Where have all the political giants gone?

Allan Fotheringham April 6 1998

Where have all the political giants gone?

Allan Fotheringham April 6 1998

Where have all the political giants gone?

Allan Fotheringham

One day Pierre Trudeau, the coolest cat who ever played with politics, stood in front of the slavering Ottawa press anxious for details about the disintegration of his marriage to his young wife who had run off with The Rolling Stones.

As always, he was completely controlled, smashingly superior, the man who told his bride that his family motto was “reason before passion.” Only one thing was wrong. He was wearing unmatched socks.

One day, as a little-known justice minister, he zoomed into the headlines by pronouncing the quote he is always known for: “The state has no place in the nation’s bedrooms.” It was stolen (by a lowly speech writer perhaps?) from an editorial written the week previous in The Globe and Mail by Martin O’Malley.

One day, Pierre Trudeau drove up the long and lovely winding driveway to Rideau Hall to announce his resignation as prime minister to the Governor General. The slavering press, as usual, was en masse on a sunny morning as the coolest cat zoomed up in his usually hidden silver Mercedes-Benz convertible, a carefully constructed farewell symbol. As he eased to a stop, he noticed your dutiful agent standing beside the front door—and ran over my foot.

He used to punch me in the stomach as he left a press conference, an insult I took as a compliment, as someone who thought my insolence as a columnist amused him.

One night we were in Rome, after a G-7 conference in Venice, on the way to London and Norway. It was midnight, on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Tiber under a luminous moon, the home of Roloff Beny, late of Medicine Hat, Alta., the famed and fashionable photographer. Waiters and waitresses of about five different sexes served smoked salmon and champagne. Beny’s father, late of Medicine Hat, looked about, completely confused.

Your dutiful agent had been smuggled in by Suzanne Perry, Trudeau’s beautiful Ottawa aide, and Pat Gossage, his droll press secretary. On discovering the sole journalist present, Trudeau said: “Oh, Fotheringham. I can’t go anywhere but find you around. But I’ll give you one credit. You’re very good at making enemies. You remind me

of Cyrano de Bergerac. You wouldn’t understand this but”—and he launched off into a long quotation in French from the long-nosed one.

“Prime Minister,” I replied, “I obviously could not be cultured. I’m from Western Canada.” We did not speak again for three years.

He was, as we know, the most fascinating prime minister we have had since Mackenzie King, that kookie little cutey who talked to his dead dog and his long-expired mother in heaven. And never married. Trudeau married, sort of, a charming bachelor of 51 who startled the nation by bedding a stunning beauty of 22 from Vancouver. What he wanted, of course, was a brood mare and after three nice sons were born, the star-crossed marriage collapsed as obviously it would— as doomed as the Prince Charles/Diana thing was doomed.

The reason he was elected in 1968 was because of John Kennedy. Canadians were as much dazzled as Americans by the charming, witty millionaire who captured a beautiful young bride. Several years later, the traditionally humble Canadians were enraptured at finding a charming, witty, millionaire politician who was even better—bilingual!

The usual Canadian deferential attitude to rich and successful Americans was turned into smug arrogance. We’ve got one better. Ya-ya.

“He haunts us still.” That was the opening sentence in Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson’s fine two-volume account of the Trudeau gunslinger saga. When, at 71, he impregnated and did not marry thirtysomething Deborah Coyne, progeny of a famous Winnipeg family, there was a wonderful cartoon in a newspaper. When a waiter asks a patron what he would like, the guy points to a lone Trudeau sitting off in the corner of the restaurant and says: “I’ll have whatever he’s having.”

The guy who haunts us still, and used to run over my foot, broke the Maclean ’s newsstand sales record when he came out against the Meech Lake accord. Now 78, his physical health is good but his memory, as he candidly admits, is fading—Halfzeimers, as some ol us who are suffering from it confess. Yet he could, we predict, still cause a sensation by pronouncing his views on the leader of the federal Conservative party suddenly converting himself into the leader of the Quebec Liberal party. We would love the sudden bombast that, we can assure you, would lead The National that night. Not to mention every paper in the land.

One day, a nervous young Liberal cabinet minister named Jean Chrétien found himself seated in a small government jet beside his prime minister on the way to an evening speech. The PM immersed himself in his briefing notes, never speaking a word for an hour.

Chrétien, noticing a spattering of specks on his window and hop ing to break the ice, said: “It’s raining outside.” Trudeau, not raising his eyes from his papers, said: “If it’s raining, it must be outside.’ The trip continued in silence.

They don’t make giants much anymore.