What does Justin Trudeau's role in the wake of his father's death says about the state of our national newspapers and the state of our national identity?
Having arrived fairly recently at the pinnacle of Canadian not-celebrity-the Globe cover photo depicted the young man on a snowy crest of a British Columbian peak-the eldest son of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau clearly enjoys one of the perks of being someone who merits media attention simply for being (like Everest) there. From the platform of his recent and indisputable national fame-which was confirmed by the 29-year-old private-school teacher’s showstopping live-television eulogy for his father-he can dismiss being famous.
“Personally, I’m not relishing being in the limelight,” said the young man in the Globe’s “Saturday Essay,” but who nevertheless appeared on the front page, posed with studied casualness against a stirring Pacific coast backdrop of mountain and sky. After noting a certain “search for meaning and value and symbols at the beginning of the 21st century-a hunger for heroes, for icons,” Trudeau later admitted: “I’m someone who can garner a lot of attention and draw a crowd of reporters and get a lot of publicity. But I don’t want to, I don’t like it.”
Needless to say, it summoned deep reserves of empathy not to be dumbstruck by the hollowness and contradictory whimsy of the “Saturday Essay” author’s prescriptive diagnosis of our ailing world. Moreover, the essay made it powerfully tempting to reconsider the elder Trudeau’s real motivations for keeping his family so strictly beyond the reach of media attention. When Mr. Trudeau the elder-definitely another era’s sort of celebrity-had nothing to say, he usually refrained from saying it.
Besides, to be fair, it’s not Justin’s fault. It is not, strictly speaking anyway, a sin to be naive, idealistic, privileged, contradictory or shallow. Besides, Justin didn’t go alone to that mountaintop to pose with such artful poise, and he did not utter those shuddery inanities about being a “cultural resistance worker” (in a private school!) and being “passionate about politics because I’m passionate about life” unprompted. Like all shows, this one had a producer.
Depending on your degree of intestinal fortitude, the millennial-era newspaper business in Canada has either provided a spectacle of intoxicating amusement or nauseating toxicity. Either way, one cannot understand the presence of the otherwise utterly unremarkable Mr. Trudeau on the front of “Canada’s National Newspaper” without taking certain of these conditions into account.
To begin with, he is, of course, the eldest son of one of this country’s most magnetic and enigmatic public figures, and it does not hurt his newsworthiness that he was kept beyond reach of media scrutiny while his father was alive. It also suits the surging and sorry little dynastic pretensions that have obtained editorially in the now-competitive “national newspaper” sweepstakes.
Now that the Globe is in the uncustomary position of competing for that status with millennial-upstart the National Post, the former has apparently adopted the latter’s nostalgic, self-colonizing editorial fondness for the scions of the nation’s powerful and wealthy, as well as the apparent conviction that people with certain status-particularly fiscal or media status-are worthy of filling columns whether or not they have anything compelling to say.
That is why the pages of these newspapers so often seem like joshy men’s-club reunions of the 1970s Canadian media elite-or beyond-the-grave Morningside panel discussions-and why the country just seems that much smaller and sadder every time you start your day with one of these wheezing organs of “national” interest. This also accounts for the branded predisposition for “name” celebrities and columnists in these papers: it creates a reassuring sense of quasi-aristocratic legacy, of inherited continuity, in a country-the elder Trudeau’s country-otherwise in a state of apparent evaporation.
At any rate, with his father no longer there to run interference between himself and his family, the young Trudeau is fair (and apparently eager) game. Moreover, Justin Trudeau provided the climactic capper to his father’s lavishly covered funeral. When he laid his head down on the coffin after saying that headline-friendly “Je t’aime, Papa,” I doubt there was a newspaper in the country that could resist running the shot.
Besides, as well as an image of considerable sentimental density, Justin Trudeau’s embracing of his father’s coffin was one that efficiently wrapped the particular tone and trajectory of the coverage of Pierre Trudeau’s death, which often seemed as much a guilty lament for a mortgaged national idea as it was an honour to a fallen statesman. To the largely boomer-driven Canadian media, many of the more influential members of which had come of age beneath the long, gunslinging shadow of Trudeau, but who could see nothing left of his contemporary political legacy save for a nostalgic video loop of collective memories, the death of the Beatle-positive PM was merely the latest in a rattling series of blows to what once passed for sovereign national experience.
The Trudeau funeral coverage was as much a eulogy for a receding sense of national certainty as the memorializing of a particular national figure-a figure, we must not forget, who maintained a regime of arm’s-length media inscrutability since leaving public life. But it was also a spasm of expiation: for guilt in a certain collusion in the dismantling of Trudeau’s national vision, of playing a role in the bottom-line, anti-sovereigntist selling out of Trudeau’s national vision. Thus, one could experience the not-entirely-unironic spectacle of seeing Pierre so swooningly sent off by two papers that share the conservative, business-oriented editorial inclination that has systematically tried to dismantle the Trudeauvian dream of an economically and culturally sovereign Canadian state.
In this context, Justin’s eulogy was also an act of absolution: by playing so willingly and so heartrendingly for the camera, he forgave us of our sense of having abandoned his father and the country he imagined, he reassured us of our faith in celebrity culture by responding so spectacularly to its demands, and he closed the gap his father had so vigilantly maintained between himself and the world: he hugged the coffin on our behalf. Moreover, he pointed to a Canadian future with a Trudeau in it, but not the vaguely condescending, somewhat intimidating Trudeau of the past, but one better suited to the demands of the national present: a more reasonable, less political Trudeau. A Trudeau who admits to not reading newspapers or watching the news, and who, in his frankly expressed indifference to the tiresome details of politics, but who endorses the, you know, idea of political involvement, represents a most contemporary refutation of precisely the kind of figure his father-who withdrew from the public frame when his public function expired-so uncompromisingly stood for. A Trudeau for our times-times of dewey national nostalgia, stale-dated “celebrity” columnists and small-minded dynastic pretensions-which is to say a Trudeau in name only.
But there he is on the mountaintop anyway: a Trudeau who plays the media game like someone truly born to it, and a shunner of celebrity who does his shunning on the record. A Trudeau who may not move any mountains, but who will generously enough perch on top of one for front-page photographic purposes. Surely his column must start soon.
by Geoff Pevere
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.