Entries from March 2000

Pierre Trudeau: A Great Man, But A Catastrophic Prime Minister.

David Frum March 10th, 2000 at 12:00 am Comments Off

On the day in 1979 when he retired from politics for the first time, Pierre Trudeau ordered his vintage Mercedes sports car to be wheeled up to the door of Canada’s prime ministerial residence. A mob of reporters waited for him. As he stepped toward the car’s gull-winged door, one reporter shouted: “Mr. Trudeau! Any regrets?” He turned, gazed at the assembled press, and replied: “Yes. I regret I won’t have you to kick around any more.”

Trudeau, who died last week — and whose state funeral is today — was not a man to traffic in false compliments or sentiments. His disdain for cant was perhaps his greatest virtue, equaled only by his personal courage. Indeed, that courage won him his first and greatest political victory. On June 24, 1968, the day before Trudeau’s first national election, Canadian television viewers watched Montreal’s St. Jean Baptiste parade — an annual celebration of Quebec nationalism — erupt in violence. Every dignitary on the reviewing stand leapt for cover — except for Pierre Trudeau. As bottles and rocks flew past him, he held his ground, glaring at the rioters. The next day, his Liberal Party won 58.7% of the vote in the federal election.

Trudeau scoffed at the politician’s easy arts. When he imposed martial law on Quebec in 1970 after two terrorist kidnappings, detaining without warrant more than 500 people, a journalist asked him how far he was prepared to go. “Just watch me,” Trudeau replied.

If Trudeau’s steely indifference to popularity was his most impressive characteristic, his deeply rooted distaste for liberty was his worst. His government made it a crime to sell gasoline by the gallon and meat by the pound, and then jailed anti-metric recalcitrants. Almost by instinct, he gravitated toward the world’s dictators and despots. He attended an international conference in Moscow a year before the death of Stalin and published, in 1968, an admiring book about Mao Tse-Tung’s China. As prime minister, he toasted Fidel Castro and refused to muster even a perfunctory condemnation of the December 1981 crackdown in Poland.

Ideologically, Trudeau was not so much a socialist (he never showed much zeal for the redistribution of incomes) as a dirigiste.Trudeau created a new federal agency with power to scrutinize and disallow foreign investments in Canada, and through complex systems of incentives and subsidies tried to direct even domestic investment. He established a state oil company, and then later attempted to confiscate one-fourth of all foreign oil holdings in Canada.

It is ironic that a leader who trusted so much to the state should be remembered in Canada as a great champion of individualism. Trudeau owes that reputation to his 1982 Charter of Rights, a series of amendments to Canada’s 1867 Constitution.

But the Canadian charter offers relatively weak protection against the power of government; what it vindicates instead is the ability of some citizens to make claims against other citizens, claims that can only be upheld by a larger and more intrusive government. The right to speak and to worship is carefully limited; the right to property is not protected at all; but the right to welfare is guaranteed and Section 15 (2) subordinates the right to equal treatment by law to the needs of “disadvantaged groups” for special favors.

The charter is one of Trudeau’s two most enduring legacies to his country. The other is debt. Trudeau administered his country’s finances with what can only be described as recklessness. Although he cut military spending to the second-lowest level of any North Atlantic Treaty Organization government (only Luxembourg spent less relative to its economy), the federal government was spending $140 for every $100 it received in revenue when he left office for good in 1984.

By the time the debt ceased to grow, Canada was distinguished by the worst debt-to-GDP revenue of any major economy this side of Italy. And while Trudeau’s old cabinet colleague, Jean Chretien, would eventually bring the books back into balance, this accomplishment was achieved by means of crushing taxes, a collapse in the value of the Canadian dollar to as little as 65 U.S. cents from 90 cents, the exodus of tens of thousands of the country’s most highly skilled workers, and the most prolonged slump since the 1930s.

Trudeau is recognized by admirer and critic alike as the most important Canadian prime minister of the 20th century. Oddly, though, his influence has been felt least on the one subject he cared most about: national unity.

Trudeau came to power in April 1968, promising that Quebec nationalism could be squelched once and for all if English-speaking Canadians would only jettison those national symbols that reminded Quebeckers of the country’s ties to Britain and if the French language were elevated to equal status with English.

Trudeau’s bargain failed to satisfy French-Canadians. Federalists won the 1995 referendum on secession by a margin of only 50,000 votes out of five million cast. Some 60% of Quebec’s French speakers voted for independence. English-Canadians, in turn, feel great bitterness over what they see as Quebec’s ingratitude. Although separatist feeling has subsided since 1995, Quebec remains attached to Canada the way a rotten tooth dangles in the gum: It would take only one unexpected tumble to knock it right out.

Trudeau was a great man: valiant, fearless and devoid of any kind of pettiness. But he was a catastrophic prime minister — indeed one of the most catastrophic figures to come to power in any Western country since 1945. Sixty thousand Canadians turned out over the weekend to pay their last respects to his bier. If he could see them, though, it’s a good guess that he’d be musing a final time about that one last regret of his.

Gore Isn’t As Strong As He Looks

David Frum March 8th, 2000 at 12:00 am Comments Off

One of the things that makes America great is its old tradition of admiring underdogs and despising losers. Poor Bill Bradley has made the transition from the first to the second at near-record speed.

The professional second-guessers are already chastising Mr. Bradley for a long list of mistakes. They complain he went too far left with his health-insurance proposals, while his endless ruminations about “white-skin privilege” threatened to turn a Bradley presidency into a four-year-long transcontinental version of the race-and-”gender” orientation sessions forced on college freshmen.

This is fair so far as it goes: Mr. Bradley did run an awful campaign. But the noteworthy thing is not that Mr. Bradley lost, but that he managed to mount a serious challenge at all.

Every election is a referendum on the simple question: More of the same? Or something new? By every conventional measure — peace, prosperity, domestic stability, crime — 2000 should be one of the strongest more-of-the-same years on record: stronger than 1988, stronger arguably even than 1964. Al Gore should have been able to lock up all the Democratic money he needed by Christmas, scare off all serious potential challengers and then glide to the nomination as effortlessly as Hillary Clinton in New York state.

Instead, a senator with an undistinguished record and an unappealing manner managed to raise $20 million to challenge Mr. Gore, and then came within four points of besting him in New Hampshire. And although Mr. Gore has now beaten off that near-debacle, he continues to trail George W. Bush in almost every opinion survey. His troubles in a year that should have been all smooth sailing remind us of a truth that too often gets obscured: the abiding weakness of the Democratic party.

Tom Wolfe tells a story about sharing a platform with a famous German writer at an American university in the late 1960s. The writer announced: “The dark night of fascism is falling on the United States!” Mr. Wolfe replied with a question: “Why is it that the dark night of fascism is always falling on the United States, but always landing in Europe?”

An analogous question could be asked about the news coverage of the two parties. For all that we hear about the fabled “issue map” favoring the Democrats, they in fact have owed their presidential successes in the 1990s less to any increase in their own strength than to Republican dissension. Despite a rip-roaring economy, after all, Bill Clinton won a smaller share of the vote in 1996 than Jimmy Carter did in 1976.

Since George Bush pere violated his antitax pledge, the U.S. has been in effect a three-party system: Democrats, regular Republicans and dissident Republicans. Many of the last group deserted their party for Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, leaving the Democrats the plurality party — for the moment. They have not yet succeeded in regaining their pre-1968 majority, despite the most favorable circumstances.

Imagine, for instance, that the economic conditions of 1996 had prevailed in 1992. What percentage of the vote would George Bush have got? At least as much as he got in 1988, and probably more: upward, in other words, of 54% and maybe close to the 58.4% Ronald Reagan won in 1984. Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, did not manage to pass the 50% mark. And that was before his reputation was indelibly stained by the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In the end that scandal may prove more consequential than Watergate: Watergate delayed but did not halt the Republican realignment of the 1970s. The Lewinsky scandal, which has elevated ethics and morality into first place on voters’ list of concerns, may turn out to have wrecked whatever hopes the Democrats had of transforming Americans’ positive feelings about the Clinton years into support for Mr. Clinton’s party.

Now, nobody should close the betting books early on this election. This will be an even stronger pro-incumbent party year than 1996. And while Al Gore may be a robotic, condescending race-baiter whose pockets are stuffed with illegal foreign donations, a 4% unemployment rate and a 10000 Dow Jones Industrial Average can turn even the slimiest frog into a prince.

Mr. Gore is especially lucky that an unexpected primary contest has caused his opponent to burn through in the first two months of the election year the money that was supposed to have lasted him till November — with the result that at exactly the moment when the George W. Bush master plan calls for pivoting leftward, the Republican candidate will instead be televised hobnobbing with banquet halls full of millionaires. Mr. Gore has the advantage, too, of being able to link English words into sentences without any of the alarming squeals and crashes you hear when Mr. Bush tries to bang them together.

And yet, despite all these advantages, in a year when Mr. Gore ought to have been laughing his way to certain election, he found himself ominously vulnerable to an awkward, inept challenger from the far-left fringes of American politics. Despite an allegedly unpopular impeachment, his party has zero hope of retaking the Senate and not much more of regaining the House. So let him celebrate his triumph of last night — he’s still a weak candidate from a weak party who stands only one Federal Reserve rate hike away from losing an election that ought to have been wrapped up with the first-quarter unemployment statistics.