Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
Pierre, we hardly knew you
By MARGARET WENTE
Thursday, October 5, 2000
The world stopped for a while as Justin spoke, and then we all, like him, dissolved into tears. He melted the most hardened hearts. Who knew Pierre Trudeau had such a son?
He could, I suppose, have been an actor or a Wall Street investment banker or the editor of a vanity magazine -- the usual vocations pursued by the offspring of the rich, famous and well-connected. Instead, he's a teacher. He teaches French and drama to small children, a million miles away from the public stage. He has, so far, rejected the cult of celebrity we are only too eager to thrust on him, and I hope he always does.
Of all the testimonials in the past few days to Pierre Trudeau's greatness of character, the most affecting one is his children. He raised them well. He raised his boys to be men like him -- principled, disciplined, tolerant, modest in material things, steady and resolute when trouble comes. They are unspoiled.
Those are old-fashioned virtues. And the man who showed the world how hip, modern and urbane Canada can be was in many respects an old-fashioned man.
Modern politics doesn't mix with the values that shaped Pierre Trudeau's nature. It's impossible to imagine him pandering to the flutters of the latest focus groups, submitting to the image-makers, or shaping policy according to the popularity polls. His intellectual rigour, his disdain for commerce and the marketplace, and his rejection of cheap political opportunism would automatically disqualify him from leading any major party today.
Nor is it possible to imagine any politician today so indifferent to the trappings of power, so supremely, serenely inner-directed.
There will not be such outpourings of love and respect for the many prime ministers who followed him, or for any surviving president of the United States, or for either one of the two men in blue suits and red ties who debated each other on American television the day Mr. Trudeau was buried. Those two sum up what politics has become: highly packaged, tightly scripted theatre played out by moral midgets. They've memorized their lines and their gestures, but they can't articulate a single good reason why it matters for people to be citizens, and not merely consumers.
In the days after Mr. Trudeau's death, he surprised us all over again with what we hadn't known about him. He surprised us with his bottomless tenderness toward his children, and with his religiosity. This most rational and analytical of men was devoted above all to Justin, Sacha, Michel and Sarah, and to God.
It's unnerving, that faith. It came from a tradition of high-church intellectualism that has almost died out and is almost incomprehensible to worldly children of a secular age like us. He used to slip into the back pew of the church for Sunday mass, and read Bible verses to his children. His spirituality was nothing like the phony public piety we require of modern leaders to signify they are moral men. It was quite private. And it gave the ancient ritual of the mass and the incense, the Latin hymns and the priests' robes, an overwhelming power.
Mr. Trudeau's sense of morality was Gallic and aristocratic, not English and bourgeois. There was a whiff of François Mitterrand to his last rites, with the public appearance of his daughter Sarah and her mother, to say nothing of assorted former mistresses. The American public would never stand for such irregularities at the funeral of a national leader, and the American media would make a scandal of it.
Some of Mr. Trudeau's private values made for ruinous public policies.
His contempt for business and the marketplace (or was it indifference?) was a disaster for Canada. He was a great man with dreadful economic ideas -- the mirror image, perhaps, of Brian Mulroney. But he also understood that capitalism is innately Darwinian, and needs to be kept in check by an ethic of social justice.
The power and authenticity of the past few days caught many sophisticated people by surprise. This was nothing like the ersatz mass hysteria whipped up by the tragedy of a celebrity. It was not the death of Di. It was the celebration of a man whose life reminded us that real civic virtue does not consist of bribing the electorate with its own money or promising faster ways to get rich.
I'm an adoptive Canadian. I settled here for good in the Trudeau years because I thought that Canada was, on the whole, a more civil and more tolerant place. And so it still is, and that is part of what we were honouring, too.
The passing of Mr. Trudeau was a profound collective moment, utterly Canadian.
He lived a rich and long life, full of adventures and honours. I'm saddened not so much by his death, but by the knowledge that, for my generation of Canadians, there will not be such a moment again.