PM Aide's Controversial Remark

UNTIL SHE UTTERED that now infamous put-down of George W. Bush, few Canadians, and far fewer Americans, had ever heard the name Françoise Ducros. Known in Ottawa circles simply as Francie, the diminutive principal spokesperson for Jean CHRÉTIEN preferred to keep her name out of the papers.

PM Aide's Controversial Remark

UNTIL SHE UTTERED that now infamous put-down of George W. Bush, few Canadians, and far fewer Americans, had ever heard the name Françoise Ducros. Known in Ottawa circles simply as Francie, the diminutive principal spokesperson for Jean CHRÉTIEN preferred to keep her name out of the papers. She pointedly did not appear on television. Her modus operandi was to huddle with reporters in off-the-record debriefings about the topic of the moment, shoo away any prying cameras and microphones, and remind late arrivers that her words were strictly for background purposes. Ironic, then, that Ducros would end her career as the Prime Minister's director of communications last week over a comment she made to a CBC Radio reporter, in a private conversation overheard by another reporter who happened to be nearby.

It didn't need to end this way. A firm rule of any damage control exercise is to admit the mistake, unreservedly apologize for the error and seek to make amends. Few learn the lesson. From Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, Andy Scott, Art Eggleton, Lawrence MacAulay and a long list of others, the first instinct is to deny, then to explain, and finally to minimize the import of the transgression. It seldom works. Inexplicably, Ducros and Chrétien gave the failing strategy another try, at first casting doubt on whether the comment was made, explaining that if it was it was during a private conversation, and lastly asserting dubiously that calling the President of the United States a "moron" was of little consequence.

Rather than staunching the bleeding, those rearguard moves merely gave the one-day news hit long legs at home and abroad. While opposition critics repeatedly demanded Ducros' head, an Iraqi newspaper pounced on the remark as an indication that their view of the President is shared internationally, even among America's closest friends. And the person who strove so hard to remain behind the scenes became the subject of the incendiary CNN political talk show Crossfire. Ultimately, the story wouldn't die, and caused too much damage to herself, her boss and possibly CANADA-U.S. RELATIONS for her to remain. Ducros cited only the impact on herself in her nine-line resignation submitted on Nov. 26, the second she had penned and the first which left Chrétien no choice but to accept. "It is very apparent to me that the controversy will make it impossible for me to do my job," she wrote.

Performing her job was already becoming difficult. In her almost four years in the Prime Minister's Office, she had earned a reputation as the anti-Peter Donolo (her jovial predecessor was known for his humour and deft touch at dousing fires). A lawyer, Ducros seldom saw a battle she didn't want to wade into and win at all costs. Her smarts and fierce loyalty were repaid by Chrétien with trust, access and respect. But they also caused her to divide the media into two camps - those regarded as fair to her boss and those who weren't. Friendly reporters were rewarded with leaks; unfriendly ones punished with unreturned phone calls.

She also made enemies inside the party. When the final split between Chrétien and Paul Martin came last summer, Ducros, whom Martinites believed was responsible for damaging leaks about the former finance minister, was blamed for having exacerbated their rivalry. Tellingly, both Martin and Industry Minister Allan Rock, also known to have had a rocky relationship with Ducros, were quick off the mark with statements the day the reports of her gaffe surfaced in print, expressing criticism and offering little support. Ducros once joked privately that, unlikely as she was to be universally liked à la Donolo, she would aim to be "the most hated director of communications that ever lived." She was hardly that - but at a time when she needed friends to protect her, there were few volunteers.

Maclean's December 9, 2002