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Pierre Elliott Trudeau:

Pop icon prime minister born of an era
Saturday, September 30, 2000

It seems to me that Mondo Canuck got it right. In their compendium of Canadian pop culture, Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond say that Pierre Trudeau's lasting place is as "the greatest pop star this country has ever produced . . . a pop-cultural icon."

I say this not to denigrate the late prime minister but with an appreciation of the power of culture in people's lives.

The era of his rise was the also the age of the rise of the pop image. Andy Warhol produced images of Campbell's soup cans as museum art. President John F. Kennedy had recently told the Washington press corps that he was "reading more and enjoying it less," thus validating serious attention to ad slogans within the haughty sanctum of politics. The prophet of the meaning of pop culture was a Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, whom Pierre Trudeau knew. They dined together.

So it isn't simply that Pierre Trudeau's cultural role blended with his political role; it's that you can separate them into relatively independent elements.

There are people who have a keen sense of Trudeau's sexuality, his insouciance with the media, his playful posing, the romance and tragedies of his private life -- even when their notion of his political role is dim. He plays in the culture's consciousness.

Among these cultural elements is the myth of the philosopher-king. He may have been the smartest person in the Liberal party, or the House of Commons, but that's a relative measure.

His central organizing concept, rejection of nationalism, was common in the wartime and postwar world in which he matured. He applied this negativity to nationalism in Quebec and did not alter that stance over a 50-year span. Yet the ability to grow and develop one's ideas ought to be a sign of a true intellectual. That's why I say we're talking about myth and culture here, more than we're talking about political or journalistic judgment.

The fact that most tributes on his passing are coming from reporters or fellow politicians makes this cultural element of his legacy even more elusive.

As for his political legacy, I'd say it hangs on two poles, at either end of his career: imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970 and patriation of the Constitution, including the Charter of Rights, in 1982. The first, it seems to me, involved flagrant trampling on human rights, especially in Quebec, done with a joie de combat fuelled by a lifelong enmity, even embarrassment, at what he saw as the naive and dangerous nationalism of his fellow Quebeckers. There is a striking symmetry or counterweight in his installation of a Charter of Rights for Canadians 12 years later. But perhaps I'm taking cultural liberties in drawing such a connection.

Cultural matters are largely generational matters. You could hear that in many voices yesterday that tracked their own lives by the career of Pierre Trudeau. So let me add my connection. I returned to Canada, after 10 years in the United States, on the day in 1970 that the Trudeau government imposed the War Measures Act. I had missed the lightness of Trudeaumania and entered to a far darker period. I listened, soon after, to the news of Pierre Laporte's death, at the hand of kidnappers perhaps reacting to the imposition of martial law. I recall this to make the point that culture always pre-empts history and journalism. The myth grew from almost that moment that Pierre Trudeau had declared the Act because of and after the death of Mr. Laporte -- perhaps to justify it in the light of its harshness and unjustifiability.

In its Trudeau obituary, Global TV repeated this inaccuracy. It's hard, when looking at clips of Pierre Trudeau responding with deep chagrin to the news of that death, not to wonder if he felt any responsibility and what effect it had, years later, on his determination concerning the Charter of Rights.

I say this, though it may sound grim so close to his own death, to indicate the complexity of a public life and the way its moment of greatest accomplishment -- in this case, the Charter -- can be intricately interlaced with moments of far greater ambiguity.

As for the relation of culture to politics: the cultural standing of a public figure falls like a shadow to complicate the clearer outline of his actual deeds.

Maybe the point of cultural memory and perception is to help us cope with the limitations of politics and what can be accomplished in the world -- the ultimate reminder of which is death, which comes to even icons, and in Pierre Trudeau's terrible instance, to his child before him.

The belief in politics may be a necessary illusion that we can tame and transform the world in a better direction, and what then counts is not so much what is really accomplished, as the continuing belief that something can be done; the sense of a leader, for example, who can act, quite apart from what he actually does. Or, as Hannah Arendt said, politics is the stories we tell about people who did great deeds.

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