OTTAWA — On book-writing, as on a great many other things, Winston Churchill had it right — what starts out as an amusement quickly becomes a mistress, then a master and finally a tyrant.
My burnt offering, “Trudeau — the Education of a Prime Minister,” hits the stores on Tuesday. It’s a book with the shelf-life of frozen yogurt, at least in this edition, given the looming general election.
But it was a great adventure, particularly when the SNC-Lavalin affair unravelled after I’d delivered the manuscript.
There is nothing like writing a book for acquainting a person with a subject.
I have a far better grasp of Canada’s cocksure 23rd prime minister at the end of the process than I had at the start.
As Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s biographer, John English, noted in his peerless first volume, the father’s seeming contradictions were more often consistencies. The son shares many of those apparently paradoxical gifts — intelligence and discipline but also spontaneity and risk-taking.
Justin Trudeau has what his handlers call a “rhino-hide” when it comes to criticism — the product of being hated or fawned over his whole life. Victory in the boxing match with Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau hinted at Trudeau’s true grit. The revelation he told his mother that if she or his children were ever kidnapped he would have to “do his duty,” rather than compromise his office, suggests a hidden tough streak.
Yet, at the same time, he has an almost adolescent need to be adored.
Justin Trudeau has what his handlers call a 'rhino-hide' when it comes to criticism — the product of being hated or fawned over his whole life
Trudeau expressed no such doubts in his own autobiography, Common Ground. On the contrary, he said he found his calling in “public service through politics.” As one close adviser told the writer Ian Brown, Trudeau doesn’t have an onstage light that he flicks. “He lives his whole life onstage,” he said.
The central themes at play in the book revolve around Trudeau’s enigmatic character — the tendency to be impulsive and sanctimonious, tempered by a conviction and discipline that came to the fore in his early years in office.
A central contention is that his greatest strengths are also his greatest weaknesses. He was elected on the strength of his famous name, his dramatic personality and an apparently bottomless well of empathy for the marginalized.
The tendency to play identity politics has not only agitated a cultural backlash among those among the ethnic majority who feel like they have become strangers in their own country, it has also needled more centrist voters who feel the relentless drive to woo the left of centre means their interests have been overlooked. One Liberal MP said his constituents told him they are fed up with apologies, pay-outs and political correctness. “Talk about the things that make a difference in my life,” he said he heard on the doorsteps.
The central themes at play in the book revolve around Trudeau’s enigmatic character — the tendency to be impulsive and sanctimonious, tempered by a conviction and discipline that came to the fore in his early years in office
Still, the prime minister’s devotion, bordering on dogmatism, for an activist agenda to transform Canada into something more closely resembling his own progressive leanings is at odds with a post-war Canadian consensus between progressive Conservatives and conservative Liberals.
There is a conviction in the corridors of the Prime Minister’s Office that Canadians share that devotion for government intervention in every social, economic and environmental policy.
Trudeau positioned himself as the great unifier — he famously told Liberal supporters that Conservatives are not their enemies, they are their neighbours.
But his vision offers no dispensation for those who disagree — those people are dismissed as uninformed, irresponsible or motivated by unworthy purposes — in the words of conservative thinker Thomas Sowell, “not merely in error but in sin.”
Many of the problems that have arisen in the course of the past four years have occurred because government is not, to borrow Sowell’s phrase, “omni-competent.” The Trudeau government has been great at making announcements and less good at implementing policies, often because it is too focused on communications and not enough on making things happen after they’ve been announced. “He’s much more about ‘what’s new?’ He’s good at getting people super-excited, setting bold visions. But it creates real challenges in execution,” said one senior Liberal staff member.
The sense of righteousness demanded that the left-liberalism crusade plow on toward a new progressive Jerusalem even as it cleaved fresh divisions
Time and again, Trudeau’s Liberals found their game plan buffeted by unexpected events and unintended consequences. For example, the election of an NDP-Green government in British Columbia, Donald Trump’s ascension, the plummeting oil price and so on.
Yet the song remained the same. The sense of righteousness demanded that the left-liberalism crusade plow on toward a new progressive Jerusalem even as it cleaved fresh divisions.
Where a Jean Chrétien or a Stephen Harper might have adapted flexible principles to changing political circumstances, Trudeau has been unbending. One way to interpret his unswerving conviction to “do what is right” is as ideological evangelism that will not be swayed by fact or circumstance.
The draining of enthusiasm for the Liberals may not matter if voters decide the alternatives are uninspiring.
But Trudeau has made things interesting at a time when a relatively benign economy suggests re-election should have been a shoo-in.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019