Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Buoyed by the politics of hope

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I felt old the other day when I saw that big photo on the front page of Justin, his lovely and accomplished wife and his two small children. I thought: "Wow. This guy can hold two, struggling children at one time."

I worked for Justin's father when he was running for leadership of the federal Liberal party. His people wanted me to work full-time on communications. But I said no because I had just started a new job in the private sector. We settled on part-time.

My first Trudeau assignment arose when he came to Toronto to visit the annual meeting of the Ontario Liberal party. At a reception, my wife, always feisty, told me she was going to walk up and kiss Trudeau. OK, I thought, I can use that. I know what you're thinking: This PR guy will do anything for a picture.

I looked around and saw the Toronto Star photographer, whom I knew from my days at the Star. He looked a little lost because he usually worked in the dark room.

"Stand here," I told him, "and watch that woman. She's going to kiss Trudeau."

"How do you know?" he asked.

"She's my wife," I replied.

He gave me a look that said: "Ford, you're one of the Mad Men."

He got the picture. In it, my wife looks like she's just been shot with a super-large cartridge of bliss juice. The picture ran across five columns on the Star's front page. And Trudeaumania was born. Suddenly, everyone wanted to kiss Pierre.

Never underestimate the power of a good still photo.

In addition to charisma, Justin and his dad share another characteristic: the politics of hope. Justin, like Pierre, talks about change, better times for most of us, and happy days. He hasn't trotted out too many specific policies.

And he's smart not to do so. Sure, the Conservatives will say: "Where are his policies?" And this demand will he echoed by the nation's editorial writers.

Ignore them. After too many years in politics -- either as a journalist or a back-room boy -- I'm convinced most people are not interested in specific policies. They know the world is constantly changing. What they want to know is this: does the candidate have a personality that can react quickly and surely to manage change.

The world is going through massive changes, thanks to globalization and technological change. People know no one can come up with policies that are guaranteed to work five years from now. The only people who think they can are raving ideologues. Most people are pragmatists -- if a program works carry on; if it doesn't, scrap it.

Voters are more interested in what politicians do than what they promise to do. That's why the Tory TV ads attacking Justin Trudeau are important. They are nasty and distorted and suggest Trudeau is not ready to be PM. They have been much criticized because they come at a time when bullying is in deep disrepute. Some people thought Trudeau gained more than he lost from the ads.

Justin, however, has confused matters because of his first reaction to the horror of the Boston Marathon bombing. He said society should look for root causes; he didn't mention bringing those responsible to justice. Some commentators were furious. The Globe and Mail's Lawrence Martin said Trudeau floated like a butterfly, stung like a pillow.

I'm not sure. We must deal with crime and terrorism at their roots. Winnipeg's police chief, Devon Clunis, has made this point several times. The work of police is not enough by itself to rid us of crime. It may not have been "politic" to remind us of this right after an horrific explosion. But I don't think his comment caused him any long-term damage. Certainly, his TV ad answering the Tory attack ads is on firmer ground.

One reason the politics of hope is powerful is that it is related to the world's great religions. They've been talking generally about a better hereafter for centuries. The reason they can continue to talk about hope is that no one ever comes back from the dead to say: "You know what? I didn't like it that much. And it cost too much."

Earthly politicians, on the other hand, only get one shot at the politics of hope. Barack Obama, in his first U.S. presidential campaign, talked about hope. A few months after he was elected, the atmosphere soured. He couldn't produce the emotion he promised. No one could.

Shortly after the elder Trudeau became prime minister, it was apparent his people were in trouble. His team bogged down. Politics on the inside is a lot more difficult than from the outside. As one senior official told me, "By not promising anything specific to anyone, Trudeau promised everything to everybody." No government can exist like that. Government is about making choices. Make a choice and you please some people, anger others.

But right now Justin is at Stage 1: getting to know you. When you danced for the first time with a new partner at a community club's last dance, you didn't tell them about your hernia. No, you wanted them to get to know you. You weren't as interested in discussing your 20-page to-do list.

Sure, if Justin becomes prime minister, we'll pay for it.

But then we always do -- whoever is elected.

Tom Ford is writing a book about five generations of his Prairie family.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 J11

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