liberals at Montebello, Que., to turn on the TV and watch Jean Charest resign from public life. He's had a heck of a 28-year ride in Canadian public life and, thanks to this crazy job I've had, my paths have crossed with him many many times. So I thought I'd just tap out some random, not necessarily profound recollections here, to maybe give you some glimpses of the guy I saw beyond the headlines or the TV pictures.
* I first met him in 1988, a few months after I'd arrived in Ottawa to report for the Globe and Mail. I had done a huge access-to-information story on how the government was spending/wasting money on student job grants and he asked me to come and see him in his office.
I was wandering down the Sparks Street Mall, on my way there, and ran into the journalistic legend, Marjorie Nichols, who was acting as a mentor to many of the young women in their 20s who had arrived to cover politics in Ottawa in that era. I told her where I was heading and she said: "Get to know that man. He's going to be prime minister of Canada some day." Marjorie, sadly, died of cancer in 1991, and Charest -- at least so far -- has not reached her expectations. But Marjorie, as she could be, was pretty adamant.
* Many of us on the constitutional beat in those years got to know him best when he headed up the committee trying to find a resolution to the Meech Lake accord impasse in the spring of 1990. After a day of committee meetings on the road, it wouldn't be unusual for the journalistic pack to be invited to Charest's room, to sit back and reflect on what we've heard that day and political/constitutional talk in general. He was always funny, and often wise. The project was at the initiative of New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, by the way.
Of course, the compromise efforts exploded in May-June 1990, thanks in part to the explosive departure of Lucien Bouchard from Mulroney's cabinet as well as staunch opposition from Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells. Meech died in late June. I always thought there was some uncanny parallelism there -- the work of one moderate Quebec Tory is blown out of the water by one with more uncompromising views, one Atlantic Premier is similarly felled by another Atlantic Premier. But McKenna and Charest rose above and beyond that failure to make a huge impact in Canadian political life.
In 1993, we all got to know Charest an awful lot better when he was left as the leader of a two-MP Progressive Conservative caucus. I think it was his sense of humour, as much as his sense of hard work, that helped keep that party afloat in those years. Since I covered the PCs back in those days, those are where many of my fondest memories lie.
Some of them:
* In the "this-really-happened" category: In Quebec City somewhere around 1994-95, Charest was due to give a lengthy speech to Conservatives gathered in the basement (I think of the Chateau Frontenac). We all had text of the dozen-or-so pages of speech, and we followed along as usual, marking where he'd strayed from the official version. (Not very much.) After the speech was over, he wandered over to where his communications assistant was standing with a few reporters. He said, with a smile, "Did you forget something?" Suddenly, her face dropped and she looked down at the folder in her hand. She'd been holding his copy of the speech all along and forgot to put it on the podium. Yes, he delivered that speech from memory. I'd heard about that photographic memory of his, but there I saw it in action and have never seen another politician do anything like that since.
* Charest was fond of asking total strangers to vote for Conservatives in those dark years for his party. He'd be walking along the street and see someone talking on a cell phone. "Who are you talking to?" he'd ask. The puzzled bystander would answer "my mom" or "my boyfriend" or "my boss" or something, and Charest would grab the phone and say "Hi. It's Jean Charest, leader of the Progressive Conservative party. Please vote for me. Thanks. Goodbye."
* In that same vein, during the 1997 election, the Conservative campaign bus was overnighting in my hometown of Milton. Rather than stay in a hotel, of course I went to stay with my parents. We were sitting watching the news when suddenly we saw huge headlights through the living room window. Charest thought it might be funny to pull the campaign bus on to my parents' front lawn, knock at the door and introduce himself to my parents. He said he was just there to assure them I was behaving on the bus, not causing my family any embarrassment. They were completely charmed. (They may well have voted for him, for all I know.)
And here is my most vivid memory from those years, which I've shared with others from time to time.
Late in 1994, Charest and his wife Michelle were due to come to dinner at my house, along with some other journalistic and political colleagues. (The then-correspondent in Canada for the L.A. Times, as well as Chantal Hebert were among the guests.)
Late in the day, as guests were arriving, we got news that Lucien Bouchard was in hospital, hovering between life and death because of necrotizing fasciitis. Now, Bouchard and Charest had been the closest of friends, up until that Meech drama (mentioned above), but they hadn't spoken since. This was four years later, in other words, and that's a lifetime in grudge politics. As the night went on, rumours flying, we abandoned the dinner table and just watched TV. There were a few breaks in the sombre mood. One was when Charest opined that all "experts" on TV have funny hair. One wag couldn't resist: "What are you an expert in?"
At one point, things looked very bad. Rumours were that Bouchard had died. The phone started to ring with requests to the journalists for obits, etc.
Charest just left the room, and stood in the dining area, gently banging the back of his head against the wall. I asked him what he was thinking. He said he couldn't put it into words. That was one of the few times I saw him without a ready answer.
Of course, what we didn't know then was that both men would be fine, and both would go on to become premier of Quebec. And now both are gone from public life, at least for now. Hard for me to believe we've seen the last of Jean Charest after this many years.