Trudeaumania, by common understanding, refers to a state of mind that prevailed in 1968 when a swinging intellectual bachelor from Montreal rose to the leadership of the governing Liberal Party and swept Canada off its feet on his way to a majority victory in a national election campaign.
It never happened, at least not in any quantifiable way. Pierre Trudeau in 1968 was a politician. Elections are how we keep score in politics. Careers are made, governments change, history is shaped by electoral results. The 1968 election gave Pierre Trudeau his first majority government and revealed to the world his peculiarly Canadian charisma, but no matter how many women (and journalists) swooned in the course of his campaigns, there is nothing in the data to suggest anything resembling a mania.
Voter turnout in 1968 was 76 percent, less than one point above the previous election, and well below the average of the previous four. Trudeau and the Liberals eked out a slim majority over Robert Stanfield, an unusually weak Conservative leader (or so we thought until Joe Clark and Kim Campbell came along). Stanfield’s campaign is best remembered for a photograph of him eating a banana. The sole reason the image has endured—Stanfield was perfectly competent with the banana—is that nothing else happened in his campaign.
The Liberals took 45.5 percent of the popular vote in 1968, compared to 31 percent for Stanfield and 17 percent for NDP leader Tommy Douglas. This was a middling result for the Liberals. Trudeau improved on his predecessor, Lester Pearson, whose popular vote peaked at 42 percent, and who never managed a majority. He fell short of Louis St. Laurent, who took 50 percent of the vote in 1949 and again in 1953. In historical terms, Trudeau’s popular vote sits at the low end for a majority victory by either party. It is reminiscent of Mackenzie King’s finishes of 1935 and 1945 when he managed to control Parliament with 41 percent and 44 percent of the popular vote. King had the excuse of a more competitive field, with Social Credit making it a four-horse race on both occasions.
The notion of a mania looks even more dubious through a regional lens. Atlantic Canada shunned Trudeau, leaving him just seven of 32 seats, perhaps out of loyalty to Nova Scotia Bob. The West, too, was resistant, returning just 27 Liberals in 68 ridings. Across both regions, Trudeau took 38 percent of the available vote. Even in Ontario, where Trudeau took 64 of 88 seats, his share of the popular vote was no different from what Pearson had managed in 1963. Quebec was more generous, giving Trudeau 54 percent of the vote, which is impressive but well below the 60 percent that St. Laurent, the last Francophone to lead the Liberals, had averaged in his three national elections. Trudeau underperformed as a native son.
If you are looking for a mania in the Canadian political record, Diefenbaker’s triumph (54 percent in 1958) stands alone, at least since the two-party system broke down in 1921. Yet here we are, nearly 50 years after the election of 1968, with a new prime minister giving fresh meaning to the term—and two books, each by a reputable historian, on the subject of the original Trudeaumania.
Historians have long debated the importance of Trudeaumania. Was it or was it not a watershed in the country’s political history? Was all the hype as impactful as legend would have it? Robert Wright’s Trudeaumania: The Rise to Power of Pierre Trudeau positions itself as a work of revisionism. Wright believes a watershed was crossed but that ideas, not hype, pushed us over. He wants to explode the Camelot-like myth of “the hipster Montrealer who drove up to Ottawa in his Mercedes in 1965, wowed the country with his dictum that ‘there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,’ rocked the new medium of television like no one since JFK, and in scant months rode the crest of Canadians’ centennial-era euphoria into power.”
Wright takes Trudeau’s intellect and ideas very seriously. His insistence that Trudeau’s winning personal style, his made-for-TV poses and quips, had little to do with his success drains much of the fun from the saga, but Wright lands his fundamental argument that there was substance at the core of whatever kind of phenomenon Trudeau represented (oddly, the author makes no attempt to define Trudeaumania).
Wright does a thorough, if unoriginal job, of positioning Trudeau in the intellectual ferment of Quebec in the 1960s. Trudeau had been a supporter of the Quiet Revolution, the process by which the province, long dominated by the Catholic church and an Anglo business elite, was secularized and modernized under the leadership of Premier Jean Lesage’s interventionist Liberal government. He was a critic of the various species of Quebec nationalism that were unleashed in the process of yanking the province out of its past.
Trudeau hated nationalism. He considered it backward, “corrosive,” a threat to the individual’s fundamental rights and liberties. Nationalism was prone to intolerance, discrimination and totalitarian tendencies. Quebec nationalism would trap the province within its own borders, cutting it off from the larger future available to it in a united Canada. Trudeau reminded Quebecers that it was “the Nation-State image” that had spurred Canadians of British descent through history to stomp on the rights of French Canadians who had “had the bad grace to decline assimilation.”
The most popular expression of Quebec nationalism in the mid 1960s took the form of “Deux Nations,” the mushy idea of Canada as a binational union of French and English Canadians sharing one land mass and common institutions. The rising threat was the secessionist expression of Quebec nationalism, a bid to make the province “progressive, free and strong,” in the words of its eventual champion, René Lévesque. Trudeau considered the latter a “ridiculous and reactionary idea.” Separatism had nonetheless gained a frightening momentum by the time of Trudeau’s emergence as a force in Ottawa, turning violent in the hands of the Front de Libération du Québec, Parti Pris, Rassemblement pour l’indépendence nationale, Armée Révolutionnaire du Québec, the Popular Liberation Movement and the Taxi Liberation Front, among other actors attempting to force Quebec sovereignty through argument, protest, threats, riots, bombings and the killing of innocents.
Wright dwells on the mob scenes and exploding mail boxes as an antidote to cheerier accounts of this era, notably Pierre Berton’s 1967: The Last Good Year, which fondly recalls Montreal as the happening, cosmopolitan seat of Expo 67—the highly successful world’s fair that served as centrepiece to Canada’s centennial celebrations. Wright also draws out the confusion and desperation of the Canadian political elites faced with an existential threat in their second largest province. He maintains that Trudeau’s appeal to the federal Liberal Party and Canadian voters was his clear and unyielding response to Quebec’s turmoil.
There is an important truth here. In the course of his rise to 24 Sussex, Trudeau consistently preached that Quebec’s aspirations were best pursued within a strong federal Canada, as one of ten provinces in a “truly pluralistic and polyethnic society,” with a bill of rights guaranteeing French-language rights across the country. One might argue that Wright overestimates the familiarity of the Canadian public with Trudeau’s constitutional ideas (Trudeau’s book of essays, Federalism and the French Canadians, did hit the bestseller lists in 1968, but more as a campaign souvenir than a catechism). There is no doubt, however, that his ideas, boldly held and forcefully articulated, were a part of his success.
It is salutary to be reminded of Trudeau’s substance given that Paul Litt’s Trudeaumania comes at its subject from quite the other direction. Litt opens in the spring of 1968 with Canada in “the throes of passion” and Trudeau looking “like a pop star on a concert tour.” The candidate is beset by “shocking-stockinged micro-boppers” begging for a snog. Girls who fail to reach his lips try to rip the flower from his lapel or kiss the hub caps of his convertible.
Litt and Wright have combed the same newspaper and television archives, providing, between them, a neat case study of how historians tend to find what they want in the record. The weight of evidence is on Litt’s side. The front-page photos and evening news footage of Mod Trudeau—the “single, youthful, athletic, and fashionable [candidate] with a liberated-lifestyle”—are more plentiful and impactful than editorials on Intellectual Trudeau, editor of Cité Libre, circulation 500. Litt finds reason for the best-selling status of Trudeau’s book of constitutional essays on its dust jacket:
Pierre Elliott Trudeau is almost incredible: A Prime Minister who swings, who is described by Maclean’s magazine as “an authoritative judge of wine and women,” who drives a Mercedes, throws snowballs at statues of Laurier and Stalin, wears turtleneck sweaters and says things like “the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.”
Media imagery was critical to Trudeau’s emergence. Wright is correct in that Trudeau could be underwhelming in televised debates, formal speeches and long interviews. It was his spontaneous performances, catalogued by Litt, that created an endless supply of news hits: Trudeau dancing to rock ’n’ roll beside his campaign bus, Trudeau using a hanging microphone as a punching bag, Trudeau jumping over railings to get at his worshippers, Trudeau wearing ascots and sandals and saluting supporters with Buddhist bows, Trudeau posing shirtless and in yoga positions (yes, him too), Trudeau sliding down bannisters and performing somersaults off the diving board at a hotel pool, and, of course, Trudeau kissing, on the lips, random 16-year-olds on the street.
These were the moments that established Trudeau as a new kind of political hero, charismatic, liberated and “authentic” in that preening, self-aware manner that works so well on screen. These were the moments that inspired the posters, songs, cartoons, slogans and fashion statements catalogued by Litt. We are reminded, for instance, that “Go-Go Trudeau” was at once a cheer, a pop song and a t-shirt.
Trudeau was uniquely positioned to tap into many of the obsessions of the times. Single and relatively young, he seemed to bridge the generation gap. While his politics were mostly within the bounds of conventional Canadian discourse, he had toured China and the Soviet Union and demonstrated an openness to more radical ideologies (he had famously attempted to paddle to Cuba, a theatre of his fellow 1960s icon, Che Guevara). He was a symbol of the sexual revolution, a hero to those “progressive men [who] found the conflation of their sexual pleasure with righteous politics profoundly seductive.”
That last point helps to explain why Peter C. Newman and Pierre Berton, two liberated alpha-journalists of this period, were as agog at Trudeau as the women they chauvinistically claimed were losing their minds and throwing themselves at the candidate’s feet. “Trudeau is the guy who really excites me,” wrote Berton. “He is the swinging young man I think the country needs.” Explains Litt: “A strange passion swept the media ranks, precipitating an idolization of Trudeau akin to that of an ancient religious sect worshipping a fertility god.”
There was an unhealthy co-dependence between the media and Trudeau. He claimed to find them a nuisance yet somehow was always in the picture, tossing a grape in the air and catching it in his mouth. Newsmen (they were almost all men) hosted talk shows and conferences on the troubling question of whether they were creating or covering Trudeau, all the while running photos of him posing with bunnies from Montreal’s Playboy Club.
As for the centennial effect, Litt finds direct lines between the exuberance of Expo 67 and Trudeau’s candidacy. One of them is Bobby Gimby, writer of the centennial anthem, “Ca-Na-Da,” who a year later performed the song at the head of Trudeau’s tickertape parade through Toronto’s financial corridor.
Litt does try to define Trudeaumania, and in the process leaves one wondering if Wright was not wise to leave the matter aside. He acknowledges that the phrase was invented by the forgotten Cold Warrior and newspaper columnist Lubor Zink, who used it to describe what he considered a clinical pathology infecting a segment of the Canadian public enthralled by a man with totalitarian sympathies. Litt also admits that Trudeaumania was “not a mania in the sense of a contagion that swept through most of the populace.” He reduces it to a measure of “the strength of the engagement that Trudeau inspired among his supporters. Those who liked Trudeau liked him a lot.”
As for its significance, Litt argues that Trudeaumania was “a formative episode in Canadian nationalism that had an enduring influence on national identity.” He cites as evidence Trudeau’s success in keeping the country united, his official languages legislation, his multiculturalism policy, his Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and his generally liberal political orientation that kept Canada to the left of centre long after the United States and the United Kingdom had shifted rightward. These, however, were consequences of Trudeau’s 15 years in power, not those fleeting, delirious months in 1968 when the regular cohort of voters who could be counted on to support a Liberal supported him emphatically.
Pierre Trudeau’s political legacy is long, mixed, substantive and deserving of serious consideration. Trudeaumania was a fad. If it lives on at all, it is only in the imagination of the Canadian actor and comedian Mike Myers, who came of age amid it and, consciously or not, brought it back to life in his popular Austin Powers franchise. Myers’s self-admiring, desperately modish, sex-mad 1960s hero (with a slight Trudeauvian overbite) does battle with a bald, hopelessly out of touch, Stanfieldian Dr. Evil and gets off lines like, “I put the ‘grrr’ in swinger, baby!”
Trudeau, when asked if he would give up his Mercedes if elected: “Do you mean the girl or the car?”
Trudeau, when asked why he has never been married: “There are so many pretty girls, it’s so hard to decide.”
Trudeau, speaking to a reporter about his hike of the previous weekend: “There was a blonde along.”
Trudeau, stopped on the streets of Ottawa by “a blonde” and asked for a kiss: “Why not? It’s spring.”
Trudeau asked whether or not he would have a hostess at 24 Sussex: “Could I change hostesses from time to time?”
Trudeau surrounded at the Liberal convention by “the Pierrettes,” a group of young women in “persimmon-orange coloured shifts and matching berets.” Surrounded in London, Ontario, by “Trudeau’s True Pets,” a group of young women who follow his car and scream for kisses. Surrounded in Burnaby, British Columbia, by the “Action Girls”…
Yeah, baby. Yeaaaaaahhhhh!
Both books in their final pages note that the phrase “Trudeaumania” has regained some of its currency in 2016 with the original’s son, Justin Trudeau, enjoying an extended honeymoon as Canada’s 23rd prime minister.
Litt sees the younger Trudeau’s famous “sunny ways” permeating “the torpid substrata of the collective consciousness” and warming Trudeaumania out of hibernation. “Canada is back!” This takes him dangerously close to Myers territory. The Powers saga opened with the hero, cryogenically frozen in the 1960s to make himself available for the salvation of future generations, thawing back to life.
Wright would have it the other way: he presents Justin Trudeau sui generis, loyal to his father’s memory but very much his own man. Justin does not possess his father’s keen intellect, or his ostentatious individualism; he is warmer, with more humility and better personal skills.
It makes for entertaining debate: Is he or isn’t he his father’s son? On the one hand, he is taller and better looking—a “Smoking-Hot Syrupy Fox,” according to Twitter—and thus less comical in the role of sex symbol. He has none of his progenitor’s sexism, and he is (so far) a better and more popular politician. On the other hand, he too inspires the old man’s “strength of engagement” among his supporters, and works diligently at his media profile and seems to enjoy it immensely. You decide.
At the end of the day, the comparisons do not much matter. Many Canadian voters were not born when the first Trudeaumania happened. Justin Trudeau has the opportunity to create his own legacy and when he does so it will be based, as is always the case, on his performance in office, not his Instagram account.