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JOHN ENGLISH

Politics made Pierre Trudeau. Will lightning strike twice with Justin? Add to ...

“Mr. Trudeau is seeking to win the prime ministry without ever demonstrating, or needing to demonstrate, his qualifications for the office.”

Mr. Trudeau’s “dismal speech” demonstrated that his enthusiastic rallies were a “political rite,” not a political “occasion” where issues were discussed.

These comments by the leading political commentators of 1968, Charles Lynch and Peter Newman, summed up the view that Pierre Trudeau’s rise represented a triumph of style over substance. The Montreal Gazette, which had supported the Liberals in 1965, endorsed Conservative Robert Stanfield in 1968 because, unlike Mr. Trudeau, he refused to opt for “dazzle” over “reason.”

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Future Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan, the editor of Le Devoir, made the same choice, although he did defend his “old friend” against a Quebec MP’s insinuation that he was a homosexual. Future Liberal senator Laurier LaPierre, the CBC’s choice over Mr. Trudeau to co-host This Hour Has Seven Days, denounced his recent competitor in Le Devoir for his naked pragmatism, constitutional stupidity and silence on the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Mists cloud memories where the dominant image of Pierre Trudeau is the defiant and edgy “Just watch me.” But his emergence as a phenomenon in early 1968 and his dramatic election victory in June were not marked by eloquent presentations of policy or blunt prescriptions for the nation’s ills. Most analysts thought he lost the first televised debate to Tommy Douglas; even worse, many said the Liberals’ great hope had been dull.

Justin and Pierre are strikingly different physically, the former surprisingly tall with astonishing hair and the latter short in stature and sparse in follicles. They also took dissimilar career and marital paths. Moreover, Pierre grew up in a Quebec where the Church had a sway unmatched in North America, whereas secularism dominated Quebec during Justin’s adolescence.

But there are similarities. In their leadership campaigns and, in Pierre’s case, during the election, both were reluctant to set out specific policy approaches. When asked why in 1968, Pierre offered a bland reply: “What we try to do in government is to sit down with the people and discuss the facts of the situation.” His approach would be “participatory democracy.”

Participatory democracy was the sixties’ version of social media politics where more is less. While Justin has triumphed on Twitter, Pierre captivated Marshall McLuhan, who declared him the perfect politician for the new age where the medium’s the message and the latter matters less.

Justin is also his father’s son when he speaks of Quebec’s place in Confederation. He dissented quickly when Michael Ignatieff, the apparent front-runner in the 2006 Liberal leadership contest, declared support for recognizing Quebec as a “nation.” More recently, he was a sharp critic when the NDP’s Tom Mulcair flirted with amending the Clarity Act.

Justin has tried to make his own mark in areas where the Trudeau legacy is poison; note his frequent references to his warm reception in Ponoka, Alta. Justin’s current popularity reflects his father’s strengths long ago –support from the young, especially younger women; ethnic groups; Quebec; and followers of the NDP.

In 1966 and 1967, Mr. Douglas’s NDP regularly scored in the low 20s in polls; but in the 1968 election, it won only 16.9 per cent of the vote and Mr. Douglas lost his own B.C. seat. Similarly, in polls with Justin as potential leader, NDP support drops dramatically. The gain at the expense of the NDP comes mainly in Quebec, where, like his father, he consistently does better than a reader of Le Devoir would expect.

Sharing his father’s flawless bilingualism and Quebec’s taste for political belligerence and celebrity, Justin takes the Liberals, who have only eight seats in Quebec compared with the NDP’s 57, into the lead. Pierre’s success also rested on his native province that saved him from defeat in 1972 and provided 74 of its 75 seats for his last majority government in 1980. Interestingly, Justin’s support in Quebec is roughly equal to Pierre’s high score in the Angus Reid poll that asks, “Who is the best prime minister since 1968?”

Justin’s unruly hair and open shirts, like Pierre’s sandals and flippant remarks in the House of Commons, disguise a remarkable self-discipline. Pierre came to Ottawa in 1965 with a reputation as a charming but unreliable dilettante. Many senior bureaucrats feared the worst. But, in truth, Pierre had finally found his métier and astonished Justice Department officials with his work ethic and encyclopedic knowledge of files.

Similarly, Justin entered politics surrounded by low expectations and many doubts. He, too, has constantly exceeded what most expected – first by winning a nomination with senior party members opposing him, second by capturing a difficult Bloc Québécois seat, and third by winning the influential Hill Times poll that asks MPs to identify the most promising newcomer.

In the winter of 1965, Pierre was an unhappy, middle-aged university professor apparently out of sorts with his times. Reflecting many sad conversations, his closest female friend told him she knew he’d reached a “dead end.” But, she wrote, his decision to go to Ottawa had finally given him something “vital.” His mood changed, his dedication grew, and his iron discipline persisted for a generation. Politics, not style, made the man. Liberals now hope political lightning strikes twice.

John English is a historian at the University of Waterloo and author of two prize-winning biographies of Pierre Trudeau, Just Watch Me and Citizen of the World. He is general editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

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