Surfing the dial of my portable digital clock FM-AM radio Longines Symphonette the other day, I came upon the CBC’s good music station. What caught my ear was not a Brahms concerto but the dulcet tenor of friend Richard Gwyn, singing the praises of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 15th prime minister of Canada, lapsed bohemian, and the only Canadian prime minister to have been driven to school as a child in a chauffeured limo.
The stuff of legend, Trudeau is enjoying his first revival, the event marked by two plays, a new one written largely out of his own speeches and writings, and a second, Maggie and Pierre, a revival which apparently relies more on an inspired creativity.
As I tuned in on Gwyn and the two playwrights, one of the latter was reading a familiar Trudeau soliloquy on nationalism.
Those who remember Trudeau hear him speaking sotto voce—as if through the teeth—or in pedantic rhythms, as if wearied by the need to explain the obvious to the impervious. But he wrote with great ferocity and energy, a master of hyperbole and visceral fulmination.
On the possibility of Quebec choosing independence, he wrote: “The ultimate tragedy would be in not realizing that French Canada is too culturally anemic, too economically destitute, too intellectually retarded, too spiritually paralyzed, to be able to survive more than a couple of decades of stagnation, emptying herself of all her vitality into nothing but a cesspit, the mirror of her nationalistic vitality and ‘dignity.’ ”
As political scientist Denis Smith observed, not unreasonably, “Such condescension, such contempt . . . such intolerance must be charged with the very absolutism Mr. Trudeau attributes to his antagonists.”
OK, but the quotation would make for a boffo ending for some. Trudeau on nationalism, on independence, on Quebec, could always stir the juices of jingoistic Anglo patriots; they loved to hear him talk like Dirty Harry. “Just watch me,” he told the media on the eve of the dénouement, during the “apprehended insurrection.” It was like, “Make my day.”
This renewed interest in Trudeau is a celebration of the style that was the essence of the man, his sartorial flamboyance, his mastery of the chill rejoinder, the in-your-face directness, the don’t-ask-me-to-sell-your-wheat stuff, with vertical finger. All that and more. One of the playwrights recalls his athleticism— a great canoeist and diver, she said.
Allan Fotheringham is on vacation. Dalton Camp is an author, political columnist and frequent commentator on radio and television.
Gwyn, in an effort to sharpen the focus, reminds the playwrights, and the listening audience, that Trudeau was not much of an economist, that he left the country deep in debt. But there quickly followed a redeeming passage, from the script of Maggie and Pierre.
It is a scene that finds the couple in bed, of a Sunday morning speaking of the Just Society. What else?
In the ensuing dialogue, Pierre muses that he might tomorrow go to the House of Commons, adjourn the proceedings, then dispatch hon. members to the banks of the Rideau Canal where, having removed their clothes, all would go skinny-dipping, afterwards—I am not making this up—making love with assembled spouses, friends, and whomever.
Sunday morning brainstorming may have been a tradition at 24 Sussex, like kippers, but I suspect dramaturgical licence at work here on the details. However, since the nation has no business in the bedrooms of the state, who knows?
A wickedly appealing public man, Pierre Trudeau was cerebral, original, outspoken, fun to watch, an electoral aphrodisiac. But he left the economy in traction and the unity of the country in intensive care. It was said of those present at these novel theatre presentations that, for many, Trudeau was a stranger well before their time. They know no more about him than of Robert Borden. But do we all agree it’s now time to tell the children? And when they find out—what will they think of us?
We had been, before the Trudeau years, on a hero hunt. What this country needed, sages advised, were Canadian heroes. There were problems. We couldn’t make a hero of Louis-Joseph Papineau, Michel Brunet wrote, because he died in bed. “Heroes should die young and not in bed.”
Giving up on finding true heroes, we turned to celebrity. A nice thing about that was you could be a celebrity without killing yourself blowing up an enemy pillbox or excelling in physics. For want of heroes, celebrity would do nicely. It suspended critical judgment and avoided context. It did not promise immortality, but in a world in which anyone could be famous for 15 minutes, celebrity promised a long run to those who had the right stuff.
Trudeau became our first celebrity in the media age of instant fame. He couldn’t sing, dance, run with a ball or hit one, but he could act. People were dazzled by him—men admired, women adored, and journalists doted on him. He was truly the first media darling and television’s first invention of a politician. Still with us, his celebrity only somewhat faded, he remains a product of our innocence, and of our inability to search for substance in the power of his light.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.