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book review

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, October 23, 2014.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Common Ground

By Justin Trudeau, HarperCollins, 343 pages, $32.50

Who We Are: Reflections on My Life and Canada

By Elizabeth May, Greystone, 214 pages, $29.95

When I was young, I was a strange and baffling creature, doing things that I now look back on in wonder. One now-inexplicable act occurred when I was 17 years old and waited in line for half an hour for Jean Chrétien to sign his campaign memoir Straight From the Heart. The book itself was pap: a mixture of patriotic bromides, slyly self-serving anecdotes and folksy pseudo-wisdom, all geared to support Chrétien's persona as the "little guy from Shawinigan." Yet I not only purchased this book, but wanted the author to grace the slim volume with his autograph. I was too young to vote and didn't think of myself as a Liberal, a party that in fact I never ended up supporting as an adult. Yet there I was, in a long line of older, cardigan-wearing Canadians, waiting to meet the author.

We vote for people, not for policies. Or rather, we vote for policies as they are incarnated in the biographies of the names on the ballot. The great ideologies – liberalism, conservatism, feminism, environmentalism – exist as abstractions until they are embodied in the flesh and blood of actual political actors. Pierre Trudeau's cerebral liberalism, Brian Mulroney's back-slapping deal-making, Stephen Harper's relentless will to order: all of these are personal traits fused with political agendas. The personal is political, feminists have taught us, but the reverse is also true: the political is personality driven. It was some primitive intuition of the connection between the personal and political that made my teenage self want to shake hands with Shawinigan's most famous son, to momentarily be in the presence of his aura and even to make a half-hearted effort to read his shoddy book.

The campaign memoir is a strange genre, a mixture of an advertorial, a selective confession, and a policy brief. The campaign memoir is written before a politician launches a big push for office and is therefore distinct from the retrospective memoir penned by the retired officeholder.

Richard Nixon's Six Crises (1962), published on the eve of his failed bid to become Governor of California, is one of the best campaign memoirs, craftily presenting his life as a series of adversities overcome, each one leading to greater wisdom. The tone of Six Crises was hopeful and forward-looking; problems had been solved, defeats had been suffered, but the future promised victory. By contrast, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (1978) was a retrospective book, a battle-scarred and recriminatory attempt to salvage the reputation of botched presidency. Nixon is an extreme case but the general distinction holds: the campaign memoir is always a sales-pitch, a book aimed at hawking rosy confidence in change. The retrospective memoir is a rueful look back and attempt to defend old decisions, shoring up a legacy against the ravages of criticism.

According to historian David Greenberg, the campaign memoir genre emerged in 1824 with the rising enfranchisement of white men in the United States. "Candidates found they could reach this larger electorate by stressing not only their parties but their characters and careers," Greenberg noted in a 2007 article for the journal Dissent. John Calhoun, a bulwark defender of slavery, was a pioneer of the genre, as was his abolitionist adversary John Quincy Adams. From the start, the campaign memoir lent itself to fraudulence and quackery. As Greenberg notes, "Recognizing the diverging interests of the North and the South, the Democrats published two different biographies of Lewis Cass, each tailored to one region, while the Whigs were alleged to have published fourteen separate books about Zackary Taylor."

The element of deception that pervades the campaign memoir genre comes from the fact that it promises revelations but is carefully tailored to make a political argument. Augmenting the duplicity is the fact that these memoirs are often written not by their purported authors but by a team of ghost writers. And yet, however mediated by staffers and speech writers and however littered they are with talking points, some glimmer of authenticity peeps through the best campaign memoir. The stories people choose to tell about themselves don't have to be completely accurate to be revealing. We all craft masks for our social interactions, and in time our disguises become our personalities.

Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party, and Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, have both released campaign memoirs, obviously with an eye towards next year's federal election. The two books are superior examples of the genre, both deepening our sense of these politicians and also the larger political landscape they inhabit.

Of the two books, Trudeau's Common Ground is the more cunningly assembled one. The Liberal leader worked with a raft of writers, dictating his memories and then working with them to reshape the material. Jonathan Kay, the incoming editor in chief of The Walrus, was among these editorial assistants. Kay and his colleagues did a commendable job: the book reads very smoothly, with only the occasional lump of leaden oratory slowing it down.

Common Ground will hold the attention of even readers indifferent to politics because it provides a touching and plausible rendition of two fascinating figures: Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his one time wife Margaret. Children of divorce often become excellent lay psychologists, adept at reading the emotional temperature of a conflict-ridden room. Justin Trudeau clearly has this skill because he provides a convincing portrait of the family dynamics as this ill-matched couple, divided by both a 30-year generation gap and wildly divergent temperaments, strove to take care of their three kids even as their marriage collapsed.

The book serves up a haunting post-divorce story:

"One day, a few years after my mother had moved out and was seeing a nice guy named Jimmy, she arrived at my school while I was in gym class saying she had to see me, she needed to talk to me, I must listen to her. In the school hallway she seized my shoulder and through her tears said, 'Jimmy's left me! He's gone! He even took the TV!' I did my best to console her, giving her hugs and patting her back and telling her it was all right, that things would get better. I was eleven years old."

Trudeau's famous last name is an inescapable blessing and an unavoidable burden. "My Trudeau identity was a source of great pride to me, but I also wanted to be judged on my own merits, as someone whose emotional temperament and intellectual attitudes stood apart from my father's." Common Ground is the bildungsroman of a political scion, the story of a young man's struggle to incorporate the messy legacy of his imperfect parents while also finding a personal path for himself.

While Elizabeth May worked with editors on Who We Are, it doesn't seem like she has enjoyed anything like the assistance Trudeau received on his book. Who We Are is a much less intimate book than Common Ground. We get the bare bones of May's life, starting with her childhood to political active parents in Connecticut and their quixotic move to Cape Breton in 1974. Yet May, in contrast to Trudeau, doesn't dwell on the personal details. We're told that May had a "somewhat distant relationship" with her father but little more is said.

Instead of winning the reader over with a personal story, May is very much a policy wonk: the book is an extended survey of her political activism, with an emphasis on her success at working with other parties, including pre-Harper conservative parties. As the leader of a small party with only two seats in Parliament, May can only be politically effective if she works with others. The recurring theme of her book is that cross-party co-operation was successful in the past and could work again in the future. Describing her activism in the 1980s, she notes, "we were so much more advanced then. Parliament worked better. There was far more cross-party co-operation. And the Prime Minister's Office exerted almost no control over official statements and the actions of the department."

Stephen Harper is the nemesis of both books, the foil whose policies and actions are always under criticism, either implicitly or explicitly. Against Harper's famous aloofness, Trudeau offers the promise of a more empathetic and soulful leadership. Against Harper's partisanship, May presents a vision of a co-operative Parliament where the parties work together for the common good. Whether voters will buy the wares being sold remains to be seen. For now though, these books stand as promissory notes and visions of change.

Jeet Heer's new book, Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays & Profiles,  is forthcoming from Porcupine's Quill.