Just Watch Me: Book Review

By Kurt Heinrich

John English,  Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau: 1968-2000 (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010) trade paperback, 832 pp.

Several weeks ago, I found myself standing in a non-descript office building on Robson Street in Vancouver. I was waiting for the elevator. I’d just come back from a lunch time reading of John English’s recent Trudeau biography, Just Watch Me. An older woman in her mid-fifties stood beside me and noticed my 787 page tome. What are you reading, she inquired. I showed her the cover and immediately her face lit up. Oh, she exclaimed, I remember him. He was terrific.

Long ago Trudeau had visited her university in Southern Ontario and wowed the college students, including my new elevator friend, with his noteworthy charisma and intellectualism. He was a great man, she concluded, just a great man. Pressed, she couldn’t give a particularly good reason for her commendation. There was just something about him, she remarked. And that was that.

Over a decade after his death and 25 years after he ended his public life, Trudeau’s signature style still endears him in the minds of many boomers whom he touched, either in person or through the media. There’s a reason his striking features continue to leave an impression on millions of Canadians. Whatever he was, Trudeau left a personal legacy few Canadian Prime Ministers past or present can match. As English points out, he would do things his way, whether you liked it or not. It’s hard to imagine politicians these days abstaining from the pollster’s advice, ignoring key messaging of the PR hack, and following what their instinct told them was the right thing to do. There’s something authentic about it and perhaps that’s part of what made Trudeau such an impressive public figure.

I do not remember Pierre Elliot Trudeau nor any of the battles he spent the latter part of his life waging. I never witnessed his epic struggle with Rene Levesque and the separatists in the 1970s and 1980s or the decade long struggle with Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed over energy policy. I was too young to understand his commitment to language rights in Quebec or his diplomatic manoeuvres around the neo-con policies of a simple US President Ronald Reagan and a cutthroat British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. His accomplishments and struggles always appeared abstract and disconnected from the Canada I grew up in. Part of the value of Just Watch Me is its painstaking discussion of these issues that helped reshape our Canada.

From the beginning of the book, we are treated to a partially thematic and partially narrative story of Trudeau’s first time in office, then out of office, then back in office and then finally in retirement (at least when it came to politics). This volume is the sequel to an equally weighty book published earlier on Trudeau’s early life titled Citizen of the World, which chronicles his upbringing, travelling days and time as a thinker and philosopher. Just Watch Me tracks how Trudeau took many of these ideas and wove them into the fabric of Canada during his 13 years in government.

Starting in 1968 with his election to lead the Liberal Party of Canada (and hence the country) on the fourth ballot, English vividly describes how the times really were “a changin” when Trudeau became PM. Trudeaumania hit like a jackhammer. Here was a man who dated movie stars, wore stylish clothes and a red rose, flirted, danced and slept with countless (young) women. Hearts from Victoria to Halifax were aflutter. The author’s description of his protagonist is distanced and non-judgemental. We barely notice that the Prime Minister was a man in his 50s sleeping with countless girls half his age. Maybe you just had to “be there” to understand.

Or maybe it was all about having so much hubris and balls that no one – not the opposition, the press or Joe Public – could call you out. And if they did, they’d get a Salmon Arm salute or some equally cutting one-liner. It’s this supremely self-assured style that came out, guns blazing, during the October Crisis. English shines during this particular part of the book. The expressive detail the author uses to illustrate the high octane political conflict of the time depicts a vulnerable and confused Canada, whose fragile civil innocence is shattered under the jackboots of Canadian soldiers in Montreal streets. Here was an event that was a game-changer for many Québécois. English’s storytelling invites us to feel the tension in the air and the conflict between Bourassa, Ryan, Trudeau and Lévesque as they sought to stay true to their particular visions of Canada in an extreme situation exacerbated by hostage takings and terrorist attacks.

Equally powerful are English’s descriptions of Trudeau’s diplomatic encounters and foreign policy forays. We get a fascinating look at how our charismatic leader interacted with other greats of 20th century history as the story carries us through Trudeau’s early years in Cuba and China. Trudeau’s relationships with Nixon, Castro, Reagan, Thatcher and Mao Zedong are fascinating. It’s always fun to see how the rich and/or famous interact among each other. English’s doesn’t miss a beat on this front. My favourite section depicted Trudeau’s dealings with Ronald Reagan, late in his career during his meetings with world leaders in Montebello, Quebec. Trudeau pushed North-South issues and Reagan responded with anti-communist bromides. Trudeau tried again to engage, only to be met by the folksy anecdotes of the US President’s experience. Although he didn’t necessarily respect his intellect, Trudeau nonetheless liked Reagan, a sentiment apparently shared by the President. Such seemingly contradictory perceptions are illuminated by English’s narrative.

Oh, and then there’s his courtship and ongoing relationship with Margaret Trudeau. English hits a particularly gossipy stride as he attempts to document the ups and downs of the rollercoaster ride that was Trudeau’s married life. The anecdotes and footnotes, which range from Margaret’s hardcore partying with rock bands in the New York social scene to Pierre’s hijinks in Ottawa hotel fire escapes, are as juicy as anything you’d read in People Magazine. It was during these parts of the book, I am partially ashamed to say, that I found it difficult to put the book down.

Other sections, though less fraught with tension or color, are no less comprehensive. In Just Watch Me, English showcases his almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Canadian history, guiding us through these heady days of Liberal rule using a abundance of period editorials, letters, personal interviews, histories, archived papers and other primary documents. Despite the vast quantity of source material, English rarely gets bogged down in the details – at least not in Trudeau’s professional life.

Just Watch Me spends most of its time at the altitude of an airplane. You’re way up there in the stratosphere. The good news is you have a grand visage of the scope of signature events like the negotiations around the Canadian Charter and Constitution or the shifts in Canada’s decade long energy policies. The bad news is that high up, the specific details and “colour” that give history its rich flavour and makes it particularly readable are occasionally lost.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, this is a book on policy. It tells us how great ideas were envisioned by Trudeau and his circle of thinkers and became constitutional, economic, foreign and domestic policy. Indeed, English’s account places a huge primacy on the influence of the intellectuals in Trudeau’s professional life. No doubt. But where are the business leaders, political activists, dealmakers, labour bosses, organizers and young staffers? While occasionally mentioned, these key figures (at least key in most of the politics I’m aware of) seem to fade into the background.

Despite these issues, Just Watch Me succeeds in crafting a definitive and comprehensive account of the Trudeau years. The newspapers weren’t lying when they said this is “the most illuminating Trudeau portrait yet written.” English’s biography does Trudeau and his legacy the justice it deserves. A man of not just style but substance too.

Kurt Heinrich studied History at Bishop’s University and the University of Victoria. After completing his two history degrees  and a diploma in Broadcast Journalism at BCIT, Kurt worked as a communications and outreach staffer for Canada’s largest municipal political party. He’s now made the transition to Peak Communicators where he specializes in writing, media relations and stakeholder engagement. In his spare time he’s still very active in federal and municipal politics, coordinates a street soccer team for Downtown Eastside residents, and manages and writes for the Daily Gumboot (www.dailygumboot.ca), a local community blog he helped found. He is also the editor of the bi-monthly newsletter Essentials for Canadian Public Relations Society’s Vancouver chapter.

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