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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

The best of Trudeau memories
Monday, October 9, 2000

On the day they buried Pierre Trudeau in Montreal, a few sad expatriates gathered in the darkened theatre of the Canadian embassy in Washington.

There, in a silence broken only by muffled sobs, they watched the funeral on the outsized, snowy screen, just as a nation did, awash in the words, hymns and tears.

For a moment, before the flickering image, you could feel you were there, too, however fleeting. We sat in the house Pierre built -- the neo-classical embassy was commissioned while he was prime minister -- and we signed the book of condolences by the vase of red roses. But that's all there was of Mr. Trudeau in the hub of the American Empire.

No tolling of bells. No flags at half-mast. No public tributes. Why would there be? This was our loss, not theirs.

Still, the next day, a cable channel rebroadcast his funeral and a front-page story appeared in The Washington Post. It likened Mr. Trudeau to Lincoln in his resolve, Kennedy in his charisma, Jefferson in his constitution, and Roosevelt in his vision. Not bad company, that.

What those mourners in the theatre lost in intimacy they gained in distance, knowing that to see someone from afar is to see them whole.

Distance brings clarity, though not necessarily charity. Maybe it was easier from here to see the depth of Joe Clark's decency. Or to see through Stockwell Day's pretentiousness, Lucien Bouchard's hypocrisy and the hollowness of friends who did not rush to defend Mr. Trudeau's vision of Canada when the elites were demonizing him during the constitutional wars.

Only Claude Morin, that unreconstructed secessionist, showed some integrity. Under pain of torture, he refused to say anything nice about Mr. Trudeau, who stood between him and independence.

Who was not struck by the applause in the church? Who was unmoved by the crowds lining the railway tracks, as they once did for Bobby Kennedy's funeral train? Who was untouched by the thousands filing through the Hall of Honour?

Sitting in that darkened theatre, the fragments of memory flowed like a river to the sea. Of course, they were all about him.

Ottawa, May of 1981. On the advice of his impish press secretary, Patrick Gossage, Mr. Trudeau invites the press to a cocktail party at 24 Sussex Drive. It's an olive branch in a testy relationship; the PM hadn't entertained journalists in a decade. From the lawn, he points to the "freedom room" upstairs and explains that that's where his boys could do what they wanted, which seemed a metaphor for his life. (He lived on his own terms and died on his own terms. As his condition deteriorated last month, he asked to be taken off intravenous.)

At his door that spring day, he accepts thanks for his hospitality with a shrug. "Well, it's not too painful," he says, "as long as it's only once every 10 years."

Ottawa, June of 1984. The streetfighter appears in Parliament for the last time. He answers a question on the economy, and the thought occurs: We don't erect statues to leaders who lower inflation or eliminate the deficit. We celebrate lawgivers and nation-builders who preserve unity and write constitutions and, however unpopular today, we'd surely celebrate Mr. Trudeau.

Few reporters are there that day. The white-haired usher whispers, "Be glad you've lived in the time of Trudeau."

Montreal, April of 1991. Over lunch, Mr. Trudeau is kind, attentive and gracious. He muses about canoeing the country's great rivers and his recent trip to Vietnam, gently correcting me on the location of the imperial city of Hue.

He turns to the Constitution. He allows that he fervently hoped that the talks with the provinces in 1981 would fail so that he could patriate the British North America Act against the opposition of all the provinces, not just Quebec. He calls Quebec "an adolescent society," mocking its desire for sovereignty and association.

And if it separates? I ask. "I'll not hang myself . . .," he says, his voice trailing off. "In a loft?" I ask, recalling his words. "In a loft," he says.

Toronto, November of 1995. After the Quebec referendum -- in which Mr. Trudeau wasn't asked to speak -- he joins a conversation on Canada's future. We've nearly lost the country and we are in despair. For the first time, the strong man shows self-doubt. "I have no new ideas," he says with a sigh.

The lights went on in the theatre and I went home. Late that night, haunted by his son's stirring eulogy ("He's not coming back!"), I leaf through some of his books. One was Towards a Just Society,a collection of essays Mr. Trudeau co-edited in 1990.

I opened it to the title page, and found a long-forgotten inscription to me: "With all good wishes and the best of memories." Pierre E. Trudeau.

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