Pierre Trudeau’s funeral remains one of the most-watched television events in Canadian hist-ory. Justin ended his eulogy with a simple sentiment: “Je t’aime, papa.” You could argue he hasn’t said anything memorable since. Some found him touching and sincere. Others found him soppy and maudlin. Either way, the first impression was set. As Capstick puts it, “He’s a ham. He’s got the worst instincts of a high-school drama teacher.”
But Justin’s leadership campaign is targeted to the touching-and-sincere crowd. They make up the majority of those who come to see him, and wherever he speaks, there’s an electricity in the room unusual for political gatherings. That energy is also odd considering the banality of what comes out of his mouth. Because he gives so many speeches, Justin has learned to organize them into what he calls “blocks of meaning.” Each block is made up of several sentences linked to a theme. A 10-minute speech might need three blocks; a 30-minute speech, 10 blocks. He digs into his shoebox of speech Legos and snaps a few together on the fly, click, click, click, right there at the podium.
I found myself compiling an inventory of his meaning blocks. The politics of division. Cynicism in the electorate. Strength in diversity. Investing in youth. I lost count at around 12; there are probably a dozen more. His delivery is smooth and inspirational, but as blocks of words go, it’s all fairly meaningless.
Mind you, Justin could read from his party’s Electoral District Association Handbook, and many would still be rapt. “I haven’t heard anyone speak like that in a while,” said one Liberal greybeard in North Bay, to approving nods around the room. I wondered if they’d heard the same address I had. Perhaps they’re all still hearing, “Je t’aime, papa.“
A more telling feature of Justin’s rapport with his fans reveals itself when he opens the floor to questions: everyone turns into Oprah. What was Pierre like as a father? What’s your most vivid childhood memory of him? You’ve been in the spotlight all your life, but who is the Real You? They demand he open up. This is the price of exchanging celebrity for power.
“I am the son of a politician. I am also the grandson of a politician,” he tells 30 people over breakfast at Gervais Restaurant in Sturgeon Falls. Then he waxes engagingly about Margaret’s father, James Sinclair, who served both as the MP for Vancouver North and as a flight lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1940 to 1944. He says his greatest memories of his father are of people approaching him and thanking him for the work he did. He brings up his years as a high-school teacher, his environmental activism, his youth advocacy. He talks about the battle to win the Bloc Québécois riding of Papineau. “This is me, warts and all,” he says. He hasn’t really mentioned any warts, but by this point it hardly matters. The crowd’s curiosity has been whetted, an emotional connection sealed.
It’s easy to be cynical about this exchange, but many who come to meet Justin have lived a part of their lives through him. Some have kids his age; some have parents who split; some lost a brother or a father; some have family members with mental illness. I remarked to Butts how draining such encounters must often be for Justin. He replied with a stark assessment. “How many other people have a whole country to lean on when their little brother dies?” he asked. “Justin is keenly aware of the position he’s in. A lot of people want him to do well. He is determined to do right by them.”
And for him to do well, he needs something in return. “My focus,” Justin tells me, “is on building a network across the country that the Liberal party can rely on for years to come.” It’s hard to overstate how different this is from anything his father ever did. “The party was a useful vehicle for my dad, but it was The Big Red Machine,” says Justin. “It wasn’t something he had to build or maintain.” It came with organizers and rainmakers and muckrakers whose tentacles reached into every corner of every riding.
Today the Liberals are a shadow of that former self, broken and broke, and Justin is the useful vehicle. Under any other leader, it could take the party a decade to rebuild, but it’s possible to imagine Justin pulling the rip cord on a functional Liberal engine by the time of the next election in 2015.