OTTAWA - A dark sedan drawing up to the front doors of Parliament Hill doesn't usually stir the interest of the ever-present tourists lounging on the steps — unless Brian Mulroney emerges from the back seat.
Visitors to the Peace Tower had an unexpected brush with Canadian political history Wednesday, springing to their feet and whipping out cell phones to record their encounter with the former prime minister.
"Mr. Mulroney," they gushed, shaking hands and snapping photos as the charismatic and often controversial leader who introduced Canada to the GST paid a high-profile visit to his former stomping grounds.
Even the teenage girls who were on hand couldn't contain their excitement. "He touched my bag," they giggled.
The buzz on the Hill wasn't limited to the tourists.
Officially, Mulroney was in the capital to deliver a dinner speech marking the 25th anniversary of one of his government's most celebrated accomplishments: changes to Canada's drug-patent laws that supporters credit for jump-starting Canadian research.
But it didn't hurt that Prime Minister Stephen Harper — a successor with whom Mulroney famously does not see eye to eye — was travelling in Europe, far from the national capital.
Harper's decision to launch a public inquiry in 2007 into Mulroney's business dealings with German lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber seriously strained Conservative family ties.
The man put in charge of determining the scope of the inquiry at the time was Gov. Gen. David Johnston, who is also out of town this week.
Ahead of the inquiry, the Harper Tories circulated word that Mulroney was no longer even a member of the party and cabinet ministers were told to ex-communicate him from their circles.
But the duo began to make up two years later when Harper filmed a video for a party celebrating the anniversary of Mulroney's 1984 majority Conservative government. Late last year, several Harper cabinet ministers attended a ceremony where Mulroney was honoured by Japan.
And on Wednesday, Mulroney sat down to lunch with one of Harper's most trusted lieutenants, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty — but not before embarking on a tour of some familiar corners of the Parliament buildings.
Standing on the steps underneath the Peace Tower, he gazed out over the lawn where a yoga class was just getting started.
"The grass is always greener," he quipped to Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan, before shaking van Loan's hand and telling him he was doing a great job.
In the rotunda, he shook hands with security guards, tourists and even Liberal MPs before taking a solitary stroll down the Hall of Honour, stopping before portraits of prime ministers of yore.
John Turner's he described as "dishevelled," while the bright yellow background behind Jean Chretien proved a bit too startling. He said little about the image of Kim Campbell, who presided over the post-Mulroney Tories when they were devastated by the Liberals in 1993.
To his own painting, Mulroney paid a respectful glance, then promptly moved on.
Upon arriving at the parliamentary dining room for lunch with Flaherty, he was waylaid again and again by MPs and their entourages.
Some who had actually never met him were taken by his charisma, even some Tories for whom the Schreiber affair still rankles.
"You can't forget the envelope," one MP said of Mulroney's acceptance of cash from the lobbyist after his term as prime minister ended.
For each hand extended to him at the restaurant, Mulroney offered his in return, barely making it through the buffet line as more cameras whirred.
But eventually he and Flaherty managed to settle down at their reserved table — one that used to host former prime minister John Diefenbaker during his years of power.
When asked later what the duo discussed over lunch — Mulroney spends a fair bit of time in Europe amidst its teetering economies — Flaherty said there were a range of subjects.
"Lots of stories," he said.
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