Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
A great man but a tough sell
If you were making a pitch to Trudeau,
you really had to do your homework
By DOUGLAS GIBSON
Monday, October 2, 2000
TORONTO -- Shortly after the news of Pierre Trudeau's death was broadcast, I and the man driving the cab in downtown Toronto shared our regrets about the news. The driver was a Greek who came to Canada as an adult in 1967, yet his English was good enough to summarize elegantly how he felt: "I grew with him."
Late in his life, I was fortunate enough to get to know Pierre Trudeau the author. At McClelland & Stewart we paid a great deal of money to publish his Memoirs,based on the 1993 TV series. When the manuscript came in bearing the company's hopes for a successful year there were obvious problems with it. Our chairman, Avie Bennett, and I decided that it had to be reworked; in rough terms, made chronological rather than thematic. We flew to Montreal and Avie, who knew him, introduced me.
We sat in his prow-shaped office jutting out high above the St. Lawrence, with the snow starting to fall down past the deep windows, and after the usual courtesies Trudeau asked us what brought us to visit him. Avie turned it over to me, and I started to explain why the book had to be rewritten.
Did Trudeau listen and then say, "Sure, whatever makes sense to you?" No. He leaned forward, the eyes narrowed in that look we all remember, and he started to make objections. "But what about this?" "But if we did this, what would happen to that?" On and on, a tough, unyielding barrage of questions. Had I considered this? How would I handle that? Obviously, I'd thought this through very carefully so I was able to answer all his questions, while Avie watched like a fascinated tennis spectator.
And if I'd ever said, "Of course, Mr. Trudeau, if you don't like it, we don't need to do this," I'd have been lost. Because he was grilling me to be sure I knew what I was doing. And in the end he leaned back, changed his tone and said, "Fine, your plan makes sense, let's do it your way." And thereafter, with Memoirs and the other three Trudeau books we published, we had a terrific working relationship, marked by his professionalism in getting proofs back to me exactly when he'd promised, every time.
There's a lesson here, I suggest, about Canadian politics. A prime minister runs up against people with all sorts of ideas, some of them excellent, some totally crazy. One way to spot the ones who do know what they're talking about is to grill them aggressively, and I can tell you, he was very, very good at it.
When the book was launched, because I'd been among the throngs at the televised launch in Ottawa and then had seen the dangerously surging crowds at the Ritz in Montreal behaving with un-Canadian enthusiasm, in Toronto we had roped off sections to deal with the 1,200 people clustered in the huge hotel convention room on the waterfront. It was a very big deal, and I'd brought my 15-year-old daughter and a cousin in town from Edmonton and we'd taken a place on the TV camera island 10 feet above the crowd. When Trudeau began to speak the huge crowd chanted, "Trudeau! Trudeau!" (even "Four more years!") and it was all very exciting. And then after the usual "It's-very-nice-to-be-in-Toronto" stuff, he talked about his book and about working with Avie Bennett (on stage with him) and the others at M&S. And then Trudeau said, "But the man whom I especially want to thank, the one who pulled this together, is my good friend at McClelland & Stewart" -- and I smiled modestly -- and then he said, "my good friend Fred Gibson." And then he looked stricken and said, "Ah, Bob Gibson? Don Gibson?" Avie Bennett stepped forward and whispered into his ear. Trudeau said: "Doug Gibson, if he's here tonight, he'll never work with me again."
(This problem with names was not reserved exclusively for me. Barney Danson, who went on to long service in his Cabinet, recalls a meeting in his riding where the PM came and delivered a barn-burner that ended with him urging the crowd to vote for, well, someone with the same number of syllables in his name as Mr. Danson.)
I had my revenge at dinner that night, and this, of course, was in the middle of Mr. Mulroney's term in office when we crossed paths while changing tables and he apologized for getting my name wrong and I said: "That's all right, Brian, I do it all the time."
Happily, we did work together again and McClelland & Stewart went on to publish three other books, most recently The Essential Trudeau (with Ron Graham), as well as The Canadian Way (with Ivan Head) and Against the Current, where Trudeau worked with his old comrade Gérard Pelletier.
I remember a lunch in Montreal with those two old veterans at a time when provocations in Paris by Quebec's delegates (plus ça change) were once again causing trouble for Ottawa. Trudeau and Pelletier, once his ambassador to France, were mesmerizing as they described, with weary irritation, every possible move on the diplomatic chessboard.
My most amusing, strictly literary memory is of an argument about poetry with Trudeau. Toward the end of Memoirs he quotes the Rimbaud poem Ma Bohème. The English translation, it seemed to me, could be slightly improved with a metrical twist of my devising. By speaker phone, with Avie Bennett as referee, Trudeau sprayed spondees and dactyls as he demonstrated the rhythms of the original French, then the very different rhythms of the two English versions, expressing a strong preference for the original one. I was hopelessly outgunned, in two languages. We did it his way.
In later years when I was in Montreal and had time to spare, I would call, and if it was convenient, drop in for a visit to his law office on René Lévesque Boulevard. Once, when he was in his mid-70s, he took me to lunch and, instead of making for the nearest corner crossing, set off straight across the wide boulevard named after his old rival. When the light changed and a mass of cars hurtled toward us, he called out "Run!" with great cheerfulness, and sprinted to the other side through what seemed to be an unbroken stream of whizzing, honking metal.
I remember thinking, in a non-Montrealer sort of way, that although the company was good this was a really stupid way to die, and I also remember being surprised to live to tell the tale. And as we walked to lunch, my pulse slowly subsiding, I noticed how, with nods, smiles, nudges and turning heads, his fellow Montrealers reacted with pleasure to his presence among them. In our conversations his own pleasure was greatest when the talk turned to the boys and his face would light up as he spoke about his three sons.
Today, a signed photograph hangs on my wall. It speaks of the best of memories. For me, that certainly is true. Perhaps my taxi driver friend put it best for all of us: "We grew with him."
Douglas Gibson is president and publisher of McClelland & Stewart.