NOTES FROM THE BACK OF THE BUS
Fool’s mate: watching the press watching the leaders
On October 28, Peter Desbarats of the Toronto Star reported that the Liberal campaign was “a highly personal creation, and although the term is rarely used in the tough world of politics ... a work of art.” The campaign, then, was designed, shaped and colored by Pierre Trudeau to express with precision his perceptions of the country and its citizens; it was an extension of his personality, an attempt to synthesize four years of government into six weeks of display.
The consensus in the country was that it was boring.
Prince Edward Island farmer, on meeting the Prime Minister of Canada, graciously: “Hello, there. Land’s pretty strong, all right.”
Three weeks in airplanes, in hotel rooms, on chartered buses; one week with Trudeau, one with Stanfield, one with Lewis. And a pervasive sense of unreality, futility. I’m a magazine writer, trying to discover the connections between the leaders and the country, trying to discover who the men are by examining the ways they touch people. But they do not touch people. The campaign seems to be a meaningless set of repetitions, hollow as a drum.
I find my natural place at the back of the bus, and stare at my notebook. One entry a day, maybe two; this is going to be a bust of a piece, because there’s nothing happening here. How do you get at the central reality of a political campaign when there isn’t one?
In the Stanfield press bus, a mood of irritable kindness; damn it, why won’t the man come out and fight? The reporters slide him leading questions at press conferences, hoping for some burst of life to improve their careers on the eleven o’clock news. Nothing. “The government has been irresponsible . . .” We drive through Ontario, from high school to high school, Stanfield trying to make himself heard above the
rumble of unimpressed teen-age conversation. The reporters, looking for some image, some energy, finally fall back on the composition of private epigrams to express their frustration.
Stanfield's voice sounds like a bassoon played underwater.
Stanfield speaks French as a third language, English as a second language, and nobody knows what the first one is.
In Montreal, we are joined by Claude Wagner, the former Liberal provincial attorney-general who’s trying to set some strange tide of Quebec Progressive Conservatism going. The Conservatives have always looked for a strong man in the province, lifting their noses to the wind for another Duplessis.
In a Montreal department store, as Stanfield and Wagner move through the aisles shaking hands, the television crews stay with Wagner. He walks in a bath of light. Stanfield hangs at the side, in gloomy parentheses. A radio reporter, trying desperately for color, asks, “Has Stanfield got to the underwear counter yet?”
Something clicks into place. The only way to account for Stanfield’s stance and style is this: Stanfield is intensely embarrassed by the whole thing. The embarrassment is held in by a rigid tension, never allowed to show, but it is the sole explanation, the only one I can come up with. He goes through his days of campaigning in a state of constant excruciation.
But how to check that theory? “Mr. Stanfield, I’ve noticed that wherever you go you seem to be trying not to blush . . .” There are some kinds of courage that are not required of political reporters.
I am finally allowed a 15-minute interview with Stanfield on his private bus, and he begins sharply: “They tell me you’re not publishing until December. I don’t know. I have an election to run here.”
“Well, I . . .”
“Oh, I’ll talk to you.” A turtle snap. But then, as the cold grey Ontario day drifts past the bus window, he’s back to making miniature speeches: “The govern/ continued on page 54
CAMPAIGN from pâge 24
ment is not being honest with Canadians.” He looks at me while I ask the question, answers it to the empty seat next to me, then swings his eyes back for the next one: your serve.
Hindsight: nobody thought he was getting through. His campaign seemed to trudge from place to place. He varied from the printed words of his speeches only to muddle the syntax and lessen the effect. He was exasperating. He was certainly going to lose.
But the day after the election, when it appeared for some hours that the Conservatives held a one-seat lead over the Liberals, Stanfield held a press conference, and something had changed. He appeared more solid. Success had opened up his backroom emotions.
Trois Rivières: Claude Wagner seems to have been born to be a politician. A blocky, handsome face, clean and even teeth, candid and open eyes; some genetic engineer has been at work on his
ancestors. The reporters spend much time trying to drive a wedge between Stanfield and Wagner on the issue of the separatist vote; Stanfield says that it’s the Liberals who are going after the separatist vote and Wagner says that he wants the vote of every Québécois who cares about his society.
A pleasing fandango indeed. A reporter tries to nail Wagner as he disappears into an elevator: “Both you and Mr. Stanfield have said that the question of separation is a hypothetical one, that you won’t discuss it; but if you are elected, wouldn’t you say that the issue of separatism would be the most important one facing a Quebec politician over the next five years?”
Wagner takes advantage of the labyrinthine nature of the question to sidle closer to the elevator. He peers at the reporter. “So many problems, so many problems,” he says, and the elevator door closes, with a clean metallic swish.
Very well: on the Stanfield plane, the
drinks cost a buck and a half. The Lewis aides will pass the liquor around on a good night. On the Trudeau plane, the stewardesses start rapping the doubles onto the tray before we leave the ground. Reporters leaving the Prime Minister’s tour begin to fill their pockets with tiny bottles a day before: they rattle as they say good-bye.
Trudeau plane: this is too good to be true. You don’t get press-credential dog tags on the Lewis tour. With Stanfield, you get a little plastic card for your luggage. But Trudeau’s aides provide a fine little rectangle, marked PRESSE/PRESS, to hang around your neck on a little silver chain. Sure it’s efficient, but . . .
Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto. In 1968, when Trudeau came to this city, the crowds jammed Nathan Phillips Square at City Hall, 40,000 or 50,000 lurching against the police lines to get closer to him. This time, the Liberals
have been passing out tickets to the Gardens rally to people on the street, and bussing in loads of supporters from the suburbs. The Gardens holds about 18,000 people, and 4,000 more will be stranded outside, and most of them say they came to hear Crowbar, the rock band. The Liberal organizers are delighted anyway.
In 1968, it was Trudeau’s triumph that he could make 12-year-olds interested in politics. In 1972, they are the only ones to retain their enthusiasm. I stand beside a bleacher full of Kaplan Kids, small jittery girls working for Robert Kaplan (to be defeated by James Gillies in Toronto’s Don Valley riding). They’re here, in their Kaplan T-shirts, for Political Rock; they’re screamers, grooving on their own volume. When Lester B. Pearson is introduced, they break madly into Happy Birthday, Dear Pierre, but somebody’s got his cues mixed up; the organizers in front of the bleachers turn, shocked, shouting, “Not now, not now,” but they scream it through to the end, and Pearson makes a mild joke about the spontaneity of it all.
Trudeau speaks. “The last time I was in Maple Leaf Gardens, Team Canada clobbered the Russians with a great team effort . . .’’ The first bar of his theme: Canada is the Liberal Party, the Liberals are somehow more Canadian than the other parties, Canada is Trudeau.
We move from closed space to closed space, airplane to press bus to auditorium to press bus to hotel room to press bus to airplane, locked in, tracing highly-charged lines over the ground.
If the Prime Minister is having a conversation with Canadians, he’s conducting it by remote control. Closed containers and high speed; we’re experiencing a complex scientific phenomenon, human beings living in a pressurized vacuum.
Mississauga, Ontario: Trudeau shakes hands at a high school, two at a time, reaching into the crowd like a beekeeper into a hive. His face takes on an expression of mad amiability. The eyes expand, the teeth seem to protrude; he says the same thing as Stanfield, “Hello, good to see you . . .” Well, what else?
If Stanfield finds this kind of contact embarrassing, perhaps Trudeau finds it irritating. In the school yard, a theory: Trudeau makes a distinction between people and the people. The people are a social element, from which flow power and sovereignty. The people are abstract. People, on the other hand, when they step forward from the people, make him nervous. The abstraction now has an uncomfortable touch. He would prefer to read about people than meet them; he prefers polls to crowds.
Hindsight. Perhaps the Liberal campaign failed because the people of 1968 continued on page 56
CAMPAIGN continued had become simply people, angry, fragmented, shifting from foot to foot in irritation, no longer willing to be complimented because they were being spoken to as a social element. Trudeau insisted that national unity was no longer an issue, but in fact it was much more an issue in 1972 than it had been before. Canadians were no longer happy at being addressed en masse.
After this, it’s no longer possible to pretend that Canada has a centre, and can be governed comfortably from Ottawa. The election was a triumph of regionalism; the regions were looking to themselves.
Montreal: as Trudeau speaks in a community centre, three young men pace around the entrance hall shouting, “Le Québec aux Québécois!” They’ve discovered that the acoustics of the space do good things for their bass notes, and they’re happy as singers in a bathroom. “Le Québec aux Québécois!” Never sounded that good before. Inside the auditorium, Trudeau uses the occasion to dismiss separatism as a problem without an underlying reality.
Press bus (Jean Martin, Radio-Canada): “Sure, Trudeau’s a French Canadian, a member of the Quebec elite, but you’ll notice that most of the people in his operating group are English Canadians. He must carry on most of his day’s business in English. Now, it’s true that when he’s in Ontario he sings O Canada in French. But when he refers to the New Democrats in French, he calls them the NDP — not the NPD, the French abbreviation for Nouveau Parti Démocratique. Either he’s deliberately implying that they’re an English party, which would be very subtle even for him, or he’s thinking in English. ”
Senator Richard Stanbury, president of the Liberal Federation of Canada, happy with a good poll in his suit pocket. The reporters start in on him. They want to know about Trudeau’s truculence with the press. Stanbury is graceful. “I just don’t understand all this stuff about Trudeau’s arrogance. I work with him, and I’ve never met a more polite or pleasant man. Of course, he’s a fighter; when he senses an adversary situation, he rises to it.”
Press bus (Andy Ormsby, CBC cameraman): “Trudeau’s a tremendous television professional. He doesn’t move. You focus on him, get him in frame, and then you can just keep pointing the thing, steady. Stanfield and Lewis both keep moving around, and it jerks the picture.” Ormsby’s sound man has noticed the same thing: “Trudeau’s voice is very level and steady. You just set the audio dial and forget it; his voice will peak out at three points on the VU meters, as though it was monitored in a studio. Stanfield and Lewis both have to be ridden — their voices will vary, they’re
hell on wheels to record. But not Trudeau.”
In a Winnipeg movie theatre, the sound man demonstrates, and it’s true; the speech comes out smooth and flat, the needle on the dial peaks consistently at the same place.
In fact, Trudeau is the perfect politician for broadcasting; he sounds and looks better on tape and film than he does in the flesh. The abstraction of the media improves his presence — as he gets further from real life, he becomes more effective, more himself.
Press bus (Peter Calamai, Southam News Services): “I’m a science writer, and I’ve been watching Trudeau’s science policies over the last four and a half years — and they’re almost a perfect representation of his personality and ideas. He’s concentrating on three major areas — exploration of the continental shelf, technological exploitation of resources, and aerospace. Now, the interesting thing is that these areas are all a thousand miles removed from people, in the north, under water, and in a vacuum. He functions best when the people are removed. So do his advisers. They’re . . . futurecrats.”
TRUDEAU IS PERFECT FOR BROADCASTING; HE LOOKS BETTER ON TAPE THAN LIVE
Peter Roberts, Trudeau’s press secretary: “Oh, you’re getting off in Calgary?
I didn’t know that. I don’t think we can get you an interview with the PM before then. Well, you can always say you were muzzled ...” A precisely Peter Roberts joke, urbane, perfectly phrased, with a polite little lick of the whip beneath the surface. A perfect Trudeau joke. How graceful these people are; maybe that’s the trouble.
David Lewis is in full oratorical flower, a short man with a fine deep trombone for a voice. “The Prime Minister says he was puzzled by the unemployment figures. Well, Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: my heart breaks for Poor Puzzled Pierre . . .”
The reporters make a coded note: PPP. Poor Puzzled Pierre. Corporate Welfare Bums. Corporations And Politicians Holding Hands In Your Pocket.
Lewis is a debater, the only orator in the campaign, conceivably the only politician. He is absolutely the most interesting of the three men to listen to, and absolutely the least likely to say anything out of character.
In the Lewis trail there’s a sense almost of family. He travels in the same bus as the press, sits in the same section of the airplane; he is almost too approachable. His wife, Sophie, is always
with him, a small and perfectly beautiful woman with a child’s face.
The reporters think the Lewises are terrific. At times, this can go a bit too far; as David and Sophie (certainly the only campaigners who encourage the use of first names) sleep with their heads together on a flight from Calgary to Swift Current, a CBC camerman creeps down the aisle to film them. I am in a cynical mood, and watch very closely for some sign that the Lewises are awake, but know too much to disturb such an effective piece of film. But either they’re asleep or they’re too slick for words.
The ambiguity persists. In the hard old days of the CCF when local riding associations kept wheeling off in their own directions, Lewis enforced party discipline crisply enough to be called “the butcher.” It is understood that Sophie has some toughness to her as well. And yet they are such nice company. This might be politics raised to seduction.
Hindsight: perhaps the press believed its own press. At the end of the campaign, we were seeing 35, 40, 42 seats for the NDP; the polls said Lewis was a more effective campaigner than the other two leaders; and maybe many reporters wanted the NDP to do relatively better than the Conservatives, because it would be more interesting that way. Lewis was good copy, pleasant to cover, there was an almost artful lack of professionalism to his workers.
It does not quite work, in the end. Lewis makes the point to his campaign workers: “All this means nothing if you don’t get out the vote on election day. If you have to baby-sit, baby-sit. If the voter wants to eat, hold his bowl of soup for him on the way to the poll. I often think that when people get into the polling booth, and they’re just about to vote for us, the dead hand of their ghostly Liberal or Conservative grandfathers comes down and takes them . . .” He never gets further than that; the NDP workers laugh; they know. But they will do better this time. Hard work will do it. Won’t it?
Hindsight: on the morning after the election, everyone was asking what had gone wrong. The NDP had not done well. The Liberals were in hurt disarray. Even the Conservatives were wondering why they had not quite been able to knock the government off this time.
The editorial pages were quick to point out that the nation had not rejected Quebec, although it looked that way, because it would be very dangerous if the nation had rejected Quebec. A nd it was not true that the country was breaking apart. And it was not true that there was a backlash against the poor and the welfare measures designed to help them. None of it was true. It was a mess. Possibly it was a dream. ■