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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

He was living proof that gods never tip their caps
Saturday, September 30, 2000

It is the supreme irony that the death of Pierre Trudeau coincides with this Olympic triumph of youthful style and energy, he being our first prime minister to introduce these very elements into Canadian politics.

He became the leader of the land in 1968, the same year this lowly hack became a newspaper columnist and, by happenstance, was present when the tragic Margaret first encountered him after that stray meeting on a raft, in a bikini, in Tahiti.

We warred off and on during the years, this columnist at The Vancouver Sun representing the Western Canadian angst that he never understood -- and which, in time, eventually produced somebody called Stockwell Day, who, in a new century, tries to emulate Mr. Trudeau's somersaults off the diving board with his kick-boxing antics for the camera.

He was always the reluctant hero, arriving from Quebec as one of Lester Pearson's recruited Three Wise Men and told the Parliamentary Press Gallery that he regarded his proposed candidacy as Liberal leader as "a joke." It's why the Liberals died past Winnipeg; he was always regarded as the dilettante that he first professed to be.

Mr. Trudeau was Mr. Pearson's pick as successor, and it was left to the bluff and uncharismatic Walter Gordon to warn the PM that the caper would never wash: All the rumours in party circles was that the guy who wore sandals and a cravat in Question Period was a homosexual.

A terrified Mr. Pearson sent Mr. Gordon -- the only man in Ottawa brave enough to do it -- to face Mr. Trudeau with the rumours. In effect, confirm or deny. Mr. Trudeau, those famous mesmerizing eyes blazing, replied: "Show me the man who will say that and leave me with his wife in a room for an hour."

The morning after his secret marriage to Margaret in Vancouver, CBC-TV sent me to the home of her father, Jimmy Sinclair, the closest that any British Columbian has been to becoming prime minister before he broke his back in the collapse of a dock in Vladivostok when he was Liberal fisheries minister.

Jimmy, being Irish, liked the gargle and wondered whether I would like to share a bottle of champagne over breakfast. He explained it would be the first drink he had had in six months.

It seems he had been in Hawaii with the Sinclairs' best friends, and drinking companions. Near midnight, under the Waikiki moon, Jimmy confided the secret that his beautiful daughter was going to marry the prime minister of Canada. His wife -- livid that he had violated their promise of confidentiality -- made him promise that he would never have a drink again until the wedding day.

Chagrined, Jimmy slunk down to breakfast next morning. Lucky Jim. His mate had been even more blitzed the previous evening and didn't remember a word.

Mr. Trudeau's ethereal, intellectual disregard for such things as people's names was of course well-known.

George Radwanski was the envy of the entire Ottawa Press Gallery when Mr. Trudeau granted him an unprecedented number of private hours to be interviewed for the fine book on him that Mr. Radwanski eventually produced. A week after the last interview, Mr. Radwanski rose at a press conference, and Mr. Trudeau -- to the glee of the Press Gallery -- couldn't remember his name.

Tom Axworthy, the brightest of the two Axworthy boys, was Mr. Trudeau's chief of staff and still dines out on the story that, for two years, the cerebral PM couldn't remember his name, simply saying, "Get me the fat guy."

The last time I saw Mr. Trudeau was two years ago in Toronto when Cité Libre, the anti-Duplessis screed he helped to found, announced its resurrection. Matrons lined up for hours and tore down the doors to see him. Allan Gotlieb spoke. The publishers spoke. Everyone spoke for hours -- except Mr. Trudeau, the man they came to hear, who sat in the front row and refused to utter a word.

He reminded me of John Updike's New Yorker piece wherein he recounted Ted Williams's last at-bat in the majors when he hit a home run and remained in the dugout for 45 minutes while Fenway Park fans in a standing ovation demanded that he come out and tip his cap. Gods, Mr. Updike reminded us, don't do that.

In their Trudeau book, Christina Newman and Stephen Clarkson opened with: "He haunts us still." And he will, we suggest, for some time.

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