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Ready for Tory attacks

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When you asked Pierre Elliott Trudeau a question that he thought was silly, he fixed his blue eyes on you and proceeded to demolish the premise of your inquiry -- disdainfully, often mischievously.

He got engaged only when intellectually challenged about matters close to his heart -- Quebec, the Constitution and, more broadly, the idea of Canada.

Like him or not, you delighted in having a public intellectual in charge of the public's business. The world didn't see his kind again until Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and now Barack Obama, though the latter works hard at hiding his intellect and beliefs.

Convictions Trudeau had aplenty, plus the confidence and courage to hurl them in the Socratic public square. His critics called it arrogance. But arrogant people are usually unpleasant -- he wasn't. Long after he left Ottawa, I asked a Mountie, a veteran of his security detail, which VIP he liked the most. He said: "Mr. Trudeau -- he was the most courteous."

This is reflected in stories that his son Justin, who was crowned leader of the Liberal Party of Canada on Sunday, shared on the campaign trail for the Liberal leadership.

Growing up at 24 Sussex Drive, he once dodged his RCMP minder to go biking. He was hauled on the carpet: "Dad says: 'Look, these guys have a job to do and you just made it a lot more difficult.' I never did that again." Another time, he and brothers Sasha and Michel were paraded before an officer they had nicknamed "Baldy," and told to address the gentleman by title and last name.

Justin Trudeau knows there's "history packed in my name. The danger and challenge for me is the perception that I'm running on name or image."

But there's little of the Oedipal complex, as in senior and junior Bush (with disastrous consequences for the latter's presidency -- and the world).

Susan Delacourt, the Star's senior political writer who has been tracking Trudeau since June, provides valuable insights in a beautifully written 20,000-word eread.

When he proposed to Sophie Gregoire, he did so on what would have been his father's 85th birthday, after both visited his grave. And on their wedding day in 2005, he drove her in his dad's famous 1960 Mercedes convertible. Her bouquet had a single red rose.

The son is far more tolerant of journalists than the father, despite our increasing fixation with trivia ("ah, great hair!"), staple of our Oprah-ized media.

He clearly has charisma -- filling halls as no politician has in recent times. He draws older progressives, as well as young and newer Canadians (the kind of coalition Obama built).

He is rebuilding the party from the grassroots up. The young are in command. Gone are the old Liberal operatives, masters of decades-long internecine party wars.

Unlike politicians who perform well on television but crumble under personal scrutiny, Trudeau does well on both fronts. At an editorial board grilling at the Star, he was more than charming.

He was self-assured, articulate and well-versed in our history and contemporary challenges: growing the economy and flowing the benefits to the denuded middle class; tackling growing inequality; restoring the faith of disengaged Canadians in government -- to avert a potential slide into Tea Party libertarianism; and avoiding flirting with Quebec nationalists, as had Brian Mulroney and as is Thomas Mulcair, and instead taking them on, as had his father.

He has grown since I first saw him open his campaign in Mississauga in October. He has made mistakes, such as saying that he was against the gun registry before he was not against it but not quite for it, either. But he seems ready to battle Stephen Harper, especially nasty Tory ads of the kind that destroyed Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion. He knows they are coming -- "there's something about me that makes them nutty." He hopes to respond to that Republican-like tactic with an Obama-like comeback -- with a twist.

"I am not someone who is unused to being attacked. I am fairly confident on a personal level that I can handle it. But on a party leader level... I am not going to sit back and let it come. But I am not going to respond with the same negative tone that Mr. Harper undoubtedly will employ -- not just for moral or ethical reasons but because I don't think it will work.

"The biggest difference between a party led by me and one by Stephen Harper will be one of tone, one of respect for Canadians and their intelligence. We don't have to play by his rules."

"I have talked to an awful lot of Liberals who are skittish and damaged by Conservative attacks, who want to hear from me, be reassured that I am going to hit back harder and faster and more directly back. I try and pull out my boxing metaphors to do that!

"I will respond in a way that will reassure Canadians about the difference in my approach and that of Stephen Harper."

In time for the October 2015 election, he says he will have presented detailed policies, at which point "the opposition taking potshots at me will have to decide whether to attack me for not having a policy position or articulating what it is that they agree or disagree with the positions that I'd have put out."

Haroon Siddiqui is the Toronto Star's editorial page editor emeritus.

--The Toronto Star

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 15, 2013 A9

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