Jean Chrétien, the prime minister of Canada, is perhaps the best embodiment of Coolidge’s statement that, when it comes to success, persistence is better than talent, intelligence, connections, or money.

Chrétien was literally the man who wouldn’t leave.  Since beginning his political career in 1964 as a Liberal MP from Quebec, he has been around Ottawa continuously, whether in the House of Commons or as a cabinet minister in the Pearson, Trudeau, and Turner governments.  His ubiquity makes me wonder whether Canadian voters picked him and the Liberals to lead their country back in 1993 because they generally supported the Liberals or because they felt sorry for Chrétien, since he had been around for so long but never got to live on Sussex Drive.

At the end of summer, however, Canadians finally had enough.  Actually, most Canadians had had enough of Chrétien before then, but it took the Grits a while to realize that the numerous scandals, gaffes, and the general cynicism of his government had lowered the prime minister’s poll numbers into dangerous territory.  Finance Minister Paul Martin had spent the past few years undermining Chrétien’s control of the Liberal Party to such an extent that, by the time he met with his fellow party members in a caucus at Saugernay, the numbers were telling.  Chrétien could not win the leadership review at the upcoming February party meeting.  Canadians were finally tossing him out.

None of the movers and shakers on Bay Street (or in the rest of the country, for that matter) bought Chrétien’s claim that he had told his wife two years ago that he was going to step down.  In fact, many have been surprised that the old gut-fighter didn’t duke it out with his bitter rival, despite being behind in the polls.  That is what Chrétien has been good at: political fighting, tactical planning, general scheming—the kinds of things that separate the career politician from the true public servant.

“I win, therefore, I am,” was how Chrétien’s biographer summed him up.  While Chrétien allowed his Cabinet ministers wide latitude and independence to formulate policy, he pursued his favorite pastimes: political strategizing, vendettas, and wire-pulling.  This led to such master strokes as pushing through the Clarity Act of 1996 (which all but prevents another secession referendum in Quebec), to convincing Jean Charest to abandon the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives to head up the Liberals in Quebec, to delaying his departure date to February 2004—just long enough to frustrate the aging Martin’s ambitions and to encourage others to jump into the leadership race.

Arguably, Chrétien’s legitimate successes as prime minister were largely the work of others—Martin’s financial plan got rid of deficits left behind by the spendthrift Brian Mulroney and the PCs, while Charest did much of the leg work to keep Quebec in Canada during the 1995 referendum.  Chrétien benefited from these, as well as from the implosion and descent into idiocy of the conservative opposition.

But the revenge of the man who wouldn’t leave may yet play out in an Ottawa movie house—or on Parliament Hill.  Chrétien says that he will spend his remaining time as lame duck in a Clintonian search for his “legacy.”  Who is to say, if he’s not successful, that he will not feel energized to run again, especially if his approval ratings go up?  Moreover, a crisis in the War on Terrorism or another Persian Gulf War might make him feel duty-bound, as FDR did, to run for another term in the name of national security.

After all, his mandate doesn’t run out until 2005—plenty of time to heal his image.  He has kept his Cabinet members from running leadership campaigns, and Martin, while controlling the party machinery, has no choice but to submit to Chrétien’s wishes, lest he open up an even deeper wound in the Liberal Party, for which many Grits would not forgive him.  A sizable minority of Liberals began to sympathize with the prime minister when Martin’s attacks on him during the summer-festival and burger-flipping, picnic-party circuit turned personal and nasty.  The Liberals don’t normally stage mutinies against their leaders (unlike the Conservatives), especially against sitting prime ministers who have won three straight elections, and Martin didn’t provide much of a rationale for them to dump Chrétien other than “It’s my turn, and my father never got elected prime minister.”

Drop out of the leadership race, and, in two to three years, come back to the wide acclaim of party members and win a fourth term as prime minister.  Far-fetched?  Not for a political animal like Chrétien.