Thursday, March 31, 2011

Like Father Like Son

I remember the strange euphoria of June, 1968. Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated only days before, and two months before, Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. There were riots in major cities, the Vietnam War was on the news every night, the body count growing, with no end in sight. And then something magical happened toward the end of the month. A man from Montréal—a man whose actions defied definition—appeared on the scene. Though he was balding, everything about him breathed youth and energy and ability. Politicians were not supposed to slide down bannisters or jump fully-clothed into swimming pools just for the fun of it. But here was this gleeful, attractive man who was suddenly Prime Minister of Canada. I was an early admirer of Pierre Elliott Trudeau; I have remained a constant admirer all my life. Four biographies of PET and several volumes of his writings occupy a central position on the bookshelf in my living room.

But what to make of my favourite Prime Minister’s son, Justin? Widely respected in Papineau, he garnered enough support to represent the small but important Québec riding in Parliament. He has gathered something of a following on the internet, and I follow his announcements and activities with interest. He has a fresh style in both oral presentations and written materials.

Others are not so sure about this young Trudeau. “A lightweight,” they say. “Lacks his father’s persona.” With little in the way of academic credentials, and lacking his father’s broad interests in culture, history, and political theory, does young Mr. Trudeau offer Canada anything more than an apparent long-term interest in occupying the Prime Minister’s Office?

I will not presume to say anything about Mr. Trudeau’s political aspirations. But I will say this: I knew Pierre Trudeau, if only from television appearances. I agree with the detractors: Justin Trudeau is no Pierre Trudeau. But as a staunch fan of the man I believe to have been Canada’s greatest Prime Minister, I need to say this: Justin Trudeau is his own man. That he is not his father—and very much unlike his father in so many ways—I believe to be a good thing, and not at all an indication of weakness or inability. On the contrary, Justin Trudeau is the kind of political representative I think most people wish they could offer their votes.

Pierre Trudeau knew he was widely travelled and wise in some ways that most of us ordinary mortals never will be. You just kind of had to accept that about Pierre Trudeau. I admired him not only because he exuded energy but because he was so obviously more capable and devoted to the cause of people than any other political leader of his time. The problem with Pierre was that he knew all of this, too. He knew he was smarter, and he made no bones about it. You might call it arrogance—or at least the insensitivity of a philosopher king. But this was the reality of Pierre Trudeau. He was one of the elite group of great leaders of the 20th century, and he knew it. The essence of this arrogant strength is captured perfectly in his response to CBC reporter Tim Ralfe’s question on October 13, 1970. “How far will you go?” Ralfe asked. How far would Pierre Trudeau be willing to go in putting down the FLQ? Trudeau’s legendary response: “Just watch me.”

That’s just not Justin. Justin Trudeau does not think, behave, speak, or write in a manner that even his most vocal critic could twist into some form of arrogance. The six-minute impromptu discussion he had with gun registry opponents on Parliament Hill is indicative of Justin Trudeau’s true mettle. He listened. In fact, he listened attentively and patiently, making sure he understood what his questioners were asking, giving rapid-fire responses in both English and French. There was not a hint of Pierre in this active engagement of those opposed to his views. These were the kinds of scenes that forty years ago resulted in Trudeau Senior yelling “Why don’t you go out and get a job!” as he did when addressing unemployed factory workers. After seeing Justin Trudeau in action, in several venues, I just cannot imagine him acting in a manner as insensitive as his father’s often was.

I have to wonder what might have come of October 1970 if Pierre Trudeau had not been so combative. Perhaps his political tactics were the best response to the unknowable extent of FLQ activity. But I tend to think a less combative, less arrogant posture might have helped his cause. I certainly believe that Justin Trudeau, in his willingness and at times eagerness to listen, is the kind of person I would like to have representing me. He is very different from his father in many respects, but he is exactly the same as his father in the one way that matters most: He loves his country and its people, and he is eager to serve in the best way he can.

The residents of Papineau are fortunate indeed to have such a considerate man representing them in Ottawa. I do not know which party I would support to set up the next government. But I do know this: If I were a resident of Papineau, I would be casting my ballot on May 2nd for no one other than Justin Trudeau.

March 31, 2011

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