The Magazine

Obama of the North

The cautionary tale of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By LIONEL CHETWYND
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Chris Matthews tells us that Obama's victory speech after the Potomac primaries he felt "this thrill going up my leg." Frothing on, he invokes the last Democrat to carry Virginia, JFK. Brit Hume runs a replay of an audience member at the same speech enjoying an almost orgasmic reaction. Again, someone mumbles the sainted Kennedy name. Even as Obamamania reaches new heights, those of us who were actually on hand for John Kennedy's squeaker victory over the dour Richard Nixon in 1960 do not recall Kennedy's evoking the deep, visceral excitement Obama summons. It appears the infection now loosed upon the land is rarer than any seen in 1960--more unusual even than the state of mind induced after 1963, when the masterminds of Camelot hawked their false memories.

Yet, rare as it is, this virus is one I've seen before. It devastated a country I loved, the place that had raised me and nurtured me. Back in the Canada of 1968, in the wake of "Beatlemania," we called the malady "Trudeaumania," deliberately invoking pop-idol glitter.

Even those of us who held posts in his own Liberal party were powerless to thwart the mad embrace millions of Canadians threw around Pierre Elliott Trudeau, with his promise to reconcile the two founding peoples, to unite the English (more correctly, Scottish) heritage with the French legacy and take us forward into a brave new age. He promised, too, to reforge our relationship with "the elephant to our south" and to elevate Canada's role in the world. What that actually meant or how it was to be achieved never seemed worth mentioning, as if the mere stating of the intention were equivalent to a result realized.

As a candidate in 1968, Trudeau was completely nonspecific, avoiding policy questions and depending entirely on style and panache. This would surely undo him, or so we reassured ourselves, those of us who believed him to be a hard-line leftist because we'd read his essays in Cité Libre and studied his academic writings at the University of Montreal. We were wrong: His lack of specificity was his strength. A brilliant and smiling Savile Row-suited orator, he spun webs around huge crowds, proposing big ideas in obscure terms, leaving listeners to discover in his speeches their own dreams. He was all things to all people. And out of party loyalty and civility, we held our tongues.

Meantime, the delighted English-language media, at last presented with a French-speaking Canadian they could love, dubbed him "Canada's JFK." He would serve as prime minister for 15 years (1968-79 and 1980-84). The damage to what Canada had stood for would be staggering.

Before Trudeau, Canada still basked in the glory of its own Greatest Generation. Canada had raised the largest army in the world, per capita, to fight Hitler (1.4 million from a population of 11 million). Emerging from World War II as a leading industrial power, it had devoted a vast part of its treasure to financing the Colombo Plan, "the Marshall Plan of Asia." Parts of the infrastructure used to this day in Pakistan, India, and South Asia were paid for by Canadians. Those same Canadians generally viewed the United States with affection, even admiration. True, many harbored a residual anger at America's more than two-year delay in entering World War II, but that was a family squabble, easily put aside. They had no laws barring or limiting the flow of American popular culture across the border. That Canada's moment of triumph came in the summer of 1967 with the hugely successful Montreal world's fair known as Expo '67.

All this changed when Trudeau became prime minister, overwhelming more experienced candidates for the party leadership with his amazing style. Once in power, he led Canada down a radical new path, muddying what had been a clear sense of identity, deemphasizing the country's Scottish-French roots in favor of a more ambiguous European model. The new Canadian identity--ardently embraced in the early Trudeau years--was equivocal. It stressed multiculturalism rather than biculturalism, extolled diversity and "international consensus," and cast the very existence of the United States as sinister while rushing to recognize Communist China and Cuba. This revolution would remake Canada into something its prewar self would hardly recognize. A people once proud of their history would be weaned away from it and remade into a relativistic, postmodern nation.

How was a strong and self-reliant people so easily led astray? Trudeaumania. Look no further than Chris Matthews to understand the uncritical devotion Trudeau summoned forth.