Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Political apples mostly fall far from the tree

Justin Trudeau's reach for the brass ring of power a rarity among children of leaders

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While this might be an unfair rush to judgment, it is tough to believe that someday historians will write of Justin Trudeau's legacy that "he haunts us still" -- as Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson wrote in their biography of Justin's famous father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. It is even tougher to believe, at least at the present time, that someday Justin will be the prime minister of Canada.


Nonetheless, in the few days since he has announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Liberal party, Justin Trudeau has received front-page coverage, not only across Canada, but around the world. Typical was this headline of a Reuter's wire story in The National, the chief English-language publication in Abu Dhabi, Pierre Trudeau's son makes Canada Liberal party leadership bid.

That nicely sums up the pros and cons of being the son of a political legend: No matter what Justin Trudeau does in his life, he will always be Pierre Trudeau's son, and, fair or not, will be measured against his father's accomplishments. Indeed, if the elder Trudeau haunts anyone, it is his first-born son, Justin.

On the positive side is the media attention Justin and the besieged Liberals have received. No other candidate, with the possible exception of Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of Canada, who has already said he is not in the running for the Liberal leadership, would have obtained such coverage.

On the negative is that many of the columns and editorials so far have been highly critical of Justin's lack of experience and his lack of specifics on how precisely he would return the Liberals to power.

These rebukes ignore the fact Pierre Trudeau had only been an MP for three years before he became Liberal party leader and prime minister; Justin has been an MP for four years.

And, though it is true Pierre Trudeau, a Montreal law professor and journalist, entered politics as a novice, he quickly made a name for himself, revealing his intellect and charisma, as the minister of justice in the government of Lester Pearson. Due to circumstances beyond his control that prime ministerial apprenticeship is not available to Justin.

Justin Trudeau's baptism by fire is likely the reason why so few children of prime ministers or American presidents have tried to emulate their famous fathers.

"Don't you think that it handicaps a boy to be the son of a man like my father, and especially have the same name," said Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the son of the 26th U.S. president. "Don't you know there can never be another Theodore Roosevelt?"

Young Roosevelt was no slacker, however. He was a successful businessman and served in public office as the assistant-secretary of the navy, a job also held at one time by his father, as well as being the governor of Puerto Rico and the governor-general of the Philippines.

Still, he was known to be reckless, which probably contributed to his death from a heart attack when he was 56.

Of the 65 children (not counting several who died as infants) belonging to the 17 Canadian prime ministers, only four others beside Justin Trudeau have gone into politics -- Hugh John Macdonald, Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper and his brother William Tupper, and Jean-Paul St. Laurent.

Trudeau is the one and only prime ministerial offspring to even think of leading a political party and becoming prime minister.

Of the more than 130 children of U.S. presidents, many have been members of congress, but only two -- John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams, and George W. Bush, the son of George H.W. Bush -- have become president.

For the most part, the burden of a political father has been heavy.

Hugh John Macdonald, the only son of Sir John A. Macdonald, the country's first prime minister had by all accounts a miserable relationship with his gregarious father. Hugh was the son of Sir John's first wife Isabella. When Isabella, who was ill for most of her marriage, died in 1857, Hugh, 7, was sent to live with John A.'s sister Margaret, who Hugh sometimes referred to as mother. For much of his early years, as John A. dedicated every waking minute to his political career and the establishment of Canada, Hugh saw his father intermittently.

Later, Hugh worked with John A. as a lawyer, but tried to distance himself from him. As Richard Gwyn relates in his recent biography of John A. Macdonald, it was only in the last year of John A.'s life, when Hugh was elected to the House of Commons as a MP for Winnipeg and was proudly escorted into the chamber by his father, the prime minister, that father and son reconciled.

Hugh left federal politics to become the leader of the Manitoba Conservative Party and served briefly as premier of the province in late 1899-1900.

Another biographer has pointed out Hugh maintained a "distaste for public life" and a "determination to elude the shadow of his illustrious father."

At the same time, though the press was vehemently partisan in those days as it was well into the 1950s, Hugh John Macdonald's political abilities, nor the abilities of the Tupper sons or Louis St. Laurent's son Jean-Paul were major issues. That probably would have changed had any of them gone after the leadership of their respective parties.

Justin Trudeau must confront and possibly embrace his father's successes and failures. It was impossible to be neutral about Pierre Trudeau. He was adored and hated, often simultaneously. Nonetheless, his policies reshaped the country, Canada's relationship with Quebec, and through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the relationship of Canadians with their government and the law.

Expectations for Justin are thus naturally high and the critique of his leadership potential has been sharp and pointed.

Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of an assassinated president, John F. Kennedy, faced the same intense scrutiny, while George W. Bush, the son of a one-term mediocre president did not.

In late 2008, Caroline Kennedy indicated her intent to seek the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who became secretary of state. Kennedy might be a bright and diligent lawyer, author, and philanthropist, but she was completely out of her depth as a politician. Not the least of her problems was a widely reported television interview in which in the span of 30 minutes she used the phrase "you know" 168 times. She dropped out of the race a month-and-a-half later.

Justin Trudeau (perhaps) stands at the precipice of power. He is there partly due to his own initiative and capabilities and partly due to the fact he is the son of one of the most influential leaders in Canadian history.

His father Pierre has got him to the door, it remains to be seen whether Justin can walk through it.


Now & Then is a column in which Winnipeg historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in an historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 13, 2012 J11

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