He got a laugh every time he said it, so the Rt. Hon. Jean Chretien naturally used the line more than once. Everyone laughed. Petit Justin, standing off to the side, laughed a bit too.
They weren’t onstage together very long – a few seconds, tops, for a hug and a few words – but that was the photo everyone wanted: the two elected-majority Liberal Prime Ministers, together for a moment or two.
Trudeau was there to introduce the most-successful Liberal leader since his Dad. Chretien was there to tell a few jokes, brag about a (long) list of accomplishments, and – mainly – to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his landslide victory.
October 25th, 1993: our election-night party was at the World Exchange Plaza. We all stood there, knowing that we’d win, but not expecting the magnitude of our victory. His victory.
Because, really, it was Jean Chretien who secured that great big Parliamentary majority. Not us. It was Chretien who reduced the once-invincible Conservatives to two seats. It was him.
Under the watchful eye of the late, great, Romeo LeBlanc, I ran his 1993 war room, the first. We were assisted in our victory by Kim Campbell, for sure, and by a Conservative campaign team that had decided it would be a good idea to mock Jean Chretien’s facial paralysis.
But, mostly and always, it was Chretien who won it for us in 1993. And in 1997. And in 2000.
I met him in 1990 when I was a litigation lawyer at 99 Bank Street. He was on the other side, at 50 O’Connor, acting as legal counsel at another firm.
I used to see him lined up at lunchtime to get a sandwich at Van Houte’s. He’s then sit at a table, reading the sports pages. I’d watch him from afar, loving that he did that.
Around the same time – when Brian Mulroney and some legacy-seeking Premiers decided to stick an interpretative clause in the Constitution, without interpreting it first – I went looking for a politician to speak for me. The guy eating the sandwich and reading the sports pages was the only one.
I left the law and got hired as his speechwriter, which was kind of the political equivalent of the Maytag Man. As in, not needed. Who needs a speechwriter for the best speech-maker in Canada?
So, he gave me another job. At first, he was skeptical about this “war room” stuff the Democrats were doing. But I assured him that James Carville and other Democrats were saying it was what we needed to do: oppo, quick response, all that.
We did it, and we did okay.
A lot of that old gang were there for the 25th: campaign boss John Rae, giving a stirring introduction of both Trudeau and Chretien. Bruce Hartley, a 1993 war room alumnus, and Chretien’s EA since his retirement in 2003. Mrs. Chretien – Madame, as all of us who worked for Chretien called her – looking pretty spectacular for someone in her eighties.
The best political photographer ever, Jean-Marc Carisse. Denis Coderre, former mayor, former cabinet minister – former young Liberal with me, back when neither of us could imagine reaching our forties, let alone our fifties.
Dalton McGuinty, whose war rooms I also ran, was there, too – his team having been dominated by Chretien folks. Prem Vinning, the BC political legend who helped Chretien win the Liberal leadership in 1990. Bob Plamondon, the former Tory candidate who wrote one of the best books about Chretien.
Senator David Smith, who helped deliver every seat in Ontario. Penny Collenette, the human rights lawyer who ran Chretien’s appointments. Deb Davis and Isabelle Metcalfe, longtime Chretien organizers.
Paul Sparkes, the Newfoundlander who kept the wheels running on the road.oh, and Lisa Kinsella (who I can tell you loves Chretien for the chance he gave her to work on the Hill, and for the policies he crafted that helped her when she was single mom).
The journalists there were laughing at Chretien’s jokes, too, even though they’d heard them many (many) times: the Star’s Susan Delacourt, Global’s David Akin. Lots of cameras.
At one point, Chretien missed a punchline, and everyone laughed anyway. He then re-did the joke, and everyone laughed even harder.
“I’m getting old, you know,” he said.
No one cared. We’re all older, too, but not on that night at the Chateau Laurier. Not even 25 years later.
He made us feel younger again. He made us laugh at the lines we’d all heard before. He made us remember why he – more than any other – remains the most-loved Prime Minister. Still.
There is a joy in politics, but it can be fleeting. The lows are deep. The losses, keenly felt.
For those of us who had the privilege to work for him, Jean Chretien lifted us up. He suffused politics with pure joy. And fun, and camaraderie, and achievement.
Want to be Prime Minister for a long time, Petit Justin? Then pay close attention to what Jean Chretien did. Watch his moves. Learn.
He was the great one.