Schadenfreude gets a bad rap. The feeling of "pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others," especially from the fall of the high and mighty, was mentioned often during the trial (and trials) of Conrad Black, but was oddly absent during those of Brian Mulroney. I don't think schadenfreude is just about nastiness or pettiness; it's about recognizing a shared, flawed humanity. It's built on a desire to know that the powerful are more like the rest of us than a race apart. That's what's satisfying in it, not mere spite.
For 25 years, I've been irritated by Brian Mulroney and it's nice to know he's also been annoyed in reverse. I don't mean by me personally, though I hope I've done my bit. But it's only now, after six days of testimony that I sort of feel for the guy. Not the way he'd like: that he's never done anything wrong knowingly (a weasel word you knew was coming). But because of a desperate need for love and approval from others that shone through. You could almost see, in the grey septuagenarian, the kid in Baie Comeau who sang for a visiting U.S. magnate, for 50 bucks and a pat on the head.
For a while it felt like a Perry Mason moment might be coming: Yes, I did it, I confess But it was hell, I had to, I couldn't stop myself. There were telltale signs of evasion from this season's hit series, Lie to Me: "micro-expressions," hoist eyebrows, suddenly lowered pitch -- stuff we all notice in normal interactions but aren't allowed to bill for. And above all, an inability to stop talking. Judge Jeffrey Oliphant actually had to tell Canada's ex-PM to quit after saying I don't know, because, "if you keep talking, I'll think you do know." He's the commissioner of your dreams, the anti-Gomery we longed for.
But what humanized Mr. Mulroney was not his sanctimony, self-pity, or lashing out at journalists who giggled (he said) as he teared up at the thought of Airbus, for which he received $2.1-million in public money he'd never have got had he testified fully. What humanized him was his need for approval and respect despite all this, or because of it. He needs the respect of others because he seems to lack it himself. Otherwise, he'd say his piece and just, finally, shut up. He took the money -- public, private, cash -- not from greed, or not only, but because he had to feel he deserved it, others wanted him to have it. Who can't identify? Who doesn't want love, respect, approval?
That includes Conrad Black but he seems to get more of all those from himself, his conscience, the voice of his austere dad in his head -- whatever. Or from God -- don't forget his conversion. In more devout ages, people may have withstood ignominy better because somewhere an all-seeing eye saw their merit and failings and loved them anyway. Conrad seems to respect himself, which evokes respect from others. He's appeared to thrive, rather than implode under the strain, certain in his innocence. It carried him this far, maybe further. He looks serene. Britan -- pardon, Brian -- is the opposite, dependent on exoneration from others, lacking self-assurance, so he can't stop haranguing us, as if he has a mauvaiseconscience. Pardon the pretentious French, it seems to fit. Like a cloak he can't shake off.
He looks like a man who feels his life is a botch, a special word that shouldn't be overused. It's in his manner, demeanour, his aura, and it always was -- despite his great "success," and a supportive family. Once he gloated and hovered above it all. But he was always too dependent on others' approval -- the more he got, the more he needed, we know that feeling, too -- and on cronies like Fred Doucet or Karlheinz Schreiber. He hobnobbed too much and namedropped obnoxiously, as he did in his testimony. Who would want to feel that way lifelong: deeply insecure and chronically discontent? It is a pity.
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