by Steve Paikin Thursday September 6, 2012

The Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner is one of those Ottawa traditions that the rest of the country must think is very strange.

The idea is for each attending journalist to invite a politician from The Hill to accompany them to an evening of ribald political speeches filled with self-depracating humour and old fashioned roasting.

Once upon a time, the leaders of all the major parties wouldn't miss it. But then, feelings got hurt when the jokes got too sharp. Stephen Harper stopped coming. So did Gilles Duceppe, when he led the Bloc Quebecois. So it isn't what it was, but it's still a fascinating and quintessential Ottawa experience.

Two decades ago, when I was working in the parliamentary bureau of the CBC, it was my turn to attend this thing. But since I'd only just arrived in Ottawa and knew no one on The Hill, I pulled a bit of an audible. I decided to invite not a national politician, but a provincial one I knew, from covering Queen's Park.

The politician was Peter Kormos, the NDP member for Welland-Thorold. Peter had just been dumped from cabinet for, among other things, posing as a Sunshine Boy in the Toronto Sun, and basically giving Premier Bob Rae a hard time at every turn. But I felt bad for Peter because just five months after getting into cabinet, Rae fired him. So I invited him, figuring he needed a bit of a lifeline.

He wasn't the only politician at that dinner who needed a lifeline.  As we walked into the Parliament Buildings for the event, who should we bump into but Jean Charest. The previous year, Charest had been fired from Brian Mulroney's cabinet for approaching a judge about a case on which the judge was ruling. Charest was one of the youngest cabinet ministers ever appointed, and he was only 30 years old when he made this mistake.

As we all checked in, I looked at Kormos and Charest standing side-by-side and couldn't help myself.

"I don't know if you two have ever met, but you should meet," I said. "You seem to have something in common."

I think they laughed.  Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part. In any event, we all shared a few pleasantries and that was my first encounter with Jean Charest.

Charest would, of course, enjoy a remarkable political resurrection. After a little more than a year in the penalty box, Mulroney put Charest back in cabinet, first as environment minister, then industry minister, then consumer minister. After Mulroney's departure in 1993, Charest ran unsuccessfully against Kim Campbell for the PC Party leadership and ran a strong second. He was only 35 years old and the concensus seemed to be, not this time, Jean, but next time. Campbell appointed him deputy prime minister.

But politics rarely works so neatly and it didn't here. Campbell lost the government and her own seat in the ensuing 1993 election. Charest and Elsie Wayne were the only survivors of that debacle, and Charest spent the next several years trying to resurrect the PC Party. He moved the party from two seats to 20 in the 1997 election. But he'll best be remembered during this time as perhaps the most persuasive, effective politician on the "NO" side of the October 1995 referendum, who probably deserves more credit than anyone else for the fact that the "YES" side didn't prevail.

And then Quebec came calling.

It had never been Charest's plan to go into provincial politics. The national scene was always his preference. But the pressure on him to move to Quebec and assume the leadership of the Liberal Party. ("It's not really a Liberal party, Jean," his friends would tell him. "It's the federalist party in Quebec and we need you to beat the separatists.")

Charest went with a heavy heart, lost his first campaign to Lucien Bouchard in 1998, but then enjoyed a record of electoral success not seen since Maurice Duplessis in 1952 -- he won three consecutive elections in 2003, 2007, and 2008.

By the time he lost the 2012 election earlier this week, Charest found himself the longest-serving premier in the country.

Not bad for someone who didn't want the job in the first place.

Jean Charest's political career started on September 4, 1984, on the best day for any government in Canadian history. Brian Mulroney led the PCs to the largest majority government ever, with 211 seats.

His career ended on September 4, 2012 -- exactly 28 years later -- when, for the first time ever, he lost his seat in Sherbrooke, and lost the government by just four seats to the Parti Quebecois, 54-50. Hardly a massive repudiation. 

Then again, maybe I shouldn't say "his career ended." Charest's 54. For all we know, there's a third act waiting for him some day. 

 Jean Charest and yours truly at the Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner in 2010, 19 years after we met at the 1991 event.

Image credits: Pierre Bouillon/LiberalQuebec/flickr (slideshow); Wikipedia; and Steve Paikin.