Sunny ways on rainy days

Liberals gather in Montreal

Exercising pundits’ prerogative, I skipped almost all of the pre-game niaiserie on Thursday night and hauled into Montreal’s Palais des Congrès about 10 minutes before Justin Trudeau was scheduled to take the stage. First problem: the press accreditation wicket had closed for the night. I feared trouble, because as a rule if you don’t have a press tag hanging off your neck, political staffers don’t know whom to abuse. I headed for the escalator with my best don’t-you-know-who-I-am face, but nobody stopped me.

In fact, nobody was in charge of checking anybody’s ID at any point from the street to the main convention hall, where when I arrived Chrystia Freeland was busy interrogating Larry Summers, the former Harvard president and Clinton/Obama administration mucky-muck. It was like an episode of Fareed Zakaria GPS without the host, and when I googled the name of the show just now to get that joke right, I discovered Summers was on it just last Sunday. In Montreal he repeated most of the same nostrums, heartily agreeing with Freeland whenever she suggested human capital is important; playing a role in the world is good (“That’s really important to us. In our values. As Canadians,” Freeland said on that point); or virtue is to be encouraged. Having warmed up the crowd with federal Liberals’ favourite appetizer — a U.S. Democrat they’ve seen on TV — Freeland and Summers decamped from the stage.

There followed one of those extended pantomimes in which a succession of interchangeably fresh-faced and eager thirty-something Liberals spoke to one another over The Internet, which Liberals always seem to believe they have just discovered. “We’re getting a lot of tweets,” one said, before consulting with another on a giant floating screen about How Many Pageviews They Were Getting Right Now From Canadians Coast to Coast to Coast. It was, as these displays usually are, deeply weird and a little depressing, like trying to get your kid to report on his school day while he concentrates on Clash of Clans.

Then it was the dauphin’s turn at bat. Justin Trudeau isn’t the most natural orator I’ve seen — that would be Lucien Bouchard — but his tone and manner don’t change whether he’s addressing one person or 3,000. He spoke with the sort of natural touch that is improved by long practice with teleprompters and prepared texts, but that some leaders never get with any amount of practice. Colleague Geddes has already delivered the details on Trudeau’s brief welcome — he will, it is said, speak more substantively tomorrow — but what struck me was how low-key and cheerful he sounded. It’s a sound I haven’t heard from a Liberal leader in a hell of a long time.

Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff had to keep buying their Liberal bona fides on the instalment plan, speech after speech, so they could never permit themselves to shut up about party-of-Laurier and party-of-Medicare and Clarity Bill this and Mike Pearson that. Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion operated in minority parliaments where they had to decide, from one week to the next, whether to seek to undo the Harper Conservatives with a no-confidence vote in the Commons. And if they weren’t doing that this week, they had to constantly warn that they might do it next week. It made them hectic and hectoring. Even Jean Chrétien, who was born to exercise power, was rarely much good at talking about it. He needed his audiences to fill in a lot of blanks and correct a lot of missteps. And before that was John Turner, who always sounded like he was choking on a muffin, and before that… well, look at that. Trudeau lacks his father’s elite education and his credentials as a leading participant in Quebec’s existential debates, but he brings a measure of Pierre Trudeau’s serenity to a stage.

After a few minutes Trudeau turned toward a video screen — this too had been rehearsed in the afternoon while reporters listened — and chatted with his very pregnant wife Sophie and the kids. After a precise amount of small talk, as if on cue, Xavier Trudeau, not yet 7, jumped off the sofa and began performing adorable-toddler calisthenics. He rotated 135 degrees clockwise. He vanished off the bottom of the screen. He popped back up. Then Sophie stood to show off her fertility-doll anatomy poured into a Liberal-red dress, and I flashed on a moment at Rideau Hall in 2008 on the day Stephen Harper began that year’s election campaign. That was Harper’s sweater-vest campaign, when he spoke more frequently about his obligations as a dad than he has ever done before or (so far) since. At Rideau Hall a reporter asked whether it was true that Stéphane Dion was also a husband and father. (He was and is.) Harper was unsure whether to concede the point. “You know, I don’t know Stéphane Dion all that well,” Harper said then. “But I presume he’s been married a long time, has children, I presume he’s a family man also.”

Flash forward to Thursday night, and here was the bounteous fruit of Justin Trudeau’s fecund loins virtually leaping off the video screen. You want family man?, he seemed to be saying. I’ll give you family man up the freaking wazoo. Here again was a Liberal leader with a simple family story to tell. Wife? Check. Kids? Two and a bun in the oven. Any funny passports or estranged first-marriage kidlets somewhere? Nope. Not that Sophie Grégoire, one of Quebec’s most glamorous television personalities, or these preternaturally cute kids presented precisely the image of a regular family. The Trudeau clan is more of an augmented-reality experience; I felt sure that if I pointed my smartphone at them I would get free recipes and coupons.

Then Trudeau talked some more, and as my mind wandered, because it was the kind of speech where one’s mind could easily wander, I parsed some of the big room’s iconography. It was pretty basic: lots of red, with the word Libéral behind the leader and the words HOPE and HARD WORK in French and English on the walls. The word Canada was nowhere evident, and I was reminded that the prime minister has lately made damned sure it’s the most obvious word wherever he speaks:

You don’t get a Canada logo that big on your travelling podium by accident. The Conservatives pushed the Canada stuff hard, at first defensively — because it had become a standing question, even in conservative circles a decade ago, whether the Liberals had cornered the market on patriotism — and then offensively, because Michael Ignatieff’s claim to the maple leaf was so shaky. The worry for the Conservatives is that Justin Trudeau doesn’t wave the maple leaf because he doesn’t need to, because he was practically born with the thing tattooed on his ass. And Trudeau’s appeals to some notion of Canada seem less disingenuous because, unlike Harper, he is so relaxed about letting Canada wander in off the street, un-harassed, to hear him speak.

All the hard work lies ahead for Trudeau. But I could have written that same sentiment a year ago and probably did, and a year later he still remains the most confounding presence in Canadian politics, easy to dismiss but much harder to effectively attack. You can’t go after him with family-man, you can’t go after him with real-Canadian, you can’t go after him with easy-to-rattle, divorced-from-his-party-base or a bunch of other attacks that undid his predecessors.  His opponents still haven’t found the easter egg that will allow them to rack up points against Trudeau, and it’s starting to be a while since they started trying.

Political leaders are either easier to beat than they looked, or harder. Bringing Kim Campbell and Paul Martin and Michael Ignatieff down was easier than it looked at first. They came on the scene all big and scary — old-timers in the crowd will remember how many Progressive Conservative greybacks left politics rather than try to beat Campbell — but had great big glass jaws and came down fast and hard like so many sacks of potatoes. Bringing Chrétien and Harper down was harder than it looked. Trudeau… we’ll see.


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