On December 9, 1998, the proceedings in the House of Commons came to a shocking halt when the Liberal MP for Windsor-St Clair, Shaughnessy Cohen, collapsed on the floor of the chamber. The heartfelt outpouring of every party, from foreign ambassadors, even from seasoned press gallery journalists - caught those beyond the hothouse of Parliament Hill by surprise. Who was this woman, an apparently obscure second-term backbencher, who commanded such respect and affection?

Shaughnessy Cohen's story is one that Canadians rarely see up close: the rollercoaster career of a politician who operates outside the spotlight reserved for cabinet ministers, whose hectic life is divided between the nation's capital and a modest constituency office back home, whose only national coverage might be found in the barbed satire of Frank magazine. But to those who knew her, the 50-year-old Cohen - born into an Irish Catholic family, married to a Jewish academic - was an exceptional, unforgettable figure.

A criminal lawyer who, like the city she represented, enjoyed a slightly naughty, good-time reputation, Shaughnessy Cohen learned how to use women's politics to succeed in a man's world. When she arrived in Ottawa in 1993, she was shamelessly partisan and fiercely ambitious, carefully cultivating ties with power brokers like Paul Martin, Allan Rock, Herb Gray, Lloyd Axworthy, and Anne McLellan, her Ottawa roommate. And she was notoriously indiscreet; even the PMO couldn't quiet "Radio Shaughnessy" when the Liberals were warring amongst themselves over gun control and gay rights.

By the time of her death, she had served as a member of Parliament for five years, surviving the infighting of Windsor politics to win her seat in two elections, learning sometimes painful lessons as a rookie, and finally finding her niche as the much admired chair of the Justice Committee. Eventually she developed a style of politicsreaching across barriers that discouraged others and leavening every effort with a generous humourthat was subtly effective. To watch how she did it is to go inside the nomination battles, the caucus meetings, the committee rooms where the unseen drama of the nation's politics is played out, and the understand, perhaps in a way that has never before been so fully revealed, the realities that confront a woman in political life.


From the Hardcover edition.