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Paul Martin: The Power of Ambition

by John Gray

The first thing that strikes you about John Gray’s biography of Paul Martin is just how well written it is. Open the book at random, read any paragraph, and be prepared to be amazed. For example, this is the beginning of Gray’s chapter on Canada Steamship Lines: “It was Julius Caesar who set the standard for such matters. ‘I wish my wife to be not so much as suspected,’ he said. For all his other faults, Caesar understood the vulnerability of those who strut the public stage. The merest whiff of suspicion, the hint of a doubt, can be corrosive.”

Gray, a former national and foreign correspondent for The Globe and Mail, has a sophisticated, somewhat contrarian take on the man who would be prime minister. Despite the fact that Martin has been in the national spotlight since he entered politics in 1988, and has been one of the most successful finance ministers in Canadian history, and has the support of virtually every Liberal MP, nobody – even Martin himself – really has any idea what kind of prime minister Paul Martin will be. But, as Gray points out, that doesn’t mean there aren’t great expectations. Every region, every group, every cause believes Martin is on its side.

Gray presents his biography as a character study, looking at the influences that shaped Martin. The prime force, of course, is his father, a cabinet minister who coveted but never won the Liberal leadership. Conventional wisdom about Martin Jr. is that he is driven to achieve what Martin Sr. never did. Gray acknowledges that this is true, but only partially: in fact, Martin may not have entered politics as readily as people think.

Martin Jr.’s legacy so far has been his fiscal conservatism, but he claims as his influence a father known as a small-l liberal. Martin Jr. is known for being a doer, but people who work with him portray him as a man who studies every issue to death before making up his mind. In the end, Gray’s success is not in breaking news about Martin but in creating a convincing character study. Summed up, it is Paul Martin, enigma.