It was vintage Trudeau: throughout the last week of an amazing election campaign, the born-again prime minister waged a running “poetry war” with his press entourage, dropping parodies of famous verse into speeches and challenging reporters to identify them. Later, on the campaign plane, sodden with work and wine, the press threw lines back at Trudeau—but they never stumped him. Finally, the prime minister had the last word: at the Liberals’ traditional farewell party for the press in Toronto, Saturday night, Trudeau, hands moving, face alive, acted out a stirring and largely unknown French poem, providing the only graceful moment in an otherwise awkward evening and leaving his wary audience spellbound. Notwithstanding 11 years of arrogance, empty rhetoric and creeping elitism, it is difficult not to admire the man’s style. And it became obvious last week as Trudeau, emboldened by positive polls, emerged from his coma and began turning on ecstatic crowds across the country, that many people were not simply voting against Joe Clark, but for the resurrected Trudeau. The question is: what, exactly, are they getting?
Certainly Trudeau showed no signs of conviction—and few of life—during the
first five weeks of a desultory campaign. He read speeches woodenly, claiming he was sticking to issues but in fact trotting out good intentions and reworked Liberal policy. It was as if the ideals of the 1960s had slipped down around his ankles. The press complained, so did the Opposition, and so, behind the scenes, did many Liberals, especially when it became apparent that most of the much ballyhooed policy hammered out over Christmas by 40 MPs and party members was going to be sacrificed to electoral expediency. A powerful group of strategists, including Senator Keith Davey and senior aide Jim Coutts, felt the best approach was to let Joe Clark defeat himself, to keep the focus off Pierre Trudeau.
Ultimately, the Liberals were forced to announce policy, but the first offerings were either severely attenuated or, like the proposal to double-track the railway, simply laughable. The promise of $35 more for pensioners was supposed to be announced as part of an over-all review of social policy, so that it
wouldn’t look like a cynical bit of votebuying. But the strategists were afraid the Opposition might attach price tags to broader promises, so Trudeau’s careful announcement made no mention of serious reform. Then, in the final week, with polls making the Liberals almost unbeatable, Trudeau offered a bit more substance: the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA), a pussycat of a bureaucracy, was going to be strengthened to promote Canadian ownership of the economy. And later, in Windsor, Trudeau promised Canada would get tough with American car companies who refuse to spend research money in Canada. But in the end the policy statements were only crumbs.
And despite the liberal, idealistic tone of much of the campaign, Monday’s massive victory could mean a setback for the most progressive elements in the Liberal party—some of the people involved in the Winnipeg conference last October, and those pushing for moral and political renewal after last May’s defeat. And what of the much publicized “team approach” to this election?
“In the end we got neither the team nor Trudeau,” said one discouraged progressive. “It’s going to make it harder than ever for us to make our case now. It will be hard for anyone with opposing ideas to get past the victory-makers [Coutts and Davey] and the old political friends [Marc Lalonde and Allan MacEachen] that surround Trudeau . . .” What makes things more bitter for the progressives is the campaign’s calculated appeal to liberal-left sentiment. “We’ll worry about the deficit after we’ve worried about the unemployed,” Trudeau told an adoring crowd in Windsor last week. But does he mean it? And how long will he stay around to work at it?
Party insiders are betting Pierre Trudeau will step down within 2xk years. Trudeau has said he will stay two, three, even four years, though he often looked during this campaign as if one more week would be plenty. But curiously, during the last week of the campaign he came alive, speaking with more passion than he has shown in years.
Has the electorate bought a tired, overrated academic or one of the most exciting political figures of the time? Does Trudeau, 12 years later, still have the moral energy to act on his fine rhetoric? Has he become the puppet of the political manipulators or does he still care? Unfortunately, only the Shadow knows. And he’s not talking. In Linda Griffiths’ insightful, one-woman play Maggie and Pierre, now showing at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, Pierre makes this comment to Maggie about the press: “The only way to stay alive is to avoid their wish to define you.”
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