Watching Brian Mulroney on the witness stand in Ottawa this week, I thought again how I never would understand all the fathomless currents of his, once boisterous, personality.

Long before any of the revelations surfaced of his receiving cash in envelopes from a controversial lobbyist, he had this ability to stir up profound loyalties among followers, as well as a deep animus on the part of large segments of the population. It was difficult to find anyone who didn't have strong feelings about Brian Mulroney.

I guess, as the saying goes, you had to be there, and for much of his time in office, I wasn't.

I worked abroad for most of the 1980s and, whenever the subject of Canada came up with diplomats and foreign politicians, I'd hear the phrase, "We like your man Brian."

Back in Canada, the prime minister was often viewed as a Gucci-clad, baritone-voiced smoothie. But that was in sharp contrast to the sense of him in foreign capitals as a suave figure with enviable political gifts and a rare ability to make instant and lasting friendships.

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Ethiopans in a makeshift camp huddle against the early morning cold during the great famine of 1984-85. The CBC's Brian Stewart was among the first Western journalists to bring these images to the attention of the world. (Brian Stewart/CBC)

From where I sat, everyone from Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher to Nelson Mandela, and from Mikhail Gorbachev to Bob Geldof, thought him dynamic and colourful.

Historians will judge whether this glow was justified. But watching him through this humiliating week on the witness stand and, now, being more aware of his flaws, I still felt personal sympathy.

I've rarely dealt with Mulroney, outside of two interviews and a brief handshake at a public event. But I very much remember the time when the better parts of his nature roared through and he set in motion a chain of events that resulted in one of the greatest mobilizations of global empathy and humanitarian relief in the latter part of the 20th century.

The Ethiopian famine

It was early November 1984 and Mulroney had been in office only a few weeks when the first CBC images of mass starvation in Northern Ethiopia gave him a restless night at 24 Sussex.

Stephen Lewis, the former Ontario NDP leader and Mulroney's surprise choice as UN ambassador, had also slept little after watching our story on The National. "I'd never seen anything like these images," Lewis recounted years later. "I was completely dumbstruck by them."

That following morning, Lewis remembers, his first phone call came from an emotional Mulroney asking what the UN was doing about the disaster. When Lewis replied it was doing nothing, there was a pause and then a quick let's-do-it commitment by the prime minister that would launch both men onto the world stage.

In the absence of action elsewhere, Mulroney told Lewis that Canada was going to lead a worldwide rescue mission in Ethiopia and he immediately dispatched his new ambassador to New York to stir up the General Assembly.

Within days, in his maiden address, Lewis galvanized the General Assembly into taking action on African famine, demanding nothing less than "a Herculean effort on the part of all member nations."

Days later, the UN and Red Cross launched what was at the time the greatest single humanitarian relief effort in history, to save an estimated seven million facing starvation in Ethiopia, along with a further 22 million others across the continent.

Helping the underdog

Lewis confessed to me later that he had his doubts about Mulroney but was surprised to find him deeply interested in developing nations, a passion that began in his late teens at St. Francis Xavier University, which had pioneered student projects to help Africa.

Lewis believes Mulroney knew more about and cared more for Africa than any Canadian leader before or since.

"It was clear he had a particular feeling about the continent, "Lewis told me 20 years later, "and there was that underdog feeling of Mulroney's where you want to come to the aid of the beleaguered. It was a fascinating dimension of the man, which is not widely appreciated by Canadians."

In the case of Ethiopia, Canada's leadership was critical because this famine was occurring during the Cold War when Ethiopia's Moscow-oriented, Marxist regime was largely shunned by Western powers. 

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Former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney testifies at the inquiry into his business dealings with controversial lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber in May 2009. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

To forge the help they needed, Mulroney, and his foreign minister, Joe Clark, worked the phones around the clock and were appalled to find that there seemed a common Western front to do as little as possible about the famine, driven, it seemed, by fellow conservatives Ronald Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain.

It was Canada that broke apart this common front.

Bridge to the West

In early November, Clark, rerouted a return flight from India to land in Ethiopia, becoming the first senior Western official to arrive there, even ahead of UN leaders.

Shaken to tears by images of the famine, Clark met with Ethiopia's reclusive dictator, Mengistu Haile Miriam, who accepted his plea that Canada become "Ethiopia's bridge to the West."

When I went to interview Clark's delegation as it was about to depart at the airport, I found members deeply worried, even pessimistic. They knew the crisis would require a huge, probably unprecedented, humanitarian mobilization and wondered if the public would be onside.

None of us at that point had any idea of the emotional tidal wave that was about to sweep Canada.

Many readers will remember those days. Almost overnight, Canadian farmers stepped up, offering to donate large parts of their harvest to a relief fund; children began raising money at schools; labour unions set up special funds; and the government was literally overwhelmed by the wave of support from ordinary Canadians.

To prime the pump, Ottawa had promised to match private donations and now it found itself pouring in tens of millions of dollars just to keep up. 

Soon the wider world waded in, prodded by rock stars like Britain's Bob Geldof. But by then, Canada found itself, to its own surprise, in the lead.

By December, an astonishing two-thirds of Canadians were contributing money or supplies to African famine relief. In the end, this country supplied over 10 per cent of all the international aid that flowed to Ethiopia and was probably responsible for saving in excess of 700,000 lives.

Canadian compassion

When I meet veterans of the Ethiopia relief today, they still shake their heads in wonder at the outpouring of compassion.

The emergency coordinator of the Canadian effort, David MacDonald, found Canadians almost besieging aid collection centres. "It just came up from the ground," MacDonald recalled. "We couldn't handle the requests from people who said: 'Tell us what we can do to help! How can we do something.'"

Some of the children and families saved by Canadian emergency aid are my friends to this day. They remember how the bags of flour with the Canadian flag on them became symbols of hope across Ethiopia. One hangs behind glass in the CBC's London office to this day, our own modest memorial to the suffering and the relief we witnessed.

Mulroney himself saw it as a tide that kept building. And following the famine, he increased aid and development funding to Africa to a level never since matched. He then went on to take a lead among Western leaders in fighting apartheid in South Africa.

Curiously, given a personality not overly weighted down by modesty, he never made much of his own role in the historic relief effort and barely mentioned the saga in his memoirs.

Today his famine relief efforts are scarcely known by Canadians and I find people always taken aback when I mention how many lives his timely and forceful intervention probably saved, and the leadership shown by Canada.

Stephen Lewis and others who were part of that frantic effort in the winter of 1984-85 agree that Mulroney was the key figure in the campaign, totally committed and in charge.

Even those who later fell out with him don't dispute that the term greatness is not unwarranted when applied to Brian Mulroney and this particular achievement. They regret so few now remember that his uncommon virtues were there when most needed.