Remembering the charisma of Pierre Trudeau

Justin Trudeau’s emergence as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada has brought the memory of his father, Pierre Trudeau, back into the national conversation. The younger Trudeau’s ease before the cameras is drawing comparisons to his father’s charisma. For sixteen years, the elder Trudeau dominated our national politics and set the standard by which other politicians were judged.

I was in junior high school when Trudeaumania first rolled across the country. Less than a decade later, I was on Parliament Hill as an assistant to Ralph Goodale, one of three Liberal MP’s from Saskatchewan. During my time in federal politics, I had three opportunities to watch Trudeau work the cameras and the crowd. Those events were milestones on a slide to defeat and the apparent end to Trudeau’s public career.

* * *

At a Liberal policy workshop in Toronto in March 1977, attended by 500 delegates, Trudeau showed how easily he could toy with an audience and upstage his competitors. His entry and his speech went as expected: the party faithful basked in his presence. It was what he did when he was out of the spotlight that showed his mastery. Trudeau took his seat at the head table, a short distance from the central podium where earnest policy specialists would spout their statistics and platitudes for the rest of the afternoon. Dressed in a light brown jacket and turtle neck sweater, hair flowing to his shoulders, Trudeau sat, quiet and still as a monk in contemplation. At intervals, he slowly flexed his shoulders and then gazed out at the crowd to see if anyone had noticed. Everyone had. And when he settled back into contemplation, the audience turned back to the speaker, wondering where they had lost the thread.

* * *

In the following spring, Trudeau paid an early-morning visit to Estevan, Saskatchewan, to attend a pre-election breakfast meeting with 400 potential voters. Resentment ran high over gun control, bilingualism, metrification and the National Energy Policy. By the time he arrived at the Legion Hall, a noisy, angry demonstration had turned out to challenge him. The volume rose as an official-looking car pulled up. Out stepped Pierre Trudeau, alone—more vulnerable-looking than they had expected. The demonstrators went silent as he stopped to shake hands and reach out to them.

“He’s smaller than he looks on TV,” one murmured.

A slow crescendo of applause and greetings, a smattering of subdued heckling followed Trudeau as he passed through the quieted demonstrators and entered the packed hall. Patiently, he snaked his way through the crowd, shaking hands and allowing himself to be touched, like a holy man among the believers. Finally, he arrived at the podium. The fatigue in his voice was unmistakable as he made his first tentative effort to connect with his audience.

“When I was flying low over the prairie, on my way here, I was looking at your fields and your towns, wondering what I could say that would show you I understand.”

Silence.

“How I could convince you that a man from Montreal can share your concerns.”

No response.

The pause lengthened. Suddenly, a voice from the crowd, in French, heckled.

In an instant, Trudeau’s words flowed, passionately and directly, briefly in French, at length in English. Language policy, fairness among regions, the strength of the economy, the beauty of the country, his vision for the future – powerful words delivered with conviction to spellbound skeptics, opponents and supporters. Alternately challenging and reassuring, he spoke like a man in command of his thoughts. The crowd followed his every mood. As he descended from the stage to make his way out, the crowd pressed against him, protectively and gently, willing him to stay longer, reaching out to touch him again. No placards waved, no hecklers broke the spell as his car pulled away, taking him to the next gathering.

* * *

By the time Pierre Trudeau arrived in Weyburn, near the end of the 1979 election campaign, he knew that he was in trouble. The polls were bad, the crowds small and restless, the opposition buoyant. Ralph Goodale had run a strong campaign and was able to fill the upper level of McKenna Auditorium for Trudeau’s visit. The speeches had already begun when Trudeau’s car stopped in front of the hall.

After a lengthy pause, Trudeau and Jim Coutts, his principal secretary, stepped out of the car. Trudeau’s shoulders were slumped, his pace slow, as he approached the front door. Coutts, like a solicitous undertaker hovering near the grieving family, kept pace with Trudeau.  When they entered, they were met by a lone reporter, who merely watched, and one of Ralph’s assistants. As the assistant greeted Trudeau and exchanged some quiet words with him, Coutts drifted back and mournfully observed the scene.  The conversation with the assistant continued until applause from upstairs signalled that it was time to get back to work.

Trudeau drew in a deep breath and turned to face the staircase leading to the auditorium. He paused and gathered himself at the foot of the stairs. As his foot touched the first step, his shoulders began to straighten. A couple of hesitant steps, a quickened pace, and the transformation was complete. Trudeau the worn-out campaigner had become the master of the stage as he bounded into the room and the crowd’s welcoming roar washed over him.

That night, television viewers saw a passionate, defiant Trudeau in his gun-slinger pose, radiating energy and confidence. But fewer people were taking in the message. Within a week, voters turned him out of office, apparently for good.

* * *

In the summer of 1979, Trudeau resigned his position and retreated from public life, his time in the spotlight over, his charisma spent and unwelcome. The slide from the commanding heights to the pit of defeat had been as quick and dramatic as his appearance in 1968. Surely, there would be no comeback.

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