The 2000 Senate race in Missouri was one of the most bitter on record in the state. The incumbent Republican senator, John Ashcroft, had been accused of racial insensitivity, and civil-rights groups rallied behind his Democratic rival, Mel Carnahan, the state’s governor.
That was until Mr. Ashcroft’s campaign unearthed a photograph of Mr. Carnahan in blackface from 1960, when he had appeared in a Kiwanis Club show. The revelation hit the campaign like a bombshell, leaving even Mr. Carnahan’s supporters shocked and dismayed.
Mr. Carnahan subsequently apologized, and voters ultimately forgave him. He was elected posthumously to the Senate that November, only weeks after being killed in a plane crash.
The Carnahan incident shows that, by 2000, the racist connotations of blackface had been clearly established in the public’s mind. But it was still possible then for a politician to recover from the revelation that he had worn blackface in the past, if he expressed remorse about it.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is about to discover whether it’s possible, in Canada today, for a politician of his stature to persuade voters to forgive him for such a reprehensible act. But, how he got himself into this situation may reveal more about Mr. Trudeau than any apology.
By late 2000, Mr.Trudeau was clearly already contemplating a political career of his own. He had been thrust into the national spotlight that October when he delivered a touching eulogy at his father’s funeral. Liberals immediately began imagining a dynasty.
“I’m passionate about politics because I’m passionate about life,” a 29-year-old Mr. Trudeau told The Globe and Mail in early 2001. “I believe in living big, living well. I see the world the way I’d like it to be, and it’s my personal goal to help push in that direction.”
Only weeks later, Mr. Trudeau committed one of the racist acts that now threaten his re-election. Voters might forgive the Liberal Leader for wearing blackface in high school, or even as a university student (although as an English literature major at McGill University, he must surely have been acquainted with novels of William Faulkner). But they expect more from a 29-year-old teacher entrusted with the responsibility of setting an example for young people.
How could Mr. Trudeau, who was a French and math teacher at Vancouver’s exclusive West Point Grey Academy in 2001, have been unaware that wearing brownface was not only highly offensive to most people but deeply painful to people of colour who felt mocked by it? Had he not followed the news south of the border, where blackface had become taboo?
It takes a certain arrogance, a certain cockiness and a certain sense of entitlement to think you can behave in such a manner and get away with it. On Wednesday night, Mr. Trudeau was swift to apologize after Time magazine published the yearbook photograph that made headlines around the world. But it’s not clear to whom he was apologizing.
“I’m pissed off at myself for having done it,” he said on his campaign plane, sounding more irritated than contrite. “I wish I hadn’t done it, but I did it and I apologize for it.”
Mr. Trudeau sounded as though he was angry at himself for ruining the perfectly constructed narrative of his own political autobiography, rather than for inflicting needless pain on the Canadians who feel betrayed by their progressive hero. He did somewhat better on Thursday, but still seemed a bit too casual about it all.
It is hard to believe Mr. Trudeau, a politician known for having a phenomenal memory, forgot about this incident for 18 years until the damning yearbook photo went public. The Liberal leader confirmed on Thursday that in fact, he hid these past transgressions, because he was “embarrassed.”
He went on to say he didn’t tell his staff, nor his own party’s candidate-vetting committee about it, when he first ran for the Liberal nomination in Montreal’s Papineau riding in 2008. And if the party didn’t know about it then, how plausible is it that the current Liberal Green Light Committee, which vets and approves all candidates, did not know about it before Wednesday’s Time bombshell went online?
Had Mr. Trudeau been running for office in the United States, his political career might already be toast. It is impossible to imagine anyone running for national office south of the border in 2019 surviving a revelation as damaging as the one that will now forever stain Mr. Trudeau’s image. The onslaught of recrimination – most of it opportunistic – would doom any candidate.
Canadians, however, are forgiving by nature. And that may just end up being what saves Mr. Trudeau’s bacon. He is lucky enough to live in a country where forgiveness is still possible.