Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content


Lawrence Martin

In politics, does depth matter? Add to ...

Talk to most Liberals and they’ll tell you that Justin Trudeau, fresh off a glad-handing gallop at the Calgary Stampede, is moving closer to the starting line. In about two months, they say, he will announce his candidacy for the Liberal leadership.

The moment, if it happens, will create more excitement in Liberal ranks than has been seen in a long time. His presence in the campaign will double the attention the race would normally get.

But a Justin entry might also touch off what might be called a Quayle hunt. Dan Quayle, we recall, was the young fellow who served as vice-president to George Bush Sr. and who was ridiculed far and wide as being a pretty-boy and a lightweight. He was roasted for such things as not being able to spell “potato” and for thinking, or so it was claimed, they speak Latin in Latin America. Late-night comics had all kinds of fun. Danny boy, they reported, believed that Cheerios were doughnut seeds.

Justin Trudeau’s detractors don’t go that far. But they are right to raise doubts. What has he accomplished? they ask. What’s he got besides the legendary name, the long locks and the megawatt smile? Where’s the beef, butterfly boy?

The Justin T. example raises an always pertinent question about political leadership. Does depth matter? Is gravitas worth its weight in votes? Given recent experiences, Liberals might feel they have some clues to the answer. Michael Ignatieff had intellectual heft. Sank like a stone. Stéphane Dion had policy gravitas. Sank like a stone. Paul Martin was a policy wonk. Didn’t last long in the big chair.

Recall by contrast the Liberal who won three majorities? Before becoming PM in 1993, Jean Chrétien was derided as a one-page memo guy. The intelligentsia in Quebec regarded him as being as shallow as a birdbath. It grated on him. With his successes, he showed them who had the smarts.

For the Tories, there was Brian Mulroney. On becoming party leader in 1983, he was young, had zero experience as an elected politician, and only a glossy grasp of the issues. By contrast, Robert Stanfield, a previous leader, was a deeply conscientious issues type. Mr. Mulroney won two majorities. Bob Stanfield lost three elections in succession.

The great American political brainiac was the Democrat Adlai Stevenson, twice clobbered by Dwight Eisenhower. Richard Nixon labelled the hair-deprived Stevenson an “egghead.” It stuck. Years later describing what it was like to be an intellectual in politics, Stevenson replied “Via ovicapitum dura est.” “The way of the egghead is hard.”

Of course the highly successful Ronald Reagan never had the egghead problem. Critics joked at how his library was stocked with comic books. There’s the well-known story – true story – of him hosting a G7 summit. Adviser James Baker asked him why he hadn’t even cracked open his briefing books. “Well, Jim,” the Gipper replied, “The Sound of Music was on last night.”

Today’s political environment is even less intellectual than in the Gipper’s time. The political right decries being erudite as being elitist. Much has been written about the Harper government’s low regard for science, statistics and scholarship. In the U.S. Republican primary campaign, Rick Santorum called Barack Obama a snob for wanting Americans to have a college education.

Judging by precedent, you might say that even if, as critics allege, Justin Trudeau is as light as a kite, he has little to worry about. But history also throws up a lot of warning signals to the young and untested. Joe Clark would probably be the first to admit that he became prime minister, age 39, a decade too soon. The same could be said of Kim Campbell, who had the smarts but not the wherewithal.

For the son of Pierre Trudeau, the concern might not be lack of depth so much as the lack of seasoning that goes with it. If he enters the race, he will need something the Grits haven’t had since Eddie Goldenberg and Jean Pelletier stood guard for Jean Chrétien: a first-rate management team.

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular