Richard Nixon visited Canada just once during his presidency. He’s also been dead 20 years. But he was about the only person to correctly call last week’s Canadian election.
On April 13, 1972, at a state dinner in Ottawa, where he addressed Parliament and signed the Great Lakes Treaty, Nixon raised his glass to Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s 4-month-old son. “Tonight, we’ll dispense with the formalities. I’d like to toast the future prime minister of Canada: to Justin Pierre Trudeau.”
For much of the 78-day campaign, Canada’s major parties—the ruling Conservatives, the official opposition New Democrats, and the Liberals—were locked in a statistical dead heat. Only in the week before the October 19 election did the Liberals break out, and even then, most pundits predicted a minority government. But Justin Trudeau will have a comfortable majority as Canada’s 23rd prime minister, with 184 of 338 seats. Stephen Harper, prime minister for nearly a decade, saw his party go from 166 to 99 seats. While the American chattering class wrings its hands over the prospect of a dynastic Bush-Clinton presidential race next year, Canadians enthusiastically handed the more powerful position of prime minister to a tattooed 43-year-old who owes his entire, undistinguished political career to his surname.
In Canada, it’s 1968 all over again. That’s the last time the Liberals elected a member of Parliament in Calgary, the center of Alberta’s oil industry and a Conservative stronghold, and it was a Trudeau who made it happen then, too. “Trudeaumania”—the phenomenon has its own Wikipedia page—marked the first time a Canadian politician was greeted by ecstatic young women like a member of the Beatles. When Pierre Trudeau became prime minister that year, the Vancouver Sun described him on the front page as a “swinging young bachelor.” He was 48 and losing his hair, but his charm had more to do with his unlikely combination of devil-may-care attitude and intense intellectuality. He was a lawyer and law professor with a master’s in political economy from Harvard, but never stood on ceremony: “Mangez de la merde,” he told striking mail truck drivers who jeered him in Montreal.
In 1971, he married Margaret Sinclair—a woman 30 years his junior who made front pages herself with exploits at Studio 54—and later that year Justin was born. The Trudeaus’ firstborn turned out unremarkable (except for his beauty), and no one but Nixon predicted he’d follow in his father’s footsteps—until his father died. Justin was living in Vancouver, fond of the nearby ski slopes, and working as a drama teacher when the former prime minister passed away in 2000. His electrifying eulogy at the state funeral made him instantly famous. A single speech had launched a career—just like Barack Obama’s at the 2004 Democratic convention. He didn’t enter elected office until 2008, though, and reportedly considered leaving before he became leader of the Liberals in 2013.
Even the New York Times, in its above-the-fold front-page story the day after the election, seemed surprised by his win: “Despite his famous name, Mr. Trudeau was an untested figure who lacked the rapier intellect of his father.” But as Pierre Trudeau himself once declared, “The essential ingredient of politics is timing.” And Justin Trudeau, a millionaire married to a gorgeous television host, has been lucky his whole life.
The 56-year-old Harper made Canada the best-governed country in North America, but Canadians are often uncomfortable with success. Harper reduced the size of the federal government and lowered taxes both personal and corporate—American companies like Burger King took notice and moved their headquarters north. Canada weathered the 2008 financial crisis better than just about any other industrialized nation. But low oil prices led to a recession this year, small scandals in his government started to pile up, and soon Canadians realized they were tired of “the nerd who came from nowhere,” as a headline in the Harper-friendly National Post called him during the campaign. You have to go back a century to find a Canadian prime minister who won a fourth term. Most seem to retire or get kicked out of office around the 10-year mark—even the beloved Trudeau, who lost an election in 1979 but regained the prime ministership the next year.