I'll be in Ottawa later this week to address Preston Manning's annual jamboree. And, although I'm looking forward to it, it's a melancholy reflection that nothing I or anybody else says will matter very much if enough Canadians make the decision that what they're looking for in a prime minister is just a pretty face. I've learned not to underestimate Justin Trudeau since he beat Tory senator Patrick Brazeau in that boxing match he was supposed to be humiliated in. Two years later, young Justin is inching toward the top of the greasy pole as Liberal Party leader, while Senator Brazeau is wiping down the greasy pole of an Ottawa strip club called BareFax, where he is currently employed as day manager.
The other day M Trudeau was on a Quebec TV show of somewhat forced jollity called "Tout le monde en parle" - "Everybody's talking about it." And for once everybody did talk about it. Justin was asked about the situation in Ukraine. "It's very disconcerting," he said. "Particularly since Russia lost in hockey during the Olympics, Russia will be in a bad mood. We are afraid of a Russian intervention in Ukraine."
The host, Guy A Lepage, didn't quite get the joke. "Only because of hockey?" he asked. Justin explained that he was trying to bring a little levity to the subject.
The Tories know an opportunity when they see one. Jason Kenney Tweeted that "Justin Trudeau, whose favourite regime is 'the basic dictatorship of China,' thinks the deadly crisis in Ukraine is a laughing matter". All good political knockabout, but the Ukrainian Ambassador was devastating:
"You have to be extremely careful when you talk about 82 people who died fighting … for their future and everyone's in danger," Prystaiko said. "[Trudeau's] just sitting in a nice room, and talking about things in such a light manner; it's just inappropriate."
Justin has been "just sitting in a nice room" all his life. Nevertheless, dear old Warren Kinsella gives it the old college try in a column headlined, "When has saying dumb stuff ever been an impediment to political office?"
Ronald Reagan used to be called dumb, too, but he did alright, didn't he? Handily won the presidency twice, and he remains revered by conservatives as the greatest-ever communicator...
Reagan was a Hollywood actor; Trudeau was a drama teacher. Like Reagan, Trudeau has a fondness for the dramatic and (occasionally) melodramatic. Too much flair, too much theatre, can be dangerous in politics. It can leave voters wondering about your authenticity.
But for both Reagan and Trudeau, the dramatic flourishes attracts many more voters than it repels.
The Republican leader and the Liberal leader have an affinity for a slightly hokey style of politics, too, one that always favours pictures to the written word. It's a style that is steeped in the power of symbolism...
Mostly, however, Reagan and Trudeau share this: they do not profess to be intellectuals. Trudeau has gone out of his way to suggest that he isn't one.
Watching Pierre Trudeau's eldest son give a convention speech on Saturday, I thought – as I often do – about Ronald Reagan. Their respective ideologies could not be more dissimilar, of course. But in other respects, Reagan and the younger Trudeau sometimes seem cut from the same cloth.
Good grief. For one thing, Reagan loved the written word. For decades before he became president, he wrote his own speeches. And they stand up pretty well. Here's a TV show in which Rob Long and I spend an hour discussing a half-century-old Reagan speech made when he was still trying to break into politics. I can't see anybody doing that with any early Justin Trudeau speeches circa 2060.
But put aside the serious stuff and just compare the gags. Reagan told jokes all his life. I quoted a famous one in America Alone, the one about the American telling the Russian that in the United States everyone is free to make jokes about the president. "Same in my country," says the Soviet. "In Russia everyone is free to make jokes about your president."
Another one he liked to tell:
It's hard to get a car in the Soviet Union. They're mostly for the nomenklatura. Everyone else has to pay up in advance and then wait years. So the guy does that, and the dealer tells him, "Okay, your car will be ready in ten years' time."
"Morning or afternoon?" asks the customer.
"What difference does it make?" says the dealer.
"Well, the plumber's coming in the morning."
Okay, one more:
The Commissar for Collective Farms asks the farmer how the harvest is going.
"Oh, comrade commissar! If we piled up all the potatoes, they would reach the foot of God!"
The commissar rebukes him sternly. "Comrade farmer, this is the Soviet Union. There is no God."
"That's okay," says the farmer. "There are no potatoes."
What's the difference between Reagan's jokes and Trudeau's? Reagan used jokes to illuminate the Soviet condition - the bureaucratic sclerosis, the inefficiency, the agreed lies... By comparison, Trudeau's jest about Russian hockey and the Kiev bloodbath isn't really a joke at all, is it? That's to say, it doesn't illuminate anything about Ukraine.
But it does, I think, tell you a little something about Justin Trudeau - that Ukraine isn't quite real for him, that he can't really conceive of what it's like to be, say, a guy like him - a drama teacher maybe - in Kiev and to want the same rights Justin takes for granted and to be willing to take to the streets to demand them and risk being gunned down. So Justin tells a silly joke about the Russians being mad at losing the hockey - and adds insult to a multitude of injuries. Reagan's gags are about the aspirations of ordinary people; Trudeau can't even seem to comprehend that they might have aspirations.
It's an empathy deficiency - by which I don't mean the fake claims to empathy that I'm sure even Trudeau can do, but the absence of the real thing, which is in their peculiar heartlessness what so many of his throwaway lines have in common. He is a man who has spent his life, as Ambassador Prystaiko put it, just sitting in a nice room - and he cannot quite imagine life outside it.
~Mark speaks in Ottawa this Saturday at the Manning Networking Conference