I was skeptical about treating those huge cash payments by Karlheinz Schreiber to Brian Mulroney as the core of their fiasco. Too superficial. I wanted more range: how the Dump Joe Clark movement was financed by right-wing money from Germany; how a nexus of greed and policy operated in the Mulroney years. But after hearing the official Mulroney explanation yesterday, I’m into it. Let’s talk about that cash.

What’s his explanation for taking those payments? “I made a serious error in judgment … I apologize and I accept full responsibility for it.” That isn’t an explanation, it’s a chastened restatement of the facts: I took cash and wish I hadn’t.

But what was the error in judgment? An error isn’t a random event that just happens; there’s a thought process. Taking an envelope stuffed with thousand-dollar bills isn’t like slipping on a banana peel. Oops. You’re thinking something. What was the judgment that erred? Then you did it again. And again. What were you thinking, what did you judge? And the judgments that followed. Not putting it in the bank. Not giving a receipt. Not telling your law firm. Not declaring it on your taxes. Based on thinking …?

As an explanation, it says way less than it claims to. He called it embarrassing to admit, but we didn’t feel it was really embarrassing or he was really embarrassed because all he said was, I made a mistake and I’m a big boy and admit it. You’re supposed to get credit for that in this society, all the PR geniuses will tell you it works.

Give us something that is embarrassing, like: I judged I could fool you and keep the money tax-free, but I got found out. (Just an example, class.) That would be embarrassing and take guts to admit. Saying it was a mistake, outs nothing. We got no explanation at all — only an admission of what we knew, and an expectation of applause.

Because there’s been no real explanation, everything that follows from it doesn’t seem to follow, it sounds shifty and inadequate. Why did he pay taxes on what he says were expenses? Why didn’t he keep the records he says he made? Why won’t he reveal his tax returns? Why didn’t he go to the police when he got a “blackmail and extortion” note from Karlheinz. He says that’s how Karlheinz works, he threatened to sue the CBC. Huh? Threatening to sue media institutions isn’t illegal. Brian Mulroney definitely knows that. The more he gets into details, the more it sounds like an edifice constructed afterward to explain a set of things, not a real-time account of them.

In place of specifics, we get what journalists used to call the Mulroney blarney, which might clinically be viewed as narcissism and grandiosity. Self-pity. “I struggled to understand this unfolding catastrophe.” Self-dramatization. “Here we are again … 10 years later.” As if “we” are all on call as backdrop for his life. Self-importance. Boris Yeltsin said to me, “Brian …”

Sitting back, not answering a question, because he assumes the committee chair will rule it out of order, as if the whole hearing is happening inside his head. Narrating and storytelling: “I ask you to take a minute and ask you to consider how you and your families would feel …” Doing voices, pauses, colour commentary and rhetorical questions (“Where did they get the information? They got it from her.”) as he reads from letters and articles. And spending way more time recounting and explaining Karlheinz Schreiber’s behaviour than his own, which is reduced to a “mistake.”

Karlheinz Schreiber seems like a liar. He doesn’t admit it but implies it tacitly in all he says about what he does. When you ask if he lies, he smiles and says, No. That’s useful. You know where he stands. It doesn’t mean he never tells the truth, but you’re forewarned, you must examine it. Brian Mulroney swears that “every allegation” against him is “completely false.” That he tells the truth and nothing but. You decide who’s more believable.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.