I was trolling youtube at lunchtime today and found this video of Pierre Trudeau speaking with reporters after declaring martial law in October of 1970 – the famous “just watch me” moment. A few things strike me about this. The first thing is the relative sparseness of the reporters – there are only a few at most. This creates a real conversation between Trudeau and the reporters which we do not see in the days of organized press conferences, scrums, and cold press releases. Secondly, they are just standing there, chatting with him, right next to him with no obvious security detail in the frame. There are RCMP officers nearby, but they do not hulk over his shoulder or attempt to stand between him and the reporters. It makes the conversation more intimate and personal, as if they were old acquaintances talking about any old thing of interest.
And finally, Trudeau was confident enough in his decisions and his own intelligence to involve the reporters in a real debate – he puts them on the defensive by answering them and then turning the questions back on them. Keep in mind that this surface calm came a time of real national crisis, during which he made a decision to declare martial law, which if memory serves is the only time this has ever been done in this country. Involving the reporters in the conversation both makes the conversation more democratic and gives his comments more authority; he has made a decision to do something, and they can provide nothing better.
Sure he was arrogant and sometimes obnoxious, but here standing with a few reporters he’s calm, intelligent, and it sounds as if he’s interested in scoring debate points with the reporters, not creating sound bites for an electoral ad later on. Our modern politicians appear more like forced, wooden blowhards in comparison, trying to win elections with every vocalization, as if every single utterance was carefully crafted by a contract PR-team, tested by focus groups and rehearsed prima donna-like, staring into the bathroom mirror, head craning around to catch glimpses from different angles.
Something about this clip makes me think that something important to democracy has been lost in the last 36 years, and I’m not quite sure what that is. I’m not talking about Trudeau himself, though I think he was a great PM, I’m thinking more about the setting. Thoughts?