No Such Nonsense

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Whither Trudeau? Whatever

Last week, in a lengthy Toronto Star article, writer Linda Diebel asked how each of the Liberal leadership hopefuls (Ignatieff, Rae, and company) measures up to the ghost of Pierre Eliot Trudeau - the inevitable 'invisible candidate' in any Liberal race. Diebel argues that Trudeaumania remains so strong in the hearts and minds of Liberals that every leader who follows PET must inevitably be measured against him. People, she says, want a new Trudeau.

Let's accept for the moment that the Liberal grassroots really do ache for a new Trudeau. It's not implausible - after all, he brought an undeniable vigour and vitality to the party. He was smart, funny, brilliantly articulate and even sexy (for a Canadian politician). A witty and acerbic intellectual from Montreal, Trudeau burst onto the political scene in the 1960s with charisma to spare. He dated celebrities, swore at political adversaries, even pirouetted behind the Queen. As Prime Minister, he won and lost elections, alienated the west, introduced official bilingualism and brought us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He left politics after announcing, in typical grand style, that he was inspired to retire after taking "a long walk in the snow". He was, in short, an extraordinary character. And that is precisely the problem with longing for a "new" Trudeau.

There has, in the history of Canada and the Liberal party, only been one Trudeau. Most politicians don't inspire the kind of passions - love and hate - that Trudeau elicited. Ask an Albertan, even today, about Trudeau's National Energy Program and watch the venom spew forth. To try to emulate so singular a man is folly. After all, look what happened when American Democrats tried to find a new Kennedy. They found Bill Clinton, who undoubtedly shared Kennedy's idealism and youth, but who unfortunately shared some of Kennedy's less favourable qualities too. Some would suggest that Clinton had a little less of the good and and a little more of the arrogant, womanizing bad, but that's an argument for another day. What's undeniable is that Clinton's arrogance and womanizing overshadowed his final term in office and substantially dimmed his legacy. Clinton simply could not recapture the Kennedy mystique. He was different, the press was different, the world, the public, the rules.. all were different. Anyone who seeks to emulate Trudeau will have the same problem. Trudeaumania happened in a specific time and place - the same man, today, would have a much different effect.

And what of the argument that all Liberals long for a new Trudeau? Sure, baby-boomer Liberals probably do, in that same nostalgic, things-were-better-back-then sense that ensures that the Rolling Stones can still sell out stadiums despite having released utter crap since 1975. And while I bow in subservience to the awesome demographic power that is the baby-boomer cohort, I question whether Canadians under 35 give a damn about Trudeau. The man left office when I was 11. I have no memory of him to cherish, no anecdote that warms my heart. My experience of the Liberal party is of Jean Chretien's arrogance and the nasty, brutish internecine feud between Chretien and Paul Martin that ultimately brought Canada's natural ruling party to her knees. This, I would argue, is the ghost Liberals should be worried about. Because without healing those wounds, not even Trudeau himself could help them win the next election.


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