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"Just watch me."

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?

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7 thoughts on “"Just watch me."

  1. I’d heard somewhere (have to search around for the link) that Trudeau asked the reporters to keep pressing him on the martial law issue so that he could look tough for the Anglos. It was unsubstantiated, but it wouldn’t surprise me. So perhaps what you’re seeing in that clip is a carefully crafted show rather than a spontaneous conversation between journalists and the Prime Minister.

    Also, this statement is something of a fallacy: he has made a decision to do something, and they can provide nothing better. Basically, the arguement contained within goes like this:

    1. We must do something.
    2. This is something.
    Therefore, 3. We must do this.

    #3 is not proven.

    But I’ll admit to a strong dislike for Trudeau. Trudeau’s authoritarian leadership style provoked a lot of what’s wrong in Alberta and Quebec today, so as an Albertan, I could never let him off the hook for that. He may not have realized it at the time, but his actions continue to pay dividends to the extreme right.

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  2. I’d heard somewhere (have to search around for the link) that Trudeau asked the reporters to keep pressing him on the martial law issue so that he could look tough for the Anglos. It was unsubstantiated, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

    So, potentially false but nevertheless true? I don’t know about everyone else, but I don’t seem to remember this much useless speculation in political discourse during the Trudeau era. Maybe that’s what we’ve lost. Actual substance in political discussion.

    Some people’s dislike of Trudeau borders on the irrational. They should really look into that.

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  3. Fascinating clip. I’ve seen the last few seconds of it, but I don’t know that I’ve listened to the whole thing.

    I think part of the difference in style is the times but mostly it’s just Trudeau, and that’s partly why he was so popular. I went to Question Period in 1980 or thereabouts and afterwards Trudeau came out and stood by the door for at least half an hour chatting about anything with whoever wanted to approach him.

    As to his handling of the FLQ crisis, I was around then and the War Measures Act was scary, even for a kid. But much of the rest of the world suffered through terrible terrorism all through the 1970s, while Canada was terrorism-free after that episode. Trudeau stopped it dead in its tracks. “Just watch me” was an enormously effective message for him to convey.

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  4. Trudeau certainly brings up strong feelings among many, to be sure. To Kuri’s statement:

    #3 is not proven

    You are absolutely right, it is not proven, however, when the question is turned on the journalists, they can provide no alternative. Perhaps that’s being unfair on Trudeau’s part – he knows their job is to ask questions, not provide answers, so turning the interview back at them will make them look silly. It’s possible, because he was a journalist of sorts early in his career, so he would understand this well.

    I didn’t want to argue the validity of the conclusion or the necessity of martial law, rather the tone of the conversation. Since writing the post this afternoon this clip has been rewinding in my head and I think that what strikes me most is his absolute self-confidence. He commits to a discussion with the journalists because he is convinced that he can win the debate on intellectual grounds, not through wrote repetition of sound-bites or party dogma. His responses are clear enough that they sound as if they were written down in advance, but I don’t for a minute believe he staged the debate. Rather, he thought through the issue as completely as he could, with all the information at his disposal, and came to a conclusion that he felt he could justify. Not only that, he thought through things before he said them, either in advance ( a “pre-be” in rap terms) or on-the-fly during the interview, I can’t tell. Probably elements of both.

    What he doesn’t do is walk around the questions asked of him. He doesn’t do what so many politicians today do and take a question he feels uncomfortable with and morph it into one which he feels like answering. Rather, he answers clearly, and when he does turn questions back to the interviewers, it’s to underscore the complexity of the problem and the rationality of his conclusions.

    I think it shows that ultimately is shows he knows the problem inside-out. One could argue that he was wrong, and that is entirely fair, but it can’t be said that he didn’t think things through.

    That’s what I think is missing now – thought applied to a problem. I suspect that politicians at high level today are every bit as smart as Trudeau, but more of their intellectual effort is dedicated to winning elections and framing arguments to suit an ideology rather than to solving problems. Not that Trudeau wasn’t concerned with winning elections, but I think that he was confident (and arrogant?) enough that his major concern was not to win elections, but to be right.

    It’s obvious I’m a bit of a Trudeau fan, though I am pretty much NDP through and through. If I prowl around long enough I could probably find interviews with Ed Broadbent that demonstrate the same qualities. Now that I think about it, I see some of the same qualities in Stephen Lewis…

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  5. Rather, he answers clearly, and when he does turn questions back to the interviewers, it’s to underscore the complexity of the problem and the rationality of his conclusions.

    Or it’s to try to get them to do a job that isn’t properly theirs to do.

    Personally, I have no doubt that Trudeau wasn’t constantly on the game. As you say, he was a journalist in his early career. The whole spin machine might not have been as well developed now as it was then, but to the extent it was, I’m pretty sure Trudeau understood it.

    But, yeah, to Anonymous, I make no bones about the fact that I dislike Trudeau. If it wasn’t for the way in which is shoved the NEP down our throats (probably a good programme, actually, but who wasn’t going to resist it when it was framed in such a antagonistic way), I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be any such thing a western seperatist and I’d enjoy Red Deer a lot more, for one thing.

    The subject of Trudeau’s show with the journalist there was another instance of the same kind of leadership vis-a-vis Quebec, ultimately strengthening their nationalist movement as hundreds of people – trade unionists, journalists, activists on a whole number of issues were round up and jailed. We later found out that it was ordinary police work (not the extroadinary War Measures Act) that ultimately lead to the FLQ kidnappers. The whole scenario is a chilling foreshadowing of the kind of human rights violations we’re currently seeing in the so-called war on terror. And I can’t separate Trudeau’s self-assurance he was so right with the fact (admittedly only in hindsight) that he was so wrong. George Bush is often equally self-assured.

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  6. Broadbent could do it, Dave Barrett could, and Clinton was a master at it, whatever you may think of him.
    It wasn’t just intellect or their ability to work out refutations to others’ objections ahead of time; more it’s the sense that you’re listening to a whole person, that they’re all there, that the conversation might take an unexpected turn, that you might learn something. In other words – what was once called public discourse. That is what I miss.

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