Reflections on Pierre Trudeau

by Stanley Meisler

October 5, 2000

Pierre Trudeau, who died last week, was well served by an engaging obituary in the New York Times written by Mike Kaufman, who covered Canada a couple of decades ago while I covered it for the Los Angeles Times. Trudeau was prime minister then and his style, pronouncements, policies and antics dominated our stories in those days. Mike's obituary delineates Trudeau's greatness as a leader, his dominance in elections, his sophistication and wit, and his mastery of both French and English Canadian cultures. The admiring account was written with care and superb craftsmanship.

Mike's account of an extraordinary life led me to recall one of the most puzzling enigmas of Trudeau's reign. Although Canadians embraced him in their first wave of Trudeaumania, their enthusiasm soon waned. They would learn to admire him and respect him but never love him. Many resented him even as they voted for him. Trudeau had a surprising flaw for a prime minister who served through five American administrations (those of Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan). He had a great deal of difficulty communicating his ideas to his people. They knew their leader was somehow larger than life, but they did not understand what he was trying to tell them.

Not that he was inarticulate. Far from it. Speaking with great ease in either English or French, he could wield language like a rapier, sharpening it with devastating wit. But he believed so strongly in the worth of reason over emotion that he would refuse to sway people to his side with anything other than reason. Growing up in the era of Hitler and Mussolini, he could not stomach gross and unhealthy appeals to passion. A speechwriter once told me that Trudeau would pencil out any attempt to stir emotions in a speech or make a point more than once. He had a professional contempt for those too lazy or too ignorant to follow his logic. This made him seem cold and academic and sadly unpersuasive.

Trudeau's relations with the press were dismal. Many reporters disliked him intensely and would do anything they could to embarrass or criticize him. That surprised me. A few months after my arrival in Canada, I asked his press secretary at lunch in Ottawa why Trudeau received such a bad press. "Trudeau gets the kind of press he deserves," the frustrated press secretary replied.

Trudeau had a patrician air that seemed to imply that others, including reporters, did not measure up to him. He enjoyed spicing interviews, news conferences and speeches with apt, sophisticated and sometimes obscure quotations. During one period of three or four months, I counted citations from Rimbaud, Talleyrand, Keynes, Plato, Napoleon and Alain Resnais, all sending journalists to libraries to help them figure out what he was talking about. They hated him for it. When he announced his retirement, he alluded to a quote from Richard Nixon that they did not have to look up. "To turn an old phrase around," he told reporters, "I'm sorry I won't have you to kick around any more."

To an outsider like myself, Trudeau's judgements and pronouncements, even when denounced by a skeptical press, seemed correct far more often than not. But his logic sometimes led him down strange byways. In 1981, for example, he refused to denounce the military coup in Poland that ousted a civilian government that was angering the Soviet Union with its reforms. It was "better to have, I suppose, the Polish generals and soldiers maintaining order than having the Soviets do it," he said. When challenged on this, Trudeau, setting down his logic step by step, explained that Canadians must look at Poland in the light of the Yalta agreements at the end of World War II that left Eastern Europe under Soviet domination. "Well, let's think it through," he told a television interviewer. "What are the alternatives?"

Trudeau's position was no different from that of the renowned American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, but it outraged Canadians. What was missing was some statement from Trudeau that, while his mind accepted the need for martial law, his heart still went out to the Polish people in their time of trouble. His office did issue some such statement after weeks of controversy. But Trudeau never said so personally.

The press was dismissive. "There's no reason…to waste time wondering why Trudeau said what he said about Poland," wrote Toronto Star columnist Richard Gwyn. "He was just showing off."

I do not want to leave the wrong impression of Trudeau. The refusal or inability to communicate was a significant flaw. I sometimes thought that only Shakespeare could explain him, for Trudeau was somewhat like the tragic hero Coriolanus, whose pride as a leader made him unable and unwilling to win the favor of the people of Rome by flattering them. "I would not buy their mercy at the price of one fair word," said Coriolanus. Yet, despite this flaw, there is no doubt in my mind that Trudeau was a great prime minister. He left Canada with a bicultural vision that, I think, will prevail in the end. He made Canadians proud of themselves and their country even when they resented him. For a reporter like myself, covering him was a privilege, fraught with awe.

October 5, 2000
Washington D.C.

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