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Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and actress Kim Cattrall, attend the Genie Awards in Toronto on March 12, 1981. (GAIL HARVEY/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and actress Kim Cattrall, attend the Genie Awards in Toronto on March 12, 1981. (GAIL HARVEY/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Review: Two new books about Trudeaumania paint a portrait of an extraordinary man Add to ...

Trudeaumania: The Rise to Power of Pierre Elliott Trudeau

By Robert Wright

HarperCollins, 365 pages, $32.99

Trudeaumania

By Paul Litt

UBC Press, 408 pages, $39.95

There are histories that make you feel the past isn’t dead, and there are histories that make you feel it’s a foreign country.

You might expect two new books on Pierre Trudeau’s rise to be the first kind. After all, we’re arguably living through a second period of Trudeaumania – the kind of dramatic symmetry that can inspire a sense of history repeating itself.

But no. Trudeaumania, by Robert Wright, a professor of history at Trent University Durham, and Trudeaumania, by Paul Litt, a professor of history at Carleton University, are two very different books that are alike in giving a sense of how much has changed in our country since the now almost-ancient-looking date of 1968.

Pierre Trudeau’s ascension to power amidst a sea of teenage kisses and rose boutonnieres is the stuff of national legend. But a granular look at how it came about makes the country Trudeau roused look downright exotic, in ways that are by turns dispiriting and hopeful.

The effect starts with pungent period detail, such as Lester Pearson having oysters and whisky for lunch on the day he announced his retirement. But it extends to almost everything.

Take the reaction Trudeau elicited during the federal election campaign. He was mobbed with a physical intensity that’s hard to fathom now: Fans often came close to yanking him off the back of his limo, others pulled hairs from his head and one time, a group of girls kissed the hubcaps of his car.

Justin’s supporters like having their picture taken with him. But they don’t do the man physical harm in the throes of their passion.

It’s remarkable how much Pierre encouraged the hysteria. He was single during the election and fairly open about the fact that he slept around. In the winter of 1968, Trudeau was photographed in the lobby of the Château Laurier with two Playboy bunnies. His swinging-bachelor reputation wasn’t just a product of prurient media interest, either; Trudeau went out of his way to cultivate it. When asked about the monarchy on a stopover in Victoria – still a prim royalist bastion then – he replied brazenly. “I was in Saskatoon last night and crowned a very lovely queen,” he said, “so I feel very warm toward the monarchy.”

When he was provocative, people were listening. The national zeitgeist was cohesive in a way that seems almost incredible now. A columnist such as Peter Newman drove the conversation like no journalist in today’s fractured media landscape could hope to. As one Pearson cabinet minister put it, “What Newman says this week becomes the conventional wisdom the next.” (Trudeau, fatefully, had Newman in his corner.)

But it was TV, more than anything else, that dominated how politicians were perceived in 1968. With just a few channels on the dial, and sets in 95 per cent of Canadian homes, audiences were huge. An estimated 17 million people watched or listened to the last day of the Liberal convention that year, when Canada had a population of about 20 million.

Canadians saw Trudeau seduce the camera that night. His exploits included holding a red carnation, which had been proffered by a supporter, in his mouth like a tango dancer. He was a great, playful on-air performer, snapping his teeth at TV clapboards and pretending to spar with hanging mics. One of Trudeau’s first big profiles on national TV was a CBC segment pegged to his installation as justice minister that featured shots of him driving around Ottawa in a silver convertible Mercedes and leaping off a diving board into the Château Laurier pool.

Even his serene, mask-like face was well suited to the frenetic medium of TV. “This is your ‘cool’ TV power,” Marshall McLuhan told him. “Iconic. Sculptural.” (The almost rubbery animation of Justin’s face is equally well suited to the spontaneous selfie and the intimacy of Instagram, the essential media of his time.)

And yet, even as the press built Trudeau up, a combination of technological limitations and civic-mindedness restrained journalists in ways that now seem borderline ascetic. The televised leaders’ debate in 1968 was boring by design, with a format devised to limit jousting between the participants. And TV election coverage was blacked out for 48 hours before polling day. In a sign of the medium’s extreme self-consciousness and even self-embarrassment, Norman DePoe signed off from CBC TV’s election night coverage in 1968 by intoning, “Good night, Marshall McLuhan, wherever you are.”

The Canadian prophet of mass communication, whose gnomic pronouncements famously included “The medium is the message,” has a recurring cameo role in these books. Robert Wright, who sets out to debunk the story of Trudeau as media confection, uses McLuhan as a foil. “In 1968, the message was still the message,” he writes.

The Trudeau of Wright’s book is less matinee idol than college professor. In this telling, Trudeau won Canadians over with the force of his ideas, especially the ones about Quebec, not with the wattage of his smile. The conventional narrative of Trudeaumania is “almost entirely wrong,” Wright insists; a great federalist thinker such as Pierre Trudeau was hardly “the political equivalent of The Monkees.”

Wright has taken on a straw man. Everyone knows Trudeau was serious and brilliant. He just happens to have been sexy and telegenic as well. A more sophisticated book would make room for both parts of the persona. But as a précis of the constitutional debates that roiled Canadian politics at the time, the book is fascinating. More than any other, this aspect of Trudeau’s story requires a historical passport, and Wright provides one.

A Québécois public intellectual forged in the hothouse atmosphere of the Quiet Revolution, Trudeau was a product of his province – an irony that can be jarring to recall about a man widely seen as the founder, preserver and exemplar of modern Canada. In 1950s Montreal, he founded Cité Libre, an influential small-circulation magazine that attacked Maurice Duplessis and his cronies, and later the Quebec nationalists with whom Trudeau had once made common cause.

It was in the pages of Cité Libre that the future Prime Minister formulated his analysis of Quebec and its place in Canada. Trudeau sympathized with the national aspirations of his province – it was a natural response, he argued, to centuries of anglophone oppression and discrimination. But his next rhetorical move was a bold dash against the grain: He argued that Quebec should make itself into a modern and outward-looking society within a bilingual Canada, rather than turning inward and festering in resentment. “Open the frontiers,” he famously cried. “This people is dying of asphyxiation!”

At a time of mounting separatist feeling and, easily forgotten, a steady campaign of FLQ attacks (even before the kidnapping of James Cross and Pierre Laporte, the terrorist group had been involved in more than 200 bombings), Trudeau’s staunch federalism won him national attention. In 1965, he became one of Pearson’s “three wise men” recruited from Quebec to run for the Liberals in that year’s election.

His tough talk on Quebec – Trudeau called special status for Quebec “une connerie” (bullshit, essentially) and denounced the French spoken by most Québécois as “lousy” – earned the bitter enmity of many separatists. The atmosphere of looming political violence is surreal to remember. On the day before voting in the 1968 federal election, Trudeau controversially attended the Saint-Jean-Baptiste parade in Montreal. An FLQ cell had publicly vowed to assassinate him and anonymous death threats had poured into Montreal radio stations. Advisers warned Trudeau not to attend. He ignored them.

Sure enough, Trudeau’s presence sparked a riot. The Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale, a group of separatist street fighters led by the firebrand Pierre Bourgault, chanted “Trudeau to the gallows!” and “Gestapo!” When they started throwing bottles at the reviewing stand, most of the assembled VIPs fled, but Trudeau stood his ground. TV footage of the Prime Minister facing down a Québécois mob cemented his popularity in the rest of Canada; he waltzed to an easy win. (Trudeau’s sang-froid in the face of physical danger was consistently impressive. When he was told about a bomb threat at a polling place he had visited on election day, he replied, “Oh well, Russian roulette.”)

Litt and Wright have written complementary books and what they combine to give us is a portrait in panorama of an extraordinary man and an extraordinary time. Trudeau’s emergence during a period of political crisis and cultural upheaval is just one reason there’s no comparison to be made between Pierre and Justin. Justin wears colourful socks? Pierre once wore an ascot and sandals on the floor of the House of Commons. Both Trudeaus are jocks, but where Justin jogs and boxes, Pierre was a judo brown belt, scuba diver, mountain climber and solo river canoeist who had mastered Canada’s greatest waterways. Justin has a memoir to his name, but Pierre’s essays on Federalism and the French Canadians came out in 1968 to critical acclaim and hot sales – a book of substance on the most pressing issue facing the country. Even Pierre’s face – with its narrow eyes, buck teeth and vast forehead – was stranger and more challenging than Justin’s Prince Valiant prettiness.

To his credit, Justin seems like a nicer guy than his father was. Pierre wasn’t “accessible” or “relatable.” He placed himself above voters – that was part of his appeal. And it came with a cruel streak that seems deeply unattractive today. Just to take one example: When he was unimpressed with a question from a student in Winnipeg during the 1968 campaign, he threw a dime at the young man and said, “Go buy a newspaper and learn something.”

It’s easy to be nostalgic for Trudeau père, with his haughty cool and lofty mind, while his son dominates social media with shirtless selfies and panda hugs. But Pierre’s style of greatness was marshalled to a turbulent, troubled moment in Canadian history. If Justin is a lesser man, he’s a lesser man for a happier time.

Eric Andrew-Gee is a Globe and Mail reporter.

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