For most of the 1970s, Canada had the coolest leader in the room.
His name was Pierre Trudeau, and he was undeniably the hippest, coolest, and dare I say “grooviest” leader in the world. Trudeau was elected 50 years ago, the summer of ’68, surfing a wave of ‘Trudeaumania’. Later that same year, the U.S.A. chose as its leader the conniving, charisma-challenged Richard ‘Tricky Dick’ Nixon. The differences couldn’t have been more pronounced, and boy, were we proud.
By 1972, the rose that was permanently attached to Trudeau’s lapel had wilted. Using a famously terrible campaign slogan – The Land is Strong – Trudeau came within an eyelash (two seats) of losing the election to dull, plodding but dependable Robert Stanfield, of underwear fame. After two years of minority government, Trudeau came roaring back with a solid majority, and Stanfield was finished.
In the 1979 election, a bored, increasingly unpopular Trudeau and the arrogant Liberals lost to PC leder Joe Clark, a chinless, lanky geek who became the youngest, and nerdiest, prime minister in Canadian history. Clark had a solid minority – the PCs had 136 seats to 114 for the Liberals, with the NDP holding the balance of power with 26 seats – but he bungled the management of the minority in spectacular fashion. An election was forced in 1980, and only nine months after winning Clark was hammered in the federal election by none other than Pierre E. Trudeau.
Aside from general incompetence, what sunk Joe Clark? There were a lot of factors to be sure, none of which I can remember right now. But one of them was something called ‘the wimp factor’, an expression I believe was coined by acerbic columnist Allan Fotheringham. A lot of people (OK, mostly men) snickered that his wife, Maureen, kept her maiden name of McTeer, something rarely done back in the day. Chinless, gangly, seemingly dominated by his woman (hey, it was a different time), Clark was labeled a wimp. And there’s no getting over that kind of label.
Boy, that’s a lot of preamble. So, what’s my point?
I believe the the wimp factor may be returning to Canadian politics. Except now, instead of a geeky, homely but earnest guy like Joe Clark, we have a cool, handsome but painfully politically correct politico named Justin Trudeau versus the most Canadian looking politician possible. Can Trudeau be beaten? I think so. Just like his father in 1972, I think the bloom is officially off the Trudeau rose. He is increasingly seen as a pandering, preening, politically correct pretty boy. I take no joy in writing this. I was absolutely delighted when Trudeau ended the autocratic, nasty and brutish Stephen Harper era. I couldn’t stand that guy, and I danced a little jig of delight on election night Oct. 19, 2015. I wasn’t completely sold on Trudeau, but anyone who could rid the country of Stephen Harper earned my support. The world’s rapturous reaction to Trudeau earned him a lot of goodwill here, even if it was over the top (i.e., the Rolling Stone profile).
But Trudeau’s flaws as a leader are too much in evidence now to ignore. The more I see of this guy, the less I can stand him.
Oddly, I agree with some of his major policy decisions. I don’t like the idea of marijuana legalization in this country, but I recognize that prohibition is a failure. I’m entirely supportive of assisted dying; I think I should have the right to pull the plug on myself if my situation seems hopeless. I agree with admitting 30,000 Syrian refugees, even if Trudeau seemed to use the whole situation as a political prop. And as for the most pressing problem his government faces – how to handle that orange menace to the south – I think Trudeau’s strategy to play nice with the dotard is the right way to go.
So, policy wise, I can’t argue with too much. But Trudeau is getting to be an embarrassment.
The injuries to his image are self-inflicted. There was his Christmas vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island, which violated conflict of interest laws and made him look like an above-it-all rich kid. His poorly timed ‘joke’, where is chastised an Edmonton woman for using “mankind” instead of “personkind” earned him (unfair, to be honest) condemnation from right-wing types. Of the not-guilty verdict in the Colton Bushie murder, Trudeau chose to comment on the case (“we have to do better”) after saying he wouldn’t comment on the case. His speech at the UN, where he said “We’re Canadian. And we’re here to help” made me cringe. Indeed, Trudeau saying anything is aggravating. Speaking off the cuff, every second word is an “um” or an “er”; in prepared speeches, Every Word Is Treated As If They Were All Cap-it-alized.
But the fiasco in India, where he and his family went full Bollywood, may be a turning point for Trudeau. The world (or at least, the very small part of the world that cares about Canada) laughed at him, and Canadians were cringing. (Historical footnote: Joe Clark also ran afoul of India during a trip there. In 1978, attempting to bolster his standing as a world leader, he visited India in a famously gaffe prone trip. He was much ridiculed for asking a poor Indian farmer, “What is the totality of your acreage?”)
In the next election in 2019, Trudeau is facing his own Joe Clark – Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. Remember him? The guy with dimpled chipmunk cheeks? The guy who is the equivalent of a mayonnaise-on-white-bread sandwich? The guy whose family photo features his whole clan decked out in Saskatchewan Roughrider gear? Yeah, that guy.
What chance does a hopelessly square guy – you could call him a wimp – like Scheer have against the world’s hippest, handsomest leader? You might think, not much. But in 1972, Trudeau the Elder nearly lost to Stanfield, the very embodiment of boring. In 1979, he did lose to Clark, the aforementioned wimp. By October of next year, Canadians may be well and truly exhausted of The Trudeau Show and be ready to vote for a guy who called himself “Stephen Harper with a smile”.
History, after all, does have a way of repeating itself.