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Genuine Grief at the Passing of A Canadian Giant

Trudeau's Competence and Cross Party Respect Underlines the Smallness of His Southern Peers

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, October 04, 2000.

A depressing night, last night. The numbingly awful debates between Gore and Bush are off. What absolute crap, neither a debate nor a coherent presentation of issues, these stupid passion plays are merely grotesque street theater risen high. Based upon the debates, it is hard to argue that either of the candidates deserves a walk around the block unhampered, much less four years in the White House. These are disgusting parodies of what a debate actually is. On the other hand, Ralph Nader was turned away at the door despite having been given a ticket by a college student. This incident of really bad, heavy handed theater made the actual performance seem almost spontaneous. It was with some embarrassment that we concurrently had to watch the state funeral of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, complete with news clips of that genuinely spontaneous, witty, and patriotic maple leaf showing up the current batch of American candidates for the over-rehearsed gerbils they are.

Trudeau, typically, got most coverage in the United States for his women, most interestingly his wife, thirty years younger than he, and we never really paid close attention to his policies. This is fully in keeping with our whole attitude towards Canada, which generally gets favorable attention in this country only because it is, for the most part, of English and northern European makeup like ourselves and mostly speaks English. But Trudeau ruled Canada officially for sixteen years - from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan - and has been the most important leader in that nation this century. It should be noted what he accomplished in his admittedly lesser sphere.

Among other things, he rewrote his country's constitution. In so doing, he removed it from England's domination and in one stroke gave them the equivalent of a Bill of Rights and made it law. This is hard to understand for Americans, but in England the Constitution is not law. It is, really, a list of guiding suggestions. Same with Canada till Trudeau. Civil rights in Canada were institutionalized at a higher level than here in the United States far earlier, and because of one man and the energy he provided. Imagine if one man in the United States had the political power to rewrite the constitution. Only Lincoln if he had lived could have done it well. Canada is fortunate it was Trudeau. So are we.

He was passionate. While never heard to be speechless or bereft of grammatically correct utterance in many languages, he was capable of great anger. When Quebec separatists killed a government official in the early 1970's and set off a number of bombs, Trudeau went ballistic. On a street and interviewed, he was asked how far he was prepared to go to preserve his country. He coolly looked into the camera and said "Watch me." No focus groups, no mob of shills to fend off the press. And no fear. No hesitation. He fended off Quebec separation, which took great skill and great courage - recall his last name - and lived to see history validate his position, given that the majority of Quebec is peopled not by the French but by the Cree Indians, who announced they would stay with Canada. During all this, absolutely nobody feared a dictatorship. Think about that. He was capable of shredding idiots in public, and fear of his wit ruled the many press gatherings he hosted. What American politician has ever instilled such respect?

Second only to the current Pope in his linguistic command, Trudeau's fluid mastery of language is embarrassing in a national leader. It humiliates everyone else. Listen to the lousy Spanish of Bush and Gore as they try to sound cosmopolitan when talking about education. Then listen to Trudeau speak French, English, Spanish, Latin, Slavic with almost no accent. He had the ear of a musician, and caught the cadence and tone of language as well as the grammar and vocabulary. It helps a lot to greet visitors in their native tongue and make small talk. Trudeau, who essentially opened the eyes of North American to the trade potential of the Pacific Rim and the power of trade in general, set such a strong and good example that, truth be told, the United States had to follow Canada's gentle lead or seem oafish, which in many cases, it has been.

Canada, far from perfect and far from incorrupt, still has a higher level of respect around the world than anyone else. Canada, always the sop for military peacekeeping, started saying under Trudeau. Canada was not going to be the doormat of the United States, the bland cheese among nations, pointless cannon fodder. Trudeau was a tax and spend liberal, but he did so with a clear head and the benefits of his policies are Canada's infrastructure, its courts, its increasing unity. His huge debt will not be paid off in our life time, but the gift he gave his nation is unassailable. He dealt with bilingualism and biculturalism and concluded that a common Canadianism was the answer. He changed his opinions, he learned, he was a politician without equal within the very provincial conflicts of his country, and he royally annoyed conservatives. Yet, how many current American Presidents will draw tears from their opponents during funeral orations as Trudeau did. Agree with him or not, he made them proud to be Canadians, and this tribute they admit without hesitation.

I offer an unscientific example of how important Trudeau was. When I first went to Europe, in 1965, many Canadian teenaged tourists pretended to be Americans because of the supposed prestige among European peers. By 1973, the trend had reversed. Not just anti-American, but pro-Canadian. Trudeau did that, providing a personality and image to an entire nation. Further, a positive and lasting one. Trudeau may be the most important North American politician of the last half century and it is possible that at least one of our current Presidential candidates, running on the education plank, can neither recall, pronounce, or spell his name or address any of the issues Trudeau did. A depressing contrast, last night.

This is Dark Cloud, see you next week.