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Profile : Clark's Star Rising as Mulroney's Tumbles : Can a 'benign klutz' without charisma lead Canada? A Cabinet minister may be headed that way.

February 18, 1992|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTREAL — Suppose for a moment that you're the leader of a peaceable middle-sized power, and your approval rating is in the basement. Suppose you're facing the hideously real possibility that one of your largest, most important provinces will soon break away. And suppose your credibility is in such a shambles that you can do next to nothing about anything.

That is the bind in which Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has found himself. Quebec proposes to hold a referendum on sovereignty this fall, and Mulroney is so discredited that he can barely open his mouth to say good morning without inviting gusts of opprobrium from an irate citizenry.

What to do?

Mulroney's approach to the situation has been, to say the least, interesting. He has asked his archrival, Joe Clark, the 52-year-old former prime minister Mulroney personally unhorsed as leader of the governing Progressive Conservative Party, to pull the country back together.

At a time when the Mulroney government desperately needs to be seen building bridges, Clark--the country's constitutional affairs minister--is the designated master builder. His is the most important federal Cabinet portfolio, and he is the most visible politician in Canada.

If Clark succeeds at his difficult mission, all the credit, presumably, will go to him. (He is already scoring points, simply by coming to the aid of the man who ousted him, or at least seeming to.) It may even turn out that he'll get his old job back.

One poll found last fall that if it were Clark, and not the hapless Mulroney, at the head of the Progressive Conservatives, or Tories, the party would be at the top of the popularity rankings instead of the bottom.

Another survey, conducted in January, found that Clark is better known to Canadians now than any other federal minister. And in yet another poll, 50% of Canadians said they have a favorable impression of Clark. No other minister received even half that positive a rating.

These are hale findings for a man whom pundits have been referring to as "Joe Who?" ever since he won the leadership of the Tory party as a virtual unknown in 1976, and then became prime minister in 1979, only to fall nine months later.

Clark has long been a man with an image problem. "Few people could see him as prime minister of Canada," wrote Globe and Mail political columnist Jeffrey Simpson in a post-mortem of Clark's short-lived government. Citing Clark's ungainly stride, awkward gestures and stiff public speaking style, he added, "Clark was the antithesis of the charismatic leader."

Clark brought the Tories to power by making the most of Canadians' growing fatigue with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who by 1979 had been Liberal Party prime minister for 11 years. But although Clark became the only political leader ever to beat the glamorous and cocksure Trudeau, he was unable to translate his electoral victory into effective political power.

Clark's minority government went down in the history books as overconfident and ineffectual. He came into office in June, was defeated in a parliamentary no-confidence vote in December and lost the February, 1980, election that--under parliamentary procedures--then had to be called.

Fairly or not, Clark was branded a loser, and it was an image that Tory up-and-comer Mulroney ruthlessly exploited in the next couple of years. In public forums, Mulroney shamelessly professed his support for Clark; behind his back, he was busily lining up his own loyalists. When Clark called an ill-advised party leadership convention in 1983, the gambit worked: Clark lost, and Mulroney replaced him.

A folk memory of Mulroney's treacherous intraparty campaign of nine years ago still glows in the Canadian mind. And as Mulroney has come to be despised, Clark has come to look more and more like an honorable stiff.

Mulroney made Clark his foreign minister, and Clark vanished into relative obscurity. Luckily for him, though, the foreign portfolio let him keep his distance from Mulroney's high-profile, conservative economic agenda--free trade with the United States, budget cuts, new taxes--and his policy of accommodating the ever-touchy province of Quebec.

Today, Mulroney's pet policies stand utterly discredited among Canadians. And in April, when a desperate Mulroney was casting around for someone to handle constitutional affairs, Clark virtually alone among the top ministers had enough credibility to take on the job.

Clark may still have image problems, but now, it seems, Canadians are ready for a man who comes off as an honest bumbler. Clark's awkward gait, jowly face and sometimes unusual wardrobe--he recently made an appearance in a parka decorated with polar bears--make a pleasant contrast to Mulroney's over-melodious headwaiter's voice, impeccable tailoring, glamorous wife and Jay Leno lantern jaw.

"Everybody sort of sees Clark as a benign klutz," says Hugh Winsor, a Globe and Mail journalist who has covered Clark.

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