By Alan Hustak on January 7, 2010


l. Ian MacDonald’s snapshot of history in the making


L. Ian MacDonald is a journalist who once wrote speeches for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, worked as head of communications at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, and now edits Policy Options, the magazine of the Institute for Research on Public Policy. In spite of his political leanings, MacDonald, has earned a reputation as an icily observant, reasoned Canwest newspaper columnist and as an erudite broadcaster and political pundit. Some of his best Gazette columns have now been published in, Politics, People and Potpourri, (McGill-Queens University Press, 329 pp. $39.95.) It’s a wide-ranging excursion into two decades of politics, an appreciation of local history, personal musings, and encounters with people he’s met along the way. If you’re not into politics of history, there are some nice reflections on cottage life and some gentle trips down memory lane. Through the pages, his measured personality emerges as clearly as if he had written his autobiography. In fact, he put the collection together so his two daughters, Gracie, who was born 19 years ago, and Zara, who was born last June, would have some appreciation of their family background.  MacDonald’s roots are in Cape Breton. His grandfather was a Glace Bay Insurance broker, his father, Arthur, was an engineer who died of a heart attack in 1958 at the Quebec Bonspiel when Ian was 10 years old.  L. Ian (The ‘L’ stands for Lawrence)  was raised by his mother Marian, a staunch Liberal by the way.  Her son, who became a Conservative after writing the first biography of Brian Mulroney in 1984, suspects she would have disapproved of his political conversion. MacDonald’s career was inspired by a class trip to Ottawa in 1965 when he Looked down on the Parliamentary press gallery and decided he wanted to be a journalist. “I’ve never lost that sense of excitement, and I am very aware of having a privileged seat as a witness to history,” he writes. After graduating from Concordia in 1969, he began doing a television column for the Gazette and eventually became the paper’s national affairs columnist before he left to work for Brian Mulroney

  MacDonald isn’t a doctrinaire conservative. He has called Prime Minister Stephen Harper “a school yard bully,” in print, and described Harper as prone to self-inflicted wounds. In a column published last April, MacDonald referred to the PM as “a leader without confidants, and without mentors. There is no one to tell him what he needs to hear, as opposed to what he wants to hear, not in the cabinet, not in the caucus, and certainly not in his own office.”  Presciently, he suggested the arrival of Michael Ignatieff as Liberal opposition leader would inspire Harper to take his game to a higher level, which for the moment, appears to be exactly what appears to have happened.  MacDonald believes Ignatieff  “has what it takes; he just isn’t there yet.”  Michael Ignatieff, he tells us “is a very smart guy, but there is a difference between school smart and street smart.” MacDonald has been a conscientious observer of the poltical scene from both inside and out. His political thinking was shaped not only by Brian Mulroney, but by “The Reagan years in North America and the rise of Thatcherism in the United Kingdom.”  The five years MacDonald spent in government, he says, gave him an appreciation and understanding of “public policy, as opposed to politics. I have never been a card carrying anything,” he states. 

The book has some excellent profiles of prominent Montrealers, among them former Separatist leader Pierre Bourgault, (‘Firebrand and radical that he was, he was also an extraordinarily nice man’), Radio-Canada anchorman Bernard Derome, (‘Viewers rewarded him with their trust. And trust is not something they give to airheads’) and Conrad Black (‘While it is true he doesn’t do humility very well, his personality has nothing to do with the formidable powers of the state that have been arrayed against him. In seeking to portray Black as a villain, the prosecution transformed him into an unlikely underdog’). 

In the interest of full disclosure, MacDonald’s appreciation of my history of St. Patrick’s Basilica, published in 1997, is included. The book also takes readers on a long forgotten fishing trip with Sir Winston Churchill at Lac des Neiges in the Laurentians, has a chapter on MacDonald’s eye surgery and his observations about health care, discusses trips to the beach, and ends with a heartwarming tale of a Christmas Tree in New York.

 Any journalist who is condemned to write a regular opinion column is bound to be a bit uneven in his observations and make the occasional misguided prediction, but one can only admire the quality of the output. 

The only gripe about the book is that it has no index, and with Kindles growing popularity, at $40 it’s a bit pricey. And while it’s not the author’s fault, trying to find the books in Montreal was a challenge – Chapters didn’t stock MacDonald’s; Indigo said it was on its shelves, but a salesclerk couldn’t find me a copy, and Paragraphe, where I finally bought one, had misfiled the book. 

MacDonald’s next book examines the relationship between Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush.


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