Screaming girls, flashing lights, and a dazzling smile. These are the images that come to mind when reminiscing about Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s rise to power, popularly known as Trudeaumania. This, however, is the antithesis of Trudeau’s methodical approach to politics as chronicled in historian Robert Wright’s new book. Yes, Pierre Trudeau danced with attractive women and wore sandals in the House of Commons, but he was also a strong intellectual who formulated his beliefs after years of careful study and never wavered in his commitment to them.
Wright lays out these competing impressions of Trudeau and his time in the service of dispelling three myths: that Trudeau rode to power on a wave of post–Expo 67 euphoria; that Trudeau’s popularity was due in large part to the medium of television; and that he consistently lied to both English and French Canada, telling each group a different story in order to gain their support.
Rather than riding high on a wave of nationalism, Wright suggests, Canadians in 1967 were gloomy about their future. Quebec wanted to leave Canada and English Canadians didn’t understand why. Myth No. 1 fades quickly in the face of Wright’s evaluation of this anxious national mood, and it is easy to comprehend Trudeau’s strong support for federalism as a balm for those seeking a vision they could stand behind.
While Trudeau seemed made for television in retrospect, both he and political commentators at the time said he was uncomfortable in front of cameras. Wright strikes a further blow to Myth No. 2 as he lays out how Trudeau’s earliest supporters were actually sober university faculty. Their “appreciation of his ideas … which derived not from short-term political expediency but from decades of study and analysis” does not make them sound like emotional fans smitten by a media darling.
Directly confronting Myth No. 3, Wright details how Trudeau’s support for federalism and his dislike of emotional nationalism were key parts of his political ideology long before he considered entering politics. Trudeau never wavered: he supported a strong central government that gave Canadians equal rights no matter what part of the country they were in. He did not seek to “put Quebec in its place” any more than he supported special status for the province. He simply believed that all Canadians would benefit from equality.
Trudeaumania is a rare type of accessible intellectual history. Wright has struck an excellent balance between his own analysis, quotes from contemporary journalists, and letting Trudeau’s words (and the man is endlessly quotable) speak for themselves.
One does not have to agree with Trudeau’s stance to respect the work he put into developing his political philosophy. At a time in which politics seems to be about avoiding serious questions, Trudeaumania is a reminder of the kind of public discourse we could have instead. In the 1968 election, it was Trudeau’s ideas that won people over more than anything else, and the former prime minister deserves credit for that. Allowing it to him might even convince current politicians, regardless of their affiliation, to take a page out of his book.