COVER/ESSAY

A MAGNETIC ENIGMA

Robert Lewis March 12 1984
COVER/ESSAY

A MAGNETIC ENIGMA

Robert Lewis March 12 1984

A MAGNETIC ENIGMA

COVER/ESSAY

Robert Lewis

Pierre Elliott Trudeau dominated Canadian public life as no leader had before. He came to power at the dawn of electronic politics in Canada proclaiming, in the words of a rust orange campaign button,

“It’s spring.” His images and his deeds soothed— and often seared—the consciousness of at least three generations of Canadians. He wore a rose in his lapel and had a slogan on his lips for almost every occasion. There was the promise of the “Just Society” in the early years; “Just watch me,” as he mustered the army during the FLQ crisis in 1970; “Zap, you’re frozen,” when he ridiculed wage and price controls in 1974; and those “Pentagon pipsqueaks” who dared to downgrade his peace initiative. Throughout the era he provoked virtually every emotion, except indifference.

Along the way, Trudeau redefined the political landscape, elevated kissing to an outdoor sport and waved the most irreverent finger in Salmon Arm, B.C. Canadians will remember him as the determined leader who kept Quebec in Confederation, gave Canada a place in the world beyond its calling and finally brought the Constitution home. But above all, he was the perennial leader whom Canadians loved to hate during 15 years of a remarkable prime ministry. Trudeau ended his era in a typed letter of resignation, released at 12:15 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 29—a day that arrives only once every four years.

Enigma: It will be decades before a leader of such magnetism is seen again. During his years in and out of power, he was a man of enduring paradox. A self-described “solitary sort of fellow,” he elevated the politics of the plaza to an art form. He was a philosopher king who turned the chameleon into a personal mascot. The works of Plato and Machiavelli sat comfortably on his library shelves. He was a man who jealously guarded his private life but on the public stage had the gift of a great thespian. In the same day, through the magic of television, he was a stern leader at home preaching economic restraint on videotape while vacationing on a beach in Jamaica. He was the most vibrant poli-

tician the country has produced and, to the end, he was a true enigma who mostly flew solo flights.

Trudeau was a Quebecer through and through. The future of his province was the reason he came to Parliament in 1965 and it kept him on the scene longer than even he intended. So singular was Trudeau’s passion that he was a virtual stranger to the rest of the nation. He presided over English Canadian affairs in the manner of an aloof colonial governor who tried his best but never quite understood the ways of the locals. He reinforced that view last October after a drive through Strathroy, Ont., a farm community of 8,000 in heartland Canada. After the tour Trudeau said that he had pressed his forehead against the cold window of the car and wondered: “What kind of people lived in those houses? And what kind of people worked in this part of Canada?”

Brimming: He did kindle the flame that lit the way for a revolution in the treatment of French Canadians—even if, upon his leaving, bitterness and bigotry about official bilingualism threatened the legacy in Manitoba. In contrast to his pioneering work in the fields of language and culture, Trudeau ended his career with a bleak record on handling the brimming vat of economic irritants. He may have known more about economic theory than even some bankers, but the national consensus was that he did not really evince any compassion for the problems of ordinary mortals. Trudeau is celebrated for keeping Quebec in Canada, but in the process he squandered Liberal support west of the Lakehead. Well before the end, Trudeau confronted that harsh reality when he threw up his hands and told one adviser, “I never understood the West.”

Many Canadians reciprocated the sentiment, in part because they refused to share his vision of equality for two founding peoples. There was another reason: in contrast to his predecessors Trudeau was a provocateur, not a compromiser. He seemed to relish the big showdowns and, at times, he orchestrated them. He commented on that characteristic in 1979: “I became accustomed very young to rowing against the current, attacking authority and not giving a damn for public opinion.” Trudeau, in turn, did not reach out to the

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recalcitrants, perhaps because he erected so many defensive barriers. As he conceded in a rare personal glimpse, ‘T know I can be as hurt as anyone and therefore I don’t, I never did, just let anybody in.”

Trudeau’s intense pursuit of one-man sports, in retrospect, served as a metaphor for his political life. He excelled at swimming, diving and skiing. In baseball, by contrast, he was so maladroit that after walking two batters and allowing a single in an MPs’ game against reporters on Parliament Hill in the early 1970s, Trudeau left the mound, stepped into his limousine and went home to 24 Sussex Drive.

In April, 1978, on the anniversary of a decade in power, Trudeau acknowledged: “I’ve always liked working on my own. I compete more with myself than against others.”

Inspired: It did not help that throughout his years in power the Prime Minister was an indifferent judge of people. He promoted some over their heads and held on to them long after their time had passed. Too often the best talents, from Eric Kierans to Donald Macdonald, left his side. The singular intensity of his stance on the political battlefields enabled Trudeau to score lasting gains on the matters about which he cared most—Quebec, bilingualism and international affairs. Largely because of Trudeau, French became an official language in government for the first time in the nation’s history. René Lévesque may have dismissed him as “the modern Negro king of French Canada” and criticized the quality of his French, but Trudeau’s leadership inspired a new generation of young anglophones from sea to sea to immerse themselves in his language. In Ottawa the Trudeau era also attracted a new breed of bright, engaging francophones—and they served him as a powerful force against the Parti Québécois in the sovereignty-association referendum of 1980.

Trudeau pursued international matters with the same singularity of purpose. He flew off for talks with world leaders no matter what burning issues awaited his attention at home. He gleefully went off in his Boeing 707 to every continent except Antarctica. Along the way he won respect—if not always agreements or votes at home—for promoting the causes of poor nations and nuclear disarmament. He could fairly proclaim himself, as he did at Harvard in 1945, a “citizen of the world.”

To be sure, there were other accomplishments during the Trudeau years in areas where his commitment burned less intensely. He launched a reform of the Criminal Code that took the state out of the bedrooms of the nation. Through controversial changes in the rules for investment, over the years his governments affected a decline in foreign ownership of industry in Canada, particularly in the oil and gas sector, because of the National Energy Program. He brought television to the House of Commons and discipline to affairs of state. As an avid canoeist and outdoorsman, it was no accident that Trudeau became the first prime minister to visit the Arctic Islands near the North Pole and to assert federal sovereignty over the polar region.

Victory: But what most marked the Trudeau years was the style of the man himself. He swept onto the national stage as a trendy bachelor with a team of “new guys with new ideas.”

In the early years he managed to attract the favor and inspire the ideals of Canadians from coast to coast. He lowered the voting age, launched programs and opportunities for youth, recognized the Vatican and Peking and called people to new heights when national politics seemed mired in the depths. His marriage to Margaret Sinclair in 1971 and the lingering euphoria of Expo 67 gave citizens a warm sense of well-being.

Shortly after his first victory in 1968 Trudeau foreshadowed the perils of raising such high expectations. He told writer Merle Shain, one of his early supporters, “The trick

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will be to do enough fast enough before people like you are disappointed.” The nation did not have long to wait. Two days after the Winnipeg Free Press commended the Liberals for achieving “a sense of order” and “broad public support,” two armed men forced British diplomat James Cross from his house in Montreal. The man of spring became an October hard-liner. Abruptly, Canadians embarked on what became a decade of turmoil—one in which Trudeau alternately won and lost his majorities.

The reasons for his setbacks were varied, but essentially they flowed out of a collective sense in the land that Trudeau had let the people down. In contrast to the years when he had lofty ideals and convictions, after 1972 Trudeau became a more conventional politician, dependent on backroomers, barbers and barbs. Somehow, when he instructed Montreal truck drivers to “Mangez de la merde,” invited Vancouver protesters to “Get off your asses; get out there and work,” or called MPs “just nobodies,” individual Canadians reacted as if lashed by his tongue themselves.

On policy, there were celebrated flip-flops (price and wage controls), forced retreats (foreign investment and the NATO contribution) and studied indifference (access to public information). As electoral pressures mounted, Trudeau reverted to the policy manuals of Tammany Hall in his determination to retain power.

Loyal hacks and old friends overflowed government boards, agencies and the benches of the Senate, a body Trudeau once promised to reform. Liberal MPs dispensed public funds as patronage to further their own re-election chances. Trudeau, the old civil libertarian, defended the RCMP and its massive invasion of privacy in the name of state security. And he tolerated the comings and goings of misguided ministers from his cabinet with all the gusto of a Coney Island ticket taker.

Entertaining: Beyond his many triumphs and defeats, what many Canadians of the Trudeau era will recall for their grandchildren are the vivid images: the pirouette behind the Queen’s back, his bannister slides, his penchant for starlets, the flowing cape, the hats, the buckskin jackets, the sandals, Mercedes—“the car, not the girl”—his “fuddle duddles,” his kids and that icy stare.

It was less widely known that the most famous Canadian also had great difficulty remembering names. In 1976, during a lunch for reporters at 24 Sussex, he repeatedly called Jean Charpentier, his press secretary, “Pierre.” Trudeau biographer George Radwanski was unamused during another lunch when Trudeau referred to him as “Peter.” As for Dennis McDermott, the fiery head of the Canadian Labour Congress in the twilight of the Trudeau era, the Prime Minister called him “Terry.”

Up close in small groups, an experience that most Canadians never had, Trudeau could be gracious, witty and enter-

taining-even with reporters. At the end of a demanding state visit to Japan in 1976 he reluctantly submitted to the pleadings of communications adviser Richard O’Hagan and shared a meal with three journalists in the forward cabin of his Ottawa-bound Boeing 707. He opened pointedly by needling all of us about our trade and wondering playfully why we managed to get so many things wrong.

Damaging: The conversation then turned to the RCMP Security Service, at the time the source of an uproar back in “that enchanting place, the House of Commons,” as Trudeau put it irreverently. He was known for an often repeated private conviction that Mounties were leaking damaging information to the press about his government and, during the table talk at 35,000 feet, he played on that sentiment when I recalled how unforgiving he had been about governments while he was an iconoclastic law professor and writer in Montreal. “If we wrote about you the way you wrote about them,” I suggested, “you would have the RCMP after us.” With a twinkle in his eye Trudeau responded, without missing a beat, “Not the RCMP, the army.”

Among friends, Pierre Trudeau was warm and generous, often to a fault. He was loving and caring with his sons and kind to all children. When he went through a painfully public separation with Margaret, Trudeau handled the reportorial grilling with classic grace.

For all of that, he was not a man with whom an average taxpayer—certainly not one under Revenue Canada’s relentless gaze—would want to take a 10-day vacation. At one point in the mid-1970s private

Conservative polls found

that voters believed Trudeau was more likely to pass an exam than Joe Clark—and more likely “ to cheat.

In the end, Trudeau was a man of many causes, but with few close friends. The proud, confident Jean Chrétien admitted, even after he rose from the Shawinigan backwoods to head the finance department in Ottawa, that in Trudeau’s presence he felt like “a schoolboy called before the prefect.” Marc Lalonde, the trusted confidant who helped engineer Trudeau’s entry to politics, has never considered himself a personal friend.

As a loner in public life, however, Trudeau knew what he wanted to do. He came to Ottawa with a developed body of thinking and writing—an attribute that many political leaders have lacked at their peril. Like all men and women, Pierre Trudeau was a product of his times. Born as the son of privilege, he was a private school elitist in his teens, a conscientious objector during the war in his 20s, a pro-labor activist in his 30s, a prime minister in his 40s, a husband and, later, a single parent in his 50s, re-elected in his 60s. Now, he is an elder statesman.

Pierre Trudeau probably has no regrets because he did it his way. During his tenure, if not always because of it, the nation grew from innocence to full maturity. In his years of office, Pierre Trudeau marshalled all his energies and experience to define an era—for better and for worse.