Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
The great Canadian story
By REX MURPHY
Saturday, September 30, 2000
We're no longer easy with the idiom of greatness. Glutted with irony and Oprah, stranded between wisecrack and spectacle -- it's a long sad slide from Gibbon to Letterman -- we've lost the weight that other times and other people brought to seeing the world. Television has made us light, and perhaps fearful. Which may be why it prescribes so much feverish banter -- keeping things silly is a form of medicine in our time.
Well, let the age be what it is. I do not know of any other way of approaching the passing of Pierre Trudeau without shimmering into the language of direct appreciation. I think he was larger than his politics and, given that his politics fundamentally grooved the contours of modern Canada, that is saying very much.
Things changed when he entered the public life of this country. It was not that he was to lead the renovation of our national self through historic constitutional reform, or combat the most vigorous and passionate campaign that Quebec separatism ever mounted (the Bouchard campaign was closer in the result, René Lévesque's more laced with the soul of the cause). These will be the grand headings in the files of history.
Pierre Trudeau among us was his greatest contribution. He was a presence of such ease and grace, of so many (apparantly) casually acquired accomplishments, intellectual and social, in two languages more fluent and ready than the rest of us in one, the man on the flying trapeze in one guise, the legal scholiast in another, at home with Barbra Streisand and (it could be) Bertrand Russell, patriot and cosmopolitan, parent and politician -- what Francis Bacon called in a different context "a full man."
And even here, in the native land of the unegregious, the Bethlehem cradle of deference and instinctual reserve, we exulted that this clear piece of unmitigated exceptionality was one of ours. His vitality and elan charged the consciousness of the country, changed the tone of the way we saw ourselves -- and that, ineffable as it may be, was his most profound gift.
His second was that he didn't come empty, or fitted only with the wish to be there, to the task of leadership. His entry into politics wasn't happenstance or the exercise of mere ambition. He had appraised the country whose leadership he would assume, recognized its stengths and weaknesses, and constructed a response to enhance the former and diminish the latter. We were then encountering a politician who not only could think but whom many of his most enthusiastic followers almost identified with reason itself.
That was a syllogism too far. We find in Federalism and the French Canadians,an early collection of his essays, that he saw a Canada in which the provinces were too strong, the central power of the federation was under siege and, thus, there was need for a corrective impulse, a "countervailing power." And that was logic.
But logic was only one faculty in this personality. And for all its abundant strength, it was but an instrument and not the ruler of his more ferocious will, the minister of a preceding intuition of this country and his vision for it.
Most people get Homer in translation. Canada had its own Homeric episode during the Trudeau years -- from the "plains of windy Troy" to the updated version of those of Abraham. The gods were kind to Canada when they built the contest for this country, and centred the contention in and over Quebec. For all the friction that separatism introduced to "the even tenor of our ways," our national drama brought on a marvellous human convergence, Lévesque and Trudeau.
Both were men of honour, both gifted beyond ordinary capacity in energy, persuasiveness, intensity and force of vision. Mr. Trudeau had the greater intellectual reach, Mr. Lévesque a more ready command of instinctive response. But it would be a mistake to read the contest between these two as one between head and heart. Both had ample portions of each other's gifts, Mr. Lévesque dexterity in debate, Mr. Trudeau chilling authority of passionate speech. Each amplified the other.
But the glory of their combat was that it laid out for all of us the great theme of the Canadian story. With such protagonists, how could that story not come home? It would take a Yeats to sing it properly.
Thursday's bare announcement from Sacha and Justin was, alas, a bulletin for which we had been prepared. The dignity of the father endures in the sons. As so many now try to say farewell, it is impossible to find the summary to register the essence of this quicksilver man, and equally impossible not to make the attempt.
He arrived on the national scene in a gust of welcome and cheer; and he leaves in a moment of profound respect. The Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau. It's like a poem. So was he.
Rex Murphy is a commentator with CBC-TV's National Magazine and host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup.