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Saturday January 23, 2010

Cool and mannerly, he was Trudeau's press secretary at a difficult time

Charpentier's style was so cerebral it was sometimes taken for disengagement

Special to The Globe and Mail

The mandate for Jean Charpentier's job as Pierre Trudeau's press secretary in the late 70s sounds like an impossible feat: During a time of soaring inflation and sky-high interest rates, he had to elicit good press for a prime minister who would turn questions back on any reporter who dared to ask about his marital breakdown, come to near blows with those who would scrum him, and usually turn on his professor persona if a journalist brought up Quebec secession.

No matter the circumstances thrown his way and the challenges the Prime Minister's Office faced during Mr. Charpentier's 1975-1979 tenure, the man with the old-world manners and cool intellectual worldliness emerged unruffled. He usually addressed a reporter using an honorific, never raised his voice and always looked stress-free, even though he usually got out of bed a little too late for his colleagues' liking.

He was a bachelor until 1990 and, during those PMO days, the former television journalist had film-star good looks, spoke an elegant French and English, wore well-cut suits, drank lots of wine, lit his Gitane cigarettes with a gold lighter and drove an MG sports car.

He was also a contemplative person. "You would come into his office," remembers Senator Mike Duffy, a former journalist who covered Parliament Hill during Mr. Charpentier's days, "And, like Trudeau, he was happy to be in his own company. He'd be deep in thought and ask you what you thought about the Sandinistas and the theocratic role in the revolutions he was reading about. Everyone else was complaining about the latest snowstorm."

While the equally cool and intellectual Mr. Trudeau appreciated his discretion and his cerebral manner, the press corps seemed to require more. In the late 70s, earlier deference to politicians was tossed out with the fedora, and reporters would often confront them in the hallways and bait them on sensitive topics. The Liberals, who were on their waning days of what would be 16 years in government, were getting a rough ride.

Hugh Winsor, who was on the Hill for The Globe and Mail at the time, remembers Mr. Charpentier's relaxed demeanour being at times a liability, seeing the coolness as disengagement.

But Mr. Winsor admitted that Mr. Charpentier made things far better than they could have been, saying the atmosphere had deteriorated in those days and that the prime minister would likely have been even more confrontational had it not been for Mr. Charpentier's mediating skills.

"Jean was there on our behalf and would spare us from Trudeau's venom."

Jean Charpentier was born in Ottawa, the youngest of five children. Three of his siblings were from his father Fulgence's first marriage, which had ended in the death of their young mother. Not long after, Fulgence married Louise Dionne.

Fulgence Charpentier, who had earlier been a parliamentary journalist, was acting mayor of Ottawa when Jean was born. He would eventually work for the federal government as the wartime censorship director and hold a series of diplomatic postings, including one in Paris in 1948, under Georges Vanier, and the first Canadian ambassadorship in the African francophonie, in Cameroon in the 1960s. He died in 2001 at the age of 103.

It was during his father's posting in Uruguay in 1953 that Mr. Charpentier perfected his Spanish, a skill that would hold him in good stead during several journalistic stints in Latin America.

Mr. Charpentier worked for the French-language newspapers Le Devoir and Le Droit, and it was at the latter paper in the 1950s where his colleague Denis Gratton took a poke at his European courtliness and gave him the name The Count.

In 1961, he became a television reporter for Radio-Canada, the French-language arm of the CBC, where he would take up postings in Toronto, London, Lima and Paris. He also filed stories from Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Biafra, Argentina and Chile, where he was the first reporter to interview Augusto Pinochet after the 1973 coup. He temporarily came back to Canada in 1970 to cover the FLQ crisis.

He was known to be one of the few federalist journalists on Radio-Canada, and was tiring of the arguments with his colleagues. He had a connection to Mr. Trudeau by way of his father and two brothers, who were all in the diplomatic corps in the 1960s, but was scouted by then-minister Gerald Pelletier.

There was a bit of vanity that went into his decision to leave television journalism, according to Patrick Gossage's Close to the Charisma, his 1986 memoirs of working in that same press office.

"I did not think it was possible to grow old gracefully as a television journalist," Mr. Charpentier told him.

Mr. Trudeau also appreciated his discretion. According to Mr. Duffy, who remained friends with him, he never gossiped.

He was likely the person who had Mr. Trudeau write a letter on non-PMO stationery announcing his separation from his wife, Margaret, in 1977. (They were divorced in 1984.) "He made the point elegantly that it was a private matter," said Mr. Gossage.

Dick O'Hagan, who at the time was working on communication strategy for the wage and price controls porfolio, also thought that it was likely Mr. Charpentier who had been behind that. "Those kinds of subtleties were characteristic of him."

When the Trudeau government was brought down by Joe Clark's Conservatives in 1979, Mr. Charpentier moved to the Treasury Board as a communications consultant but according to Mr. Gossage, he was bored at the job. Mr. Duffy added: "He had a ton to contribute, but the system didn't make the best use of him."

In 1984, he was asked by the government to organize the papal visit to Ottawa. After that, he left government and worked for the rest of his career as a freelance translator.

Jean Charpentier was born on May 14, 1935, in Ottawa, where he died on Jan. 8, 2010, of cancer. He was 74. He leaves his wife Mary Mackay, her sons Dwayne, Shawn and Derek and her daughter Tina. He also leaves his siblings Claire, Louise and Jacques. He was predeceased by his brothers Georges and Pierre.

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