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Pierre and Justin Trudeau, the father and son Prime Minister team, were blessed with good luck as well as good looks.
When Trudeau the elder ran for PM of Canada, Nixon and Humphrey were battling for the presidency of the United States. Nixon, known as “Tricky Dick” with his shifty gaze and inability to smile naturally and Humphrey, “the Happy Warrior”, a goody goody whose inspirational words fell flat, despite his energetic optimism, and came across as yada yada. No wonder Trudeaumania took America by storm. Americans were desperate for some excitement.
Justin Trudeau, about whom Margaret Atwood said: “He’s cooler than Canada… Canada needs to live up to young Justin first,” ran for PM while the elephant south of Canada’s border featured “the most disliked U.S. presidential candidates ever.” Trudeaumania strikes again.
So far, Justin Trudeau is off to a good start. The Globe and Mail has a positive assessment. The Star gives him an A- and Macleans rates him first among short term Prime Ministers. They rate his father, Pierre, fourth out of thirteen long-serving Prime Ministers. No surprise the word dynasty is starting to appear in the Jumbo Shrimp above the U.S. border.
Canada is enormous in size, slightly larger than the U.S. in land mass, but sparsely populated with a total population less than the State of California. The border between the U.S. and Canada was established after the War of 1812, a war both sides say they won.
Canada and the United States are similar but they are different countries and different in many ways that go beyond the monarchy and bilingualism. Canada is further left politically. Canada has universal public health care, gun control, no capital punishment, same sex marriage, is closer to Europe and less nationalistic than the U.S. Canadians are not as anti-government as Americans. Their banking system was better regulated in 2008 and for that reason no Canadian banks failed. [read this and more HERE}
I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Pierre Trudeau. Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliot Trudeau by John English is probably the best source. Be prepared to spend some serious time if you choose to read it. It isn’t a brief sketch. The quotes in this blog are from the John English biography unless otherwise sourced.
As it turns out, I spent a week in Guaymas, Mexico vacationing alongside Trudeau at the Club Med resort. I saw him often enough, everyone who was there did, but I didn’t speak to him or get his picture or have any encounters that could be developed into an exciting story.
I was vacationing with my family after having sold my restaurant business in 1985. As soon as we arrived and sat around the pool with some of the other guests we heard that Trudeau was there. The story of Trudeau’s visit was chronicled by Don MacPherson in the Montreal Gazette on January 21st, 1986 and is still available online HERE.
I was preoccupied at the time reading a boring but necessary book on finance in preparation for my new career in financial services. Knowing that I would need something to hold my interest when my mind tired of calculating present values and such, I had the foresight to bring Fernand Braudel’s three volume history: Civilization and Capitalism in my overstuffed suitcase. I do recall Trudeau smiling while walking by as he noticed me reading Braudel. Whether he was smiling at me or at something else he was thinking about, I do not know. I didn’t speak to him. I have always regretted that, but I loath the idea of bothering celebrities with trivia when they are trying to live their private lives.
According to TIME Magazine: “Pierre was known as an intellectual who lived fast. He drove fast cars, practiced yoga, mountaineering and skiing when he could, wore colorful and casual clothes and dated beautiful women, among them Hollywood starlet Barbara Streisand.”
Trudeau did not marry until he was nearly 52. His wife, Margaret, was thirty years younger. John Diefenbacker, one of Trudeau’s friends, said in jest: The Prime Minister had two choices, to marry her or to adopt her. [English]
Margaret had a wild streak. She once said: “I took to marijuana like a duck took to water.” At the time I saw Trudeau in Guaymas, he was recently divorced. I didn’t know it then but the marriage fell apart several years earlier [English].
Trudeau was Prime Minister during the terms of four American Presidents: Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. “According to Henry Kissinger, Nixon disliked Trudeau from the beginning because he thought he was a “queer”—all evidence to the contrary,” he added, laughing deeply.” Kissinger went on to say “power is the greatest aphrodisiac” [English]. Trudeau got along well with Ford and Carter. He and Reagan were apart ideologically but they got along with mutual respect and humor. Reagan once commented after a particularly difficult meeting between Trudeau and Thatcher: “I thought at one point Margaret [Thatcher] was going to order Pierre to go stand in a corner.” [English]
Lester Pearson, Trudeau’s predecessor, commented that Trudeau had “ice water” in his veins. [English] He certainly demonstrated this during the tragic October Crisis when he said “If they want blood and guts, I’ll give them blood and guts.” During the October Crisis over separatism, Trudeau invoked the only peacetime use of the War Measure Act which limited civil liberties. Though controversial, it proved to be one of his greatest political moments. He quoted the French Catholic poet Charles Peguy to make a point about difficult decisions: “it is easy to keep one’s hands clean when one has no hands.” He underlined his belief that we are all interdependent by quoting Tom Paine: “my country is the world and my religion is to do good.”
Trudeau was comfortable with rock stars and poets. He met John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969. Lennon commented later “he [Trudeau] was the man who could bring peace to the world.” [English] When he was no longer PM, the poet Leonard Cohen often dropped by to visit with Trudeau. “Cohen sketched him one day and wrote a short poem about Pierre, whom he admired enormously.” [English]
Trudeau had many accomplishments during his years as Prime Minister—thwarting the separatist movement, bilingualism, patriating the constitution, and recognizing China (two years before Nixon). He cooled a bit on China after meeting with Chairman Deng Xiaoping who told him chillingly that while a nuclear war would leave two billion dead, “China would survive.” [English]
He ended the death penalty, protected minority rights, decriminalized abortion and homosexuality, and played a small role in convincing Reagan and Thatcher to meet with Gorbachev. These and other accomplishments are thoroughly covered in Just Watch Me.
Trudeau had retired from politics by the time he visited Guaymas and he acted accordingly, walking around “wearing an ankle-length striped caftan and sandals” and “water skiing in a red and white stripped swimsuit – a bikini” [Montreal Gazette]. At sixty-six, his lean, well-muscled body stood out among quite a few flabby ones.
“A young friend of Justin’s from their pre-teen years recalls that “time spent in the company of Justin’s dad was almost always defined by physical and mental challenges: show me what you have learned. Show me what you can do. Show me how you live.” [English]
Now Justin Trudeau is Canada’s second youngest leader at 43. We are starting to find out what he has learned, what he can do, and how he lives. So far it looks like Canada has made a good choice at the polls. I hope we can say the same a year after our coming election here in the United States. I have my doubts.
For anyone with Trudeau’s quick wit and charisma, there will always be plenty of stories to go around. One that I like was his response to a persistent reporter who asked him what he was thinking when he “mouthed” an obscenity at an enemy in Parliament. “What is the nature of your thoughts gentlemen, when you say fuddle duddle or something like that. God …” [English] The classic exchange is still available on youtube HERE.
Trudeau complained to Nixon about the protectionist policies the United States had implemented. Nixon assured him it was temporary. After Trudeau left, Nixon called him a “pompous egghead” but allowed that the “asshole” was a “clever son of a bitch.” [English]
According to his wife Margaret, Trudeau swam forty laps, never more, never less every evening. [English]
No doubt his cold and rational side contributed to the failure of his marriage. He seemed to enter a trance when he worked. Margaret could not interrupt him, and her night suddenly became lonely as he worked until “about midnight.” [English]
Yet, he had a sense of humor. After a meeting of dignitaries with the Queen, Trudeau did a pirouette behind her back as they were walking in to dinner. While running for Prime Minister he once slid down a banister. He also slid down banisters at Buckingham Palace and Marlborough House. Once, while watching an aide enraptured with visiting royalty, he said bluntly as they looked out the parliamentary window: “Always remember, they shit too.” [English]
I seriously doubt that Justin Trudeau said as much about Prince William and Kate and Princess Charlotte on their recent visit to Canada. However, Prince William did demonstrate that he was unfazed by the idea of a “royal poop.”