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A lion in winter stalking Canada's Mulroney

Since leaving office, Pierre Trudeau has effectively stayed out of politics. But now the once-flamboyant premier is expected to emerge from the shadows to fight constitutional reforms.

March 24, 1992|By Mary Williams Walsh | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

TORONTO — Talk about the Invisible Hand.

In the late 1960s, Canada was swept by "Trudeaumania"--a "mysterious force . . . that had something to do with sexuality," as two authors who lived through the phenomenon recall it.

Canada, a country not given to electing flamboyant leaders, had made as its prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, one of the most driven, self-assured, combative and intellectually compelling heads of government any of the modern Western democracies had ever seen.

The Jesuit-educated, bilingual Trudeau campaigned for office in bathing trunks, alternating coolly Cartesian speeches with trampoline back flips and jackknife dives into swimming pools. As prime minister he hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono, dated Barbra Streisand and dispensed advice to the likes of Henry A. Kissinger, John Kenneth Galbraith and Andre Malraux.

He married a woman young enough to be his daughter and then some. His early public appearances elicited hysterical screams from miniskirted teen-agers.

"My goodness, Pierre is like a Beatle!" exclaimed his sister, Suzette Rouleau.

He had everything his American counterpart, Richard M. Nixon, didn't have--and a resentful Nixon can be heard, even today, trying to dismiss Trudeau with an anatomically rude epithet in the White House tapes released during the Watergate era. ("I've been called worse things by better people," Trudeau said after the tape transcripts were published.)

In all that he said and did, Trudeau celebrated a strong, centralized, federalist vision of Canada. Some Canadians loved him for it; others came to view him with emotions that stand out in the annals of hatred. But throughout his 15 years in office, even those who despised him were grudgingly proud to have him represent their country before the world.

"Trudeau had his charms, not the least of them the delicious wickedness many Canadians felt because they had dared to elect such a fabulous smart-ass as prime minister," recalls Peter C. Newman, a business columnist at McLean's magazine.

"No other country could boast of a leader who slid down a banister at summit meetings, yelled an obscenity in French to striking mail truck drivers, who could skin dive, high dive, ride a unicycle, earn a brown belt in judo and be voted 'the world's seventh-sexiest man' by London's Daily Sketch."

Those were the 1960s and '70s. But this is 1992--a crisis year for Canada. The province of Quebec is poised to secede, threatening to undo the very federalist dream that Trudeau devoted his political life to. And so Canadian federalists are waiting now, counting on Trudeau to do something, to defend his life's work and save the country.

At first glance, it would seem a slender hope.

Since retiring from politics in 1984, Trudeau has shown little outward inclination to influence national affairs. He spends his days practicing law at a minor Montreal firm, rarely dealing directly with clients and never--God forbid--setting foot in court. He refuses to give interviews. Friends say that--unlike most retired politicians--he never talks about the years gone by. They say he is a happy and fulfilled man, with no interest whatsoever in making a political comeback.

Trudeaumania, it would seem, is a thing of the distant past. (To the delight of the nation, the now-divorced Trudeau did father a baby out of wedlock last year, at age 71--but more on that later.)

"His party is out of power, debt-ridden and divided," writers Stephen Clarkson and Christina McCall note in their book, "Trudeau and Our Times."

"His entourage has shrunk to a few loyalists. . . . His liberal interventionist ideas have been out of fashion for at least a decade. His vision of a Canadian federalist Utopia has been shattered. . . . There is no big money backing him. . . ."

But look again.

Even from the sidelines, seemingly without the slightest effort, Trudeau still manages to shape Canadian political events as no other person can. There may no longer be Trudeaumania, but there is certainly a powerful, behind-the-scenes Trudeau pull.

"He haunts us still," say Clarkson and McCall.

Consider just a few of the ways in which Canadians have shown their yearning for their departed leader:

-- In 1990, Trudeau co-edited a book--not his long-awaited memoirs but a collection of essays on what must be one of the most plodding topics on Earth: the Canadian government. It topped the bestseller lists for months.

-- Polls repeatedly show that if Trudeau were to run for election today, he would sweep the country--even in Quebec, where Francophone nationalists regard him as a traitor to their cause. And even though there isn't a prayer of a chance of a Trudeau candidacy.

-- Last November, Liberal Party pols refused to let Trudeau show his face at a party fund-raiser, for fear that the slightest glimpse of the famous retiree would send television crews scurrying toward him, stealing the limelight from them.

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