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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Those anchors and pundits just don't get it

Wednesday, October 4, 2000

Poor Joyce Fairbairn. There she was, standing on the steps of Notre Dame Basilica, trying to come up with something interesting to tell CBC reporter Jason Moscovitz about what everyone on TV was suddenly calling "this outpouring."

And then just as the Liberal senator and close Trudeau aide was starting to explain what this week's spontaneous display of public emotion meant to Canada, Jimmy Carter showed up.

CBC dumped Ms. Fairbairn in mid-sentence, like the B-list celebrity she was. The cut to Mr. Carter couldn't have been more brutal, and more representative of the confused way that Canadian television covered Pierre Trudeau's funeral.

Were we Canadians trying to understand ourselves and our society through the passing of our one truly great public figure? Or were we just starstruck grief junkies feeding off the spectacle of yet another made-for-TV ritual?

"Remarkable shots," CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge intoned a little too respectfully at the sight of so many politicians gathered together in one place -- what he called "the towering figures on not only the national but the international landscape."

In truth, it wasn't so remarkable, which is why CBC cut to a former U.S. president the moment he arrived. Mr. Trudeau's drawing power was disappointing to anyone who expected a ceremony decorated with world leaders and the pop icons who blew air kisses at Princess Di's last rites.

Were it not for Mr. Carter and Fidel Castro -- even the officiating priests stopped to shake his hand at the end of the service -- the dutiful TV coverage would have looked all too much like a Parliament Hill reunion tour.

But what do you expect when they put news anchors and political correspondents in charge of the national catharsis?

The abiding feeling during much of the coverage of Mr. Trudeau's passing is that they just don't get it, that "the outpouring" came as an inexplicable surprise. Why were the folks outside the ropes in such a good mood when everyone knows that death demands the news anchor's mournful tones?

Any politician who passed near the cameras on the Basilica steps was asked to account for it -- as if they could from their sheltered world. "I think it's entirely appropriate that there should be this response today," pronounced Joe Clark in his stiffest Tory style.

Well, who asked you? It was as if there were two parallel TV events going on yesterday, the official version orchestrated by the networks and then the real-life celebration that managed to slip through unmediated by the media's and the politicians' pomposity.

The greatness of Mr. Trudeau, of course, was that he transcended the narrow world of party politics almost every time he opened his mouth. And in his confident handling of the TV camera throughout his career -- racing a convertible through the streets of Ottawa, dancing at the disco, paddling a canoe in a buckskin jacket, even the overused pirouette -- he always sought to be taken for something other than a grim political hack.

That's why we loved him in spite of it all. And that's why the truest moments in the coverage of his death were those that broke the media's rules on how a state occasion should be conducted. Watching Justin Trudeau in his eulogy move uncontrollably between helpless grief and intense joy was perhaps the purest image of the day's feelings -- a picture that fortunately the TV commentators left to speak for itself.

But for those Canadians who still want to understand Mr. Trudeau -- and therefore, perhaps, themselves -- even the spontaneous camera shots produced moments of insight.

Who will forget Fidel Castro greeting Mr. Trudeau's overlooked daughter Sarah, sharing a laugh with his official adversary Mr. Carter and then battling to make sure that he got the aisle seat due to him inside the Basilica?

And even the casual remarks offered enlightenment. In an engaging departure from the standard questions, CTV's Tom Clark asked two of Mr. Trudeau's canoeing buddies what he was like on vacation.

"There was a sense of intensity when you paddled with Pierre Trudeau," said Tim Kotcheff. "He was a perfectionist," added David Silcox. "He did the dishes better than anyone else."

And when the microphones finally caught up with Jimmy Carter -- another political rule-breaker -- instead of repeating what the solemn occasion demanded, he conjured up a charming image of a chance encounter with Mr. Trudeau and daughter Sarah -- in Niagara Falls, of all unlikely places. You could almost taste the candy floss.

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