How Trudeau joined the Liberal Party after six years as leader
Some time in the winter of 1973, in that bleak interval when the federal Liberals were coming to terms with the shock of their near defeat in the previous autumn’s election, a delegation of party members from Toronto flew to Ottawa to have dinner at 24 Sussex and to talk politics with Pierre Trudeau.
There were a dozen or so in the group, men and women in their thirties and forties, veteran Liberals most of them and longtime compadres in the political wars. They’d come to the capital determined to press their ideas for recouping the party’s fortunes at this dinner which had been arranged by one of their number, John Roberts, a once and future Member of Parliament then serving as policy adviser in the PM’s office.
When the pleasantries were over and the hard talk began, the Toronto group summed up what had gone wrong with the campaign just past (no juice, no guts, no fight) and pledged that they’d work their fingers to the bone and their brains to the nub in the campaign to come (lotsa juice, lotsa guts, lotsa fight) if the leader saw fit to use their talents and heed their advice. After a few minutes of this rhetoric, the Prime Minister regarded the assembled company with the steely gaze that indicates to his intimates that the great brain is clicking, clicking and said something like, “Look, I don’t understand what motivates you guys. What’s in it for you anyway?” Remembering that moment many months and many meetings later, one of the men who was there said, “At first I felt angry and I wanted to yell, ‘Listen here, I was a Liberal, a real Liberal, when you were still fooling around in Montreal and attacking Mr. Pearson like a maniac in the pages of Cité Libre.’ But I put the anger down — we’d promised ourselves that we weren’t there to score debating points — and the second thing I thought was, ‘My God, he’s been our leader for five years and he still doesn’t know what the party is all about.’ ”
In the year and a half that followed
— and culminated in the Liberal majority of July 8 — the leader found out what the party w'as all about and learned if not to love it (he is not, in his public persona anyway, a loving man) at least to admire its dynamic and to adjust his talents to its demands. And the rest of us learned, once again, how wondrously adaptable Canadian Liberalism is, an ideology as malleable as Silly Putty, a party whose history is the history of modern Canada, w'hose adherents have the habit of winning, whose style is the style of success.
Think of it. For 33 of the last 39 years, the Liberals have been the government of this country. They’ve w on 10 of the 13 elections since 1935. They’ve survived bad times and boom times, a war, a constitutional crisis, a Conservative government that looked unbeatable yet handily destroyed itself in six brief years, an apprehended insurrection, several recessions and inflations, rising unemployment, the sellout of our natural resources and Lord only knows how many changes in the public mood.
Is there a threat from the left, is the CCF on the march? The Liberals have Willie King with Industry And Humanity on his mind and a little bit of social welfare up his sleeve and the threat is headed off. Is there a move to the right in response to dark fears inflated by the Cold War? The Liberals have Louis St. Laurent, a corporation lawyer, and a cabinet that looks and acts like a corporation’s board. Are there rumblings of independence in Quebec? The Liberals have Mike Pearson, the century’s prototypal diplomat, and he negotiates the leaders of French Canada right into the centre of the fold and then makes way for Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the most dazzlingly bilingual and bicultural of them all, and the rumblings recede.
In fact, if you wanted to be mystical about it (and the party has its share of closet mystics) you might fancy that the Liberal Party functions as an organism with a life of its own — an organism that knows power is a continuum and, shocked to its core by the results of 1972, roused itself to reassert its basic dictum (compromise and conquer) and swept the Prime Minister along to victory in 1974 almost against all reason with little cries of “You don’t have to like me, just elect me” wafting in its wake.
No Liberal will say anything like this publicly, of course. (No Liberal wants to slit his throat on the sharp edge of the Prime Minister’s pride.) But when I went from party worker to party worker in the weeks following the victory in July asking, like some plaintive child, “How’d ya do it anyway? Tell me, do,” the answers ranged all over the particulars from the disastrous income-andprices control policy of the Tories to the energetic spirit of the campaign workers, to the participation of the Prime Minister’s wife, to the new fighting stance of the Man himself, to the efficacy of the ad campaign, the hominess of the train campaign and the brilliance of the policy pronouncements, But they always came back to a general statement that, with variations, went something
In 1968, Trudeau disdained the professionals but won anyway. “It wasn’t an election,” said one liberal .“It was a coronation”
like this: “Well, to understand the victory of ’74, you have to know how the party works. You have to understand what happened in ’72, well actually what went on in ’68, well, no, let’s go back to the early Sixties ...” (One guy actually worked his way backward and forward from 1911 but I left him talking happily about King and Byng and conscription and went out for a breath of air.)
Probably you do have to begin with the early Sixties to comprehend the internal forces that were at play in molding Liberalism into its current winning form. Certainly most of the members of the now famous Toronto group — who later became the people on whose backs the ’74 campaign was mounted — date their active participation in politics to that period. These people — Keith Davey, James Coutts, Tony Abbott, John Roberts, Bob Kaplan, Jerry Grafstein. Gordon Dryden, Boyd Upper, Martin O’Connell, Dorothy Petrie formed the group’s core with other Liberals joining them later — have been called the Old Guard. But that’s not the way they think of themselves and, to be accurate, not the way they are. Hovering in the background is a far Older Guard, Jack Pickersgill. Senator John Connolly, Senator Paul Martin et al, who are still breathing if not fire at least stale air.
The Toronto group is really a kind of Centre Guard made up of “progressive” Liberals. In the Sixties, they were described as the left wing of the Liberal Party but the term was always contradictory and is now out of fashion. Not all of them were born and educated in Toronto but they have the Toronto manner. That is, they're clearly recognizable as members of the upwardly mobile, forward marching, Anglophone-Canadian middle class who give that city its predominant tone. They could be called Walter Gordon Liberals if you wanted to put some kind of specific label on them, since Gordon was in the ascendency in the party when they first believed in it as a vehicle for change, although, except for Davey and Coutts, most of them don’t know Gordon very well. To the rest he’s a remote iigure. a man with an amusable moustache and the habits of another class — a man with old money and certain consistent ideas based on principles rather than pragmatism.
In any case, whatever they’re called, the group came into politics when it was not an insult to be described as a professional politician and they’ve almost all inched their way up the party structure
from volunteer work in the ridings. As children of their time, they were crazy for the Kennedy brothers and belong to perhaps the last generation of politicized Canadians who could openly admire the American way. Most of them are mild nationalists now but they still love the Kennedy style, primarily for its competence and the fierce loyalties it breeds. Jim Coutts Said reflectively after the election in July that he believed in Bobby Kennedy’s statement that you couldn’t ever fully trust a man until you’d been through a campaign with him, and for all of them elections are periods when friendships are cemented and capabilities stretched. Most of them fought all the campaigns of the Sixties including the leadership race though only one or two of them were firstchoice Trudeau supporters. And they’ve hung in together through some good and some lean years, feeding their cameraderie on old memories (“Remember the coloring books? Remember the Whiz Kids? Remember Rivard? Oh Lord! It was beyond belief!”) and on shared pleasure in each other’s triumphs in new arenas. (When Davey was chairman of the Senate's media committee, Coutts was cheering him on: when Coutts came back from Harvard with an MBA and formed a management consulting business, Davey was full of admiration; when Roberts needed money to pay off debts left over from running in the riding of York-Simcoe, Coutts and Davey helped to stage a fund-raising dinner for him and so on and so on.)
While they weren’t distinctly a group in ’68, they were certainly among the large body of Liberals Trudeau disdained as “professionals” when he went after the party leadership, saying he himself would use organizers who were “(a) amateurs and (b) damned good ones.” His own experience of Liberalism was entirely different from the group’s. His opinion of politicians was based on his experience with Duplessis’ Quebec and, as late as 1963, he was attacking federal Liberals as captives of “a herd instinct” and as people “who tremble in anticipation because they have seen the rouged face of power.” He didn’t become a party man through working at the riding level; the very idea of PET as a poll captain is enough to curl your bangs. He turned Liberal only when he decided, in 1965, to run for parliament in the company of his friends Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier, with the expressed purpose of realizing their belief in the value of federalism for French Canada.
The people Trudeau turned to for advice once he got to Ottawa, chiefly Marc Lalonde, who later served as his principal secretary, and Michael Pitfield, who afterward was deputy secretary of his cabinet, were never cronies who talked politics but heavy thinkers who talked political science or, more specifically, the science of government. They regarded government as a serious calling and had gone into it the way people used to go into the church or the army, with an acute sense of responsibility and of mission. It never occurred to them that politics could be fun; they were in it to illuminate the nation’s problems and to innovate solutions to them. To hear them converse was like listening to a brilliant exchange among scholars in the common room of a great university. Trudeau was comfortable with them because, for him, politics was a matter of dialectic — not an obsession, not a point of identification, not an entertainment but an intellectual exercise.
Trudeau succeeded in leaping over the party structure to gain the leadership in 1968, and for his first four years as Prime Minister he had little need to call on professional Liberals except for form’s sake. “The PM got away with this in ’68,” said a member of the Toronto group later, “because of the reaction the public had to his personality in that campaign. He didn’t need to fight an election then because it wasn’t an election, it was a coronation. In ’72 he needed to fight but nothing in his expe-
After the election in 1972, Trudeau began to brood on what had gone wrong
rience had taught him to realize it and the campaign was a tactical disaster. Party workers at every level were dispirited by his disinterest in them and functioned in low gear. When it was over people half-expected him to take his beautiful wife and disappear into the BC rain forest without a backward glance. But it didn’t happen.”
What did happen was that Trudeau began to brood on what had gone wrong and, when the brooding was over, to seek advice from sources he hadn’t contacted for years. One of the first things he did was to get in touch with Ed Rubin. a young lawyer who’d been his student at the University of Montreal, his executive assistant in the Justice Department and one of the most ardent and practical of the people who’d helped him win the leadership. After Trudeau became PM, Rubin, who is a warm and open man. felt alienated by the closed atmosphere in the PMO. and left within a few months to practise law. first in Montreal and then in Hong Kong where he established his firm’s office. He had no inclination to return to Ottawa ever, but Trudeau, determined to get him back, called him several times and Rubin finally promised to act as policy adviser for a year. Trudeau also began to analyze the ’72 results, riding by riding, to see if an intensive study would reveal to him what had gone wrong.
In the meantime, the Toronto group was mobilizing. Within three days of the October election in 1972. they were exchanging a series of telephone calls that
usually opened with, “Listen. I’m worried about the party. Something has to be done.” Within two weeks, the group was holding regular evening meetings in Jerry Grafstein’s law offices on Richmond Street West. They decided there were three priorities: (1) to devise the first outline of a winning plan for the next campaign, (2) to get Senator Keith Davey named cochairman of the National Campaign Committee, and (3) to convince Trudeau that he needed the group. Obviously the implementation of (1) and (2) depended on (3). But (3) was a tough one, partly because of Trudeau’s old aversion to “professionals” and partly because of Davey’s record.
Davey is central to the Toronto group in the same way one kid is always central to the most popular and envied crowd in a high school; he has a personality that makes people feel part of something special, that inspires an immense and protective affection. He’s a talker, an appreciator of one-line jokes and big-time hockey, a kind, responsive man and a Liberal so partisan that his politics go beyond reason and approach a faith. But he had been dragging with him for nearly a decade a reputation gained when, as National Organizer in the Sixties, he had run three campaigns for Lester Pearson and had never won a majority. (It’s part of the Liberal mystique that you don’t ever blame the leader; the leader is beyond reproach. So Pearson wasn’t faulted for ’62 and ’63 and ’65; it was Davey’s fault or Walter Gordon’s fault, they gave him the wrong advice, they “let him down.” This same attitude worked for Trudeau; the people around him were spoken of as having “isolated him from the political process” as though he were some passive object without free will. It’s a curious practice but like so many Liberal attitudes it works; imagine how Trudeau would have been treated after the debacle of ’72 if his torturous dialectics earlier had caused him to fetch up as a Tory instead of a Grit.)
Despite Davey’s “image problems”
( this is a Davey phrase), his friends were determined to reinstate him and they lobbied every influential Liberal they knew — cabinet ministers, senatorial bagmen, MPs, organizers in the Atlantic and Western Provinces — and urged them to write or speak to Trudeau on Davey’s behalf. Even at that, it took several weeks and several exchanges with Davey before Trudeau made up his mind to appoint him. In April 1973, when he had decided, he phoned Jim
In 1974, Davey convinced Trudeau that the public likes a politician and that he should project an image of pugnacity
Coutts and said, simply, “Keith’s a whole man and I admire all his facets.”
What happened after Davey’s appointment, both before and during the election, is not so simply described. You certainly can’t say with accuracy that the Toronto group took hold of Trudeau and manipulated him to victory or that Trudeau took over the group and bent it to his needs. Instead, they learned his tricks and he learned theirs.
Davey convinced Trudeau that the public likes a politician to be a politician and that he should go forth projecting a double image of contrition (forgive me, friends, for I have sinned in my arrogance) and pugnacity (but I'm the best man for the job — I can lick any Tory in the House). Trudeau convinced Davey that secrecy is a virtue and Davey restrained his normal impulses to talk to one and all and spent the period scrupulously heeding the advice of a lapel button he pinned inside his wallet which read, STIFLE YOURSELF:
It was as though the party structure, as personified by Davey and company, and the leader, as incarnated in Trudeau, were melded into an efficient engine that began moving toward electoral victory like a giant threshing machine hogging the road on the way to harvest.
Long before the writs were issued, some of the party’s oldest, tawdriest precepts were brought into play. Patronage of one kind or another was used to shameless effect, just as it has been used for decades by Grits on the “Them what has, gives and gets” principle. Defeated candidates were granted jobs in the PM’s office or in government departments so the party’s members could see that “we always look after our own.” Tired-out organizers were named to the Senate or to government boards so they could be replaced with younger and hungrier prospective Senators.
Talents were assessed and campaign jobs were roughly outlined and assigned in secret. The Liberals had a large pool of workers to draw on, larger than either the Tories or the NDP could hope to muster. “The sad thing is,” says Grattan O’Leary, the Conservative Senator, “that power attracts power. People are drawn to it like moths and so many of the able young in each generation turn to the Liberal Party because that’s where their ideas can be sure of swift effect.”
In choosing candidates and officials, the Liberals made sure they were getting not just the able but the ablest available. Davey named Dorothy Petrie, a highly intelligent and very popular woman
with an intimate knowledge of Ontario politics, to be the campaign chairman in that province, which was assessed as, and proved to be, the place where a majority could be forged; he got Coutts, who is only 36 but has been working for the party since 1953, to promise he'd drop everything and go on the campaign trail as the Prime Minister’s day-to-day political liaison man; he assigned Grafstem, a communications lawyer and a former aide to John Turner, to put together an advertising team that would be flexible enough to take action at a day’s notice: he got an old friend, Jerry Goodis, the shrewdest ad man in Canada, to agree to make the free time television films, which were produced by John Kemeny, who had produced Duddy Kravitz; he encouraged Roberts, O’Connell and Abbott in their decisions to stand as candidates; he called on old loyalties across the country, drawing on the energies of such pros as Gil Molgat in Manitoba, Ray Perrault and Keith Mitchell in British Columbia, AÍ Graham in Nova Scotia and Earl Hastings in Alberta. And he left Quebec alone, as successful English-speaking Liberal politicians have done for generations.
The Quebec machine was under the control of Jean Marchand, cochairman for French Canada, and all he took from the national, i.e. English campaign, was the Liberal logo. All he pledged was that he’d deliver between 50 and 60 seats, a promise as sure as God makes maple syrup in the Eastern Townships in April.
“Liberal strength in Quebec,” says
O’Leary wryly, “is due in no small measure to the fact that we hanged Louis Riel.” The Liberals put it less wryly: they say they’ve always respected the French fact and always gained from their respect.
Beyond their normal motivations and machinations, the Liberals were hyped in the ’74 campaign by their fear of losing. They may tremble, as the younger Trudeau had said, at the sight of the rouged face of power, but they tremble even harder at the thought of being denied the right to embrace its charms. This fear knit up their loyalties and inspired their energies from the afternoon the election was called to the evening it was won.
There was not a hint of internecine warfare. Individual ambitions were submerged to the common cause and Liberals who didn’t agree with Liberal policy were ostracized. Charles Templeton, a one-time candidate for the Ontario Liberal leadership, was a case in point. When his publicly expressed disillusionment was mentioned to them, Liberals answered, “He didn’t stick with God [Templeton used to be an evangelist] so why would he stick with us?”
More important than the lack of dissension was the widespread willingness to put out for the party. John Turner, who had a fight on his hands in his own riding and who, as front runner for the leadership next time stood to gain by a Liberal defeat, refused all temptations and stirred himself to campaign in 40 ridings besides his own. Bryce Mackasey, who quit the cabinet in the late fall of’72, was prevailed upon to come back in and traveled the country as “a friend of labor,” stumping ridings where the NDP seemed vulnerable and his particular blend of blarney and hard-won empathy with union workers could be effectively deployed to win votes for the Liberals.
In the days and weeks after the election, when the Grits were jubilant and the Tories and NDPers in despair, polls of all parties were busy reanalyzing Liberalism’s success. Some said it was an alliance for power, some said a vehicle for progress, some said a monster that straddles the political middle, some said a tool of the Central Canadian elite. But the most telling comment was from a member of the Toronto group: “Being a Liberal is like belonging to a volunteer fire brigade in a Prairie town,” he said. “When the alarm bell rings, you run like hell to the fire hall. The house you save may be your own.” ^