It is hard to imagine a better gift for Donald Trump than the one Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave him during that recent White House visit: a framed photograph of Trump and Pierre Trudeau on stage together at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in 1981.
For Trump, who expertly played the politics of nostalgia in the presidential campaign — you know, making America great again — the photo captures him in a heady time for U.S. Republicans, and an era that many American voters might regard as really great in retrospect.
In November 1981, Ronald Reagan’s first term as president was well under way: he’d already lowered taxes by 25 per cent, held a famous showdown with air-traffic controllers and appointed Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court. The sunny Reagan had even survived an assassination attempt in March 1981.
As for Pierre Trudeau, it was a pretty good time for the former prime minister, too. In fact, earlier on the very day that photograph was taken in New York on Nov. 5, 1981, Pierre Trudeau had signed a momentous deal with all provinces — except Quebec — to patriate the Canadian Constitution. Historians tend to describe this as a signature moment for Pierre Trudeau’s time in power, for good and for bad.
Many of those photographs Canadians have seen of the constitutional deal being reached — a smiling Pierre Trudeau, fingers in his belt loops, flanked by Jean Chrétien and other smiling cabinet ministers, for instance — were also snapped on Nov. 5, 1981.
In John English’s definitive biography of Pierre Trudeau, titled Just Watch Me, events later in the day are described this way:
“On the evening of November 5, while the anglophone premiers celebrated in Ottawa and René Lévesque returned, bitter and rejected to Quebec City, Pierre Trudeau flew to New York to accept the ‘Family of Man’ award for ‘international excellence.’”
English calls this night a turning point in Pierre Trudeau’s career, and maybe in the history of Canada, too.
“Trudeau’s departure marked the end of his intense focus on the Constitution and the beginning of his concentration on international issues,” he writes.
I don’t know whether Justin Trudeau or his staff were aware of the significance of the date and the occasion in the photo they dug up from the archives to give to the new U.S. president. I only stumbled across the coincidence while looking up what was going on in Canada and the United States roughly around the time the photograph was taken.
But it’s kind of fun to imagine what Trudeau the father might have said if someone told him that night that the man at the podium would some day be president of the United States, and that Trudeau’s own, eldest son, then just about to turn 10 years old, would be the prime minister who had to deal with this Trump fellow.
It’s also worth noting that the photo captures a moment — the very day — when Trudeau the elder turned his attention from domestic to international matters; a fixation that came in his final years of being prime minister.
Justin Trudeau, his son, in contrast, has seemed to be focused on international matters, especially those in the United States, from the minute he walked into office. Not long after his swearing-in to office in November 2015, Trudeau was immediately jetting around the world to foreign summits and he spent his early months in power sealing his relationship with Barack Obama with repeat visits and dinners.
For a while there last spring, it was almost easier to find Justin Trudeau in New York or Washington than it was in Ottawa. That’s another big difference between the two Trudeaus (and there are many more.)
In the midst of their current U.S. fixation, Justin Trudeau and his team have been looking for any and all ways to find common ground with the new Trump administration. They might want to add the politics of nostalgia to that list.
Though Justin Trudeau came to power with the help of lots of young voters who weren’t even alive when his father was in power, there is no question that some of his support also came from older Canadians, who wanted to make Canada great again — as great as they believed it was in the early 1980s when Pierre Trudeau was signing big constitutional deals. Political memories can be selective.
Trump said he’d be keeping the 1981 photo in a special place. Perhaps Justin Trudeau is keeping a copy too — not just as a memento of a big day in his dad’s life, but as a reminder that Trump and the Trudeaus, and political life itself, have moved in wildly unpredictable directions in the 35-plus years since the picture was snapped. Nostalgia’s not what it used to be.
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