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Brian Mulroney: the human side of a political giant

I was deeply saddened by the news that Canada's former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney had died, at the age of 84. Brian Mulroney was the first PM I covered when I began working as a producer for the CBC National TV News in Ottawa in 1987. That's me on the right in the picture, taken in the Parliament Building, and (inset) his letter to me when I moved to England.

It was a busy time for news, with big stories like Meech Lake, the Free Trade Agreement, a national election resulting in another majority government Mulroney's Conservatives, and of course, The Shamrock Summit. That’s where Mr. Mulroney teamed up with US President Ronald Reagan for a duet of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” on stage in Quebec City.

The tributes since his death have focused on three qualities: his political skills, his communication skills, and his amazing ability to connect with every person he met. I saw, at first hand, all three. But it's his skill as a people-person that resonated with me.

I travelled with him more that any other politician in Ottawa. I helped his office set up his first trip to the USSR, for a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. It went well. On the plane home, Mr. Mulroney took his official photographer’s camera and aimed it a me. 

A week later, back in Ottawa, I got a picture of myself with the caption “Halina Now you’re on the National! Brian Mulroney.”

Then there was the sneeze he wouldn't let me forget. 

It was the start of the 1988 election campaign. Mr. Mulroney was speaking to a small group in a Conservative riding. I was at the back of the room with the rest of the television media. I was feeling wretched, nursing a streaming head cold. Mr Mulroney was in full flow, and his audience was spellbound. 

Mr Mulroney was a great speaker. He had total control over his tone, his volume, and he knew the power of the strategic pause. He'd just made a big point, and was pausing to let the audience reflect on the message, when...

"Atchoooooo." I couldn’t stop myself. 

Mr.Mulroney didn't miss a beat. He smiled at the explosion that echoed round the room, and carried on speaking. But he teased me about that sneeze for the rest of the campaign.

Just before I left Canada to live in England with my new husband, I was called into the Prime Minister's office. The PM wanted to meet with me. We spent a few minutes chatting about my future. Then he presented me with a letter.

“Leaving Canada for the United Kingdom, leaving CBC to join CTV, recently married - when you make a change you don’t do it in half measures. We will all miss you in Ottawa and on the road. Your perpetual smile, good humour and professionalism are some of the traits we will check when we remember you in the years to come.

"Thank you for your presence among us for so long. I sincerely wish the best for you and Neil in London.”

I saw him once more after that. Neil and I were back in Canada for a vacation in Quebec. We pressed the button for an elevator at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Montreal. The doors opened and there stood Brian and his wife Mila, with two security men who put their hands up and indicated we should wait for another elevator.

Mr Mulroney waved off their caution. "They're OK, let them in," he said as we snuggled into the elevator.

Brian Mulroney’s legacy as our Prime Minster will not be forgotten. For me, I will never forget his kindness.

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