Above all, the man could act. The country rarely got a glimpse of the person behind the mask— Pierre Elliott Trudeau. His ability to fascinate Canadians as one public image succeeded another was legendary. But that facility, combined with his steely self-control, hurt him—and those around him—as much as it helped him in his remarkable career.
Toronto MP James Fleming, for one, recalls vividly Trudeau’s icy manner when he dropped him from the federal cabinet last summer, an act that left the former multiculturalism minister hurt and bewildered. Trudeau, a man who shrinks from firing anyone, was aloof and unconsoling that day. “[He is] always so careful, always so packaged, always performing at his best,” Fleming said. “A lot of us have watched for years and wondered, ‘Once could he say, I need your help?’ ”
That is a request Trudeau has rarely made, even to his closest friends. In private he is diffident, almost shy, self-contained and often touchingly kind. In public he can assume and master any role that he chooses. His discipline cracks only when someone challenges him with hostility in an argument—and then he will do or say anything to win. His friends contend that he is his own greatest creation, but to his detractors that artifice has weakened his tenure.
He was born to wealth on Oct. 18, 1919. His father, Charles-Emile, launched a chain of gas stations around Montreal in 1921—and then sold it to Imperial Oil for $1.4 million in 1932. When he died in 1935 he had doubled his
profit, and his children—Suzette, the eldest, the wife of a Montreal dentist, Pierre and his younger brother, Charles, a retired architect—are multimillionaires.
His mother, Grace Elliott, was the lively daughter of a French-Canadian housewife and a wealthy businessman of United Empire Loyalist stock. The young Pierre spoke English to her and French to his father, and he later observed, “My father taught me order and discipline, and my mother freedom and fantasy.” After his father died, Trudeau remained close to his mother, living with her until he was more than 40 and telephoning her almost every day until she died in 1973.
The first 46 years of his life, until he entered politics in 1965, show the tension of those early conflicting parental drives. For eight years—ending when he was 20— the Jesuits drilled him to reach for perfection through the discipline of will. Then he studied law, articled and tackled more studies at Harvard, the Sorbonne and the London School of Economics. Afterward he drifted through international trouble spots in a yearlong world tour. Still later he practised labor law,
crafted rational essays that denounced Quebec’s narrow ethnic nationalism, and often took long, exotic holidays.
Prankster: Cobourg, Ont., broadcaster Donald Newlands, who as a
young man ran in the same social circle in Montreal, remembers him as a “great prankster. At symphony concerts he would saunter down to the front of the stage during intermission and keel over in a faint, and of course his entourage would carry him out head first from the hall.”
Trudeau’s political star rose rapidly after he entered federal politics in 1965. By 1966 he was parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Lester Pearson, and by 1967 he was an innovative justice minister, modernizing Canada’s outmoded Criminal Code. When he finally entered the 1968 Liberal leadership race, he had the support of much of the party’s old and new guard alike. A former key Liberal aide recalled that Trudeau disdained the contrived demonstrations which greeted the appearance of other candidates. Instead, when Trudeau entered the Ottawa arena to make his pivotal speech, a lone spotlight picked him out at the entrance. Then he walked alone toward the stage until the crowd exploded with applause. “It was the most amazing entrance I have ever seen,” the aide declared.
Trudeau’s fascination with Quebec’s role in Canada has been the touchstone of his political career. Former finance minister Mitchell Sharp said that Trudeau never had rigid or preconceived ideas on any subject—except for federal-provincial relations and Quebec. Quebec Immigration Minister Gérald Godin insisted that Trudeau’s theoretical approach to those two subjects was counterproductive. “It failed because he
was too much a man of reason, not passion,” Godin said. “If he had developed affection for himself and his ideas, his chances for success would have been greater.” His personal credo, “Reason before passion,” allowed Trudeau to hold himself above backroom plottings, but, paradoxically, his liveliest campaigns were extremely manipulative, filled with personal attacks meant to crush his opponents.
Rigorous: The same man loathed dishonesty, but allowed Liberals to wallow in patronage. He was more at home abroad than in Western Canada. In cabinet he conducted a largely democratic debate, but could not bring warmth and spirit to discussions. As a senior minister said, “There’s no feeling of being on a team.” Added another key Trudeau confidant: “ The downside is that he has not been a warm, embracing, comfortable leader—but the other side is the strength of that defect, a rigorous, almost Cartesian realism in the assessment of facts and choices.”
Trudeau’s private life has always provided grist for the gossip mills— starting with his earliest dates with show business stars like Barbra Streisand. But Trudeau looked past Hollywood attractions when he decided to
marry, choosing Margaret Sinclair, the daughter of a former Liberal fisheries minister from Vancouver. They married in 1971, when he was 51 and she was 22, and had three sons, Justin, now 12, Sacha, now 10, and Michel, now 8. But Margaret chafed in the restrictive role of prime minister’s wife, declaring that she was more than a rose in her husband’s lapel. After they separated in May, 1977, she tormented Trudeau with a series of widely publicized, titillating indiscretions. Trudeau responded with a new persona: a dignified single parent returning in late middle age to the rituals of dating. This time the women on his arm were either accomplished artists like ballerina Karen Kain or starstruck girls awed at being in the Prime Minister’s presence.
Trudeau’s private faults and virtues were as marked as his public ones. He was notoriously careful with money despite his large fortune. During the 1980 campaign, when his advisers insisted that he had to buy new clothes to match the image of Trudeau as a reborn leader, he agreed—provided the party paid for them (it did).
Trudeau could not laugh at himself but he never lost his pranksterish quality. He and his ministers once argued for
weeks over the purchase of a sophisticated piece of military equipment. Bureaucrats listed the advantages, drawbacks and alternatives while everyone around the cabinet table tried to reach a decision. Finally, on the last possible day, Trudeau asked the civil servants to leave the room, turned to his worried ministers, then grinned. “Well, shall we flip a coin?” he asked.
Intense: There are only brief
glimpses of the man behind the image, and even when he was considering resigning, he chose once again to display his self-control. Four days before he walked out into a storm to think about his future, Trudeau talked to an old friend, guitarist Liona Boyd. She said she was ending a year’s sabbatical from performing. “A sabbatical sounds like a nice thing,” Trudeau replied. But even though he asked her numerous questions about her plans, he gave no further hint of his own difficult decision. Clearly, Trudeau preferred to leave public life as he entered it: still the intensely private man beyond the legend.
With Patricia Hluchy in Toronto, Carol Goar, John Hay and Susan Riley in Ottawa, Michael Clugston in Halifax and Anthony Wilson-Smith in Montreal.
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