NATIONAL

NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS

No coronations, Liberal leadership victories are actually savage affairs

PETER C. NEWMAN December 4 2006
NATIONAL

NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS

No coronations, Liberal leadership victories are actually savage affairs

PETER C. NEWMAN December 4 2006

NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS

NATIONAL

No coronations, Liberal leadership victories are actually savage affairs

PETER C. NEWMAN

Not since 1968, when the party reluctantly anointed Pierre Elliott Trudeau as its leader, have the Liberals demonstrated that politics at its highest level is a fever in the blood. That far distant convention, held in Ottawa’s Civic Centre, is dimly remembered as a royal procession predestined to glory, with the eight contenders serving as mere spear-carriers in the dramatic elevation of the once and future philosopher king. In fact, it was a bloodbath, a sweaty affair that took four ballots before Lucky Pierre squeezed out a hair-edge 51 per cent of the delegates’ votes.

Next week’s convention, with an equal field of eight contenders, each burdened by pallets of negative baggage, and including Michael Ignatieff as the heretical dissenter, presents some tempting parallels. But the only one that counts is that, just as for Trudeau, victory for the next Liberal leader will be carved out of the mayhem on the convention floor.

Trudeau went into that convention with about the same number of delegates as Michael Ignatieff’s solid first-ballot following but, because he was such an ostentatious contrarian in dress, women, cars and behaviour, his victory scarcely seemed credible. To most Liberals, he was an untested, unwelcome presence. Whenever Trudeau’s candidacy was mentioned, it was dismissed as a bad joke. (“How could anybody who combs his hair forward like a Roman emperor ever become a Canadian prime minister?”)

Then, as now, delegates were on the hunt for a candidate who could re-establish public trust in their party, which had been plagued by scandal, and, more to the point, restore the party’s confidence in itself.

Manned by political youngsters who didn’t know what couldn’t or shouldn’t be done, Trudeau’s organization attracted a swarm of hip young women, including Gwen Clark, Merle Shane, Jennifer Rae and Alison Gordon, as well as Gordon Gibson, Brian Flemming and Jean-Pierre Goyer. Despite its amateurish airs, the inner core of the Trudeau organization was tough and businesslike. Every step of the campaign was plotted on a critical-path flow chart, each delegate’s loyalties and wavering potential tabulated by computers. There was an active “war room,” to which the organization’s spies (pretty girls in clinging dresses who had infiltrated the other candidates’ organizations) came to be debriefed. The Trudeau women communicated by walkietalkies they kept hidden in their brassieres. I watched more than one delegate, mouth hanging open, mesmerized by the spectacle of a Trudeau beauty whispering into her décolletage.

It was the first political convention with blanket television coverage. Because the TV screen can optimally accommodate only one image at a time—and Trudeau had created most of the buzz—he was almost constantly on the air, bathed in the halo of a battery of hand-held klieg lights that made him seem larger than life, his pockmarked face taking on an incandescent glow. Unlike Ignatieff in this campaign, he was careful about not backing any policy options. Asked about the future of the monarchy in Canada, he shot back: “When I was in Saskatoon I crowned a very lovely queen, so I feel very warm toward the monarchy.”

Trudeau typically maintained his inner repose, refusing to lend himself to the gravitational pull of the convention. And the more he held back, the more the crowd wanted a piece of him. “I made him get a haircut!” boasted an excited assistant. “What if I faint when he comes by?” a vibrating young matron asked her husband, who was standing near me. He gave her a look of sheer disgust, but when Trudeau appeared his eyes turned moist and he impulsively hugged his wife.

The stock of40,000 Trudeau buttons soon ran out, and 10,000 more were ordered. (Only hours after Bob Winters’ organization issued green buttons that read “It’s Winterstime,” the Trudeau girls designed attractive tags that proclaimed “It’s Spring!”)

TRUDEAU HAD A ‘WAR ROOM’ WITH PRETTY YOUNG GIRLS IN CLINGING DRESSES SERVING AS SPIES

The candidates’ speeches were true to form. Up first was Paul Martin, Sr., the party veteran who throughout his campaign displayed the conviction that ideologies and issues were minor diversions to the main business of politics: the handshake. He marched to the stage at the head of an enormous bugle-corps band and delivered a “do-not-reject-this-man” speech about himself, pointedly concluding, “Democracy is not a system where truths are implemented by philosopher kings.”

Next up was Winters, then a leading candidate. Handsome, confident, a touch of Back Bay Boston in his voice and looking very much like a colouring-book version of the tycoon he was, he made a few remarks in pre-Berlitz French, and ended with the ringing declaration that only mediocrity is satisfied with itself. Bob Winters was the most satisfied man in the hall.

Paul Hellyer’s cheering section was led by Judy LaMarsh in a pair of knee-high boots, incongruously waving a white boater. He had the misfortune of having the body language of a captain in Kaiser Wilhelm’s infantry, his shoulder blades pulling him backwards, stiffening his back into an upright ironing board. Allan MacEachen from Cape Breton came on, looking hot and nervous, constantly examining his watch in a manner uncomfortably like that of the sweating PR man in the old Humphrey Bogart film, The Barefoot Contessa. He was led in by a band that consisted of every unemployed bagpiper in the country, which lent his good speech a melancholy air. Eric Kierans followed the rowdy engineering band from Queen’s University.

Suddenly, the siege of photographers, reporters and TV men around Trudeau’s box lifted briefly to allow him an entrance. As if pulled by a single string, his campaign signs were silently lifted in every part of the crowded arena. (At Trudeau’s suggestion, the signs were strategically placed throughout the Civic Centre and passed out to his supporters at widely spaced intervals, so that it looked as if the entire auditorium was his to command. His organizers opened fire escape doors before the speeches started to allow into the hall Trudeau groupies who couldn’t get entrance passes.) Instead of applauding, the delegates let out a collective “aaahh,” like the salute to a daring high-wire trapeze artist doing his star turn. Although the demonstration had been carefully planned, it looked spontaneous, as though the Liberal party reached its pro-Trudeau consensus at that exact moment. Trudeau waited in the stands for precisely five minutes, then moved toward the platform. Trudeau’s was not a memorable speech, but its impact was palpable.

Before the first vote, a horde of Trudeau women, wearing Buddhist-orange miniskirts, converged on the Civic Centre, ogled by a thousand eyes. “They’re learning about politics,” somebody earnestly explained. It took four hard-fought ballots before Trudeau eked out 1,203 votes over Winters’ 954 and John Turner’s 195. A wedge of policemen arrived to escort the winner onto the stage. Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s face, which might have been carved in alabaster to commemorate some distant war of the Crusades, was mask-like, as he walked into the future, burdened with hope.