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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Indelible mark made on Commons
Trudeau set out to become Parliament's finest performer
Saturday, September 30, 2000

Improbably, the abiding memory is of Pierre Trudeau in the House of Commons, an institution for which he had limited tolerance.

If you were interested in politics, for the better part of a generation there was no better show, no better guide to the intricacies of public life, than Mr. Trudeau in full flight, in English and French, in the Commons.

There was no better place for watching than from above, in the parliamentary press gallery. You wouldn't want to be on the Liberal benches, applauding like a trained seal. Or the opposition benches, smarting from his gibes.

Far better to watch from the gallery -- the luxury of a silent witness. The performances were sometimes tedious to the point of despair, but more often than not they were exhilarating.

Even then it seemed a contradiction. The man made no secret of his contempt for much of Parliament. When bombastic opposition MPs began to talk righteously about the sacred traditions of Parliament, you could see his face turn to stone.

Small wonder that he said opposition MPs were nobodies once they found themselves 50 yards from Parliament Hill. It was cruel, but not without some truth.

He was not a games guy, and for a lot of MPs the Commons is a games place. The stars are those who can generate instant and noisy outrage in the hope that the hometown paper or the television camera will provide a flicker of fame.

That was how "fuddle-duddle" went into the history books. John Lundrigan, the irrepressible Newfoundland Conservative, was once more bawling across the Commons, once more challenging the Prime Minister about unemployment.

There was nothing new to say. So Mr. Trudeau, never a man of great patience, mouthed not "fuddle-duddle," as he later claimed, but "fuck off."

But despite its limitations, Mr. Trudeau came to understand that, even before television, the Commons was the best theatre in the land. So he set out to make himself the finest performer.

He certainly did not begin as an orator. He spoke well, and that was what his first campaign in 1968 was all about -- rambling discourses about democracy, the just society and bilingualism.

Rambling was good enough to carry him through that campaign. It was all part of cool and roses and style and that thing that people called charisma. But he had to do better than that in the Commons, and he did.

Robert Stanfield and Tommy Douglas and David Lewis were armed with decency and justice and outrage, and they were the only ones who could debate in Mr. Trudeau's league.

But whether they were preaching the great causes of the nation or taking the dirty short jabs of partisan politics, they had to be good to go toe-to-toe with the Prime Minister.

He was a disaster when he had to read the turgid efforts of his speechwriters. When he wrote his own speeches and committed them to memory, he was quite masterful.

Mr. Trudeau's strength lay in his sheer intellectual capacity to marshal an argument, to lay out his vision of the country and how it should be, and to set the rules of debate.

It was that capacity that set the agenda for everything from the divorce legislation that began his career in Ottawa to the constitutional debate that never went away. Whether you agreed with him or not, he set the standards.

When Mr. Trudeau bade farewell to the Commons in the late spring of 1984, Joe Clark described him as "a formidable adversary and a man of extraordinary personal force whose mark upon the country will exceed that of most of the great leaders of the nation."

Rather unexpectedly, Mr. Trudeau seemed at a loss for words. But then he recovered as gracefully as you would expect of someone who had come to be what is known in Ottawa as a House of Commons man.

John Gray is a reporter for The Globe and Mail who was Ottawa bureau chief for the Montreal Star and later The Globe and Mail during the Trudeau era.

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