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Justin Trudeau's Rise To Power Didn't Come Easy

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He is our only prime minister to have had his diapers changed at 24 Sussex Drive.

Justin Trudeau's political future was unwittingly predicted by none other than Richard Nixon. While on a visit to Ottawa in 1972, the U.S. president raised his glass at an official dinner and wryly honoured the infant son of Pierre and Margaret Trudeau, his words cited here in a story from the Toronto Star's archives:


Nixon was known for neither wit nor prescience. Otherwise he could have foreseen that recording Oval Office conversations was not such a hot idea. But his wisecrack now stands as a curious historic artifact, given what was to unfold in the memorable election 43 years later.

Justin Trudeau's rise to the office held by his father was neither inexorable nor inevitable. He could have fallen off the tightrope several times along the way, but benefited from a convergence of talent and luck, wise counsel and an ability to learn.

The first hint most of us got of the charisma of the prime minister's son was when he delivered a heartfelt, tearful and eloquent tribute at his father's funeral in 2000. With exquisite timing and vocal modulation, he held the nation in his palm as he recounted the boyhood story of being upbraided by the PM for mocking a political opponent. And even the most ardent hater of Pierre Trudeau could not help but feel a catch in the throat as Justin closed his eyes and, voice cracking, ended with: "Je t'aime papa".

For the Liberal faithful, a star was born that day, even though a political career was still years ahead.

I witnessed the younger Trudeau's mystique while covering the 2006 convention where wounded Liberals selected Stephane Dion as leader. I was at a party the night before the vote, chatting with an operative from Queen's Park. As we were speaking her eyes wandered from mine to observe a commotion over my shoulder. I turned around and could see other conversations stopping and eyes focusing on the man who would be the future.

Trudeau was mobbed. A heavily lubricated delegate clutched him by the arms and begged: "PLEASE! RUN!"

The dauphin smiled, avoided a direct answer and waited another two years before seeking office.

It is often forgotten that he was not handed a seat and did not pick an easy one. He first had to win the the Liberal nomination in the Montreal area riding of Papineau and then take it away from the Bloc Quebecois in the 2008 election.

He has been regularly underestimated -- a good thing in politics

Trudeau was given little chance when he stepped into the boxing ring against Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau in 2012. Surely the burly, martial artist Brazeau would knock the pretty rich boy's block off. Except: Trudeau had been boxing for years and trained long and seriously for the bout. When the referee stopped the fight in the third round and the bloodied, battered Brazeau stumbled back into the losing corner the Canadian chattering classes started looking differently at the younger Trudeau.

In the same way, expectations were low when the 2015 campaign began. The Liberals had fallen to third place in the polls and Trudeau had fumbled some files.

There was the unwise embrace of Tory defector Eve Adams, whose loss in her Toronto nomination battle later proved to be a godsend, even though it was embarrassing for the leader at the time.

He had shown callowness in his "whip out your CF 18s" quip about the military campaign against ISIS. His qualified support for Stephen Harper's c-51 anti terrorism bill allowed the NDP to outflank him among progressive voters.

Trudeau clearly had charm, looks and talent for retail politics. But the Tories and New Democrats both tagged him as a lightweight whose shallowness would be brutally exposed in the television debates.

But once again, he overachieved. Like the boxing match, he prepared.

In a fascinating, epic narrative of the campaign Paul Wells of Macleans documented how it happened:

Trudeau had been cramming for the debates for nine months, with repeated practice sessions. Wells quotes insiders as saying the initial performances were worrying: "He was bad...he was overly theatrical". This was, after all, the same guy who once called a Tory minister "a piece of shit" in the Commons.

But he listened, was a good student and improved. His steady performance in the first campaign debate is now widely seen as the moment when Liberal fortunes started to turn. He acquitted himself well in all the debates

Trudeau also had the good fortune to have Gerald Butts as a long time friend and now top adviser. Butts is not only smart, loyal and a fierce Trudeau defender on social media, he also has a record of success. I knew him at Queen's Park where he was former Premier Dalton McGuinty's most valuable aide.

McGuinty also happened to be a politician who stumbled in early performances but who learned, got better and won three elections. Coincidence?

All of the Liberal tactical gambles paid off. You are never supposed to repeat your opponent's criticisms, but Trudeau took the Tory "not ready" maxim and turned it into a strength by saying he was ready to make things better. The ad showing him walking up the down escalator was mocked as showing the wrong image -- but everyone remembered it. The Tories loved it when Trudeau called for deficits and infrastructure spending. But it allowed the Liberals to outflank the NDP, just as Kathleen Wynne's team had done in Ontario in 2014.

They also needed luck. And Trudeau was lucky that the niqab exploded as a divisive issue. Even though he and Tom Mulcair were more or less in agreement, the niqab sucked away crucial NDP support in Quebec. When the New Democrats' poll numbers started to slip, it resonated among progressives across the nation who started looking upon the Liberals as the party with the better chance of toppling Harper.

Trudeau even scored points with the press gallery by shutting down a supporter who heckled a reporter's question. The journalists at the event must have been gob smacked after years of enduring icy hostility from Stephen Harper.

It may well have won the new Prime Minister at least a short period of goodwill. It will not last. Stuff always happens. Nasty issues and pointed reporter's questions always emerge.

But we can all hope that the cold war of message track, non-answers that was inflicted on the nation by the outgoing government is now at an end. It is encouraging to hear some of the surviving Conservatives talking about better relations with the news media. You do not need to like journalists but our democracy works better when you speak to them.

You just need to give careful thought to what you are going to say, anticipate the questions and be ready to face interrogations. This is why people like me are hired as media trainers -- to prepare them for the ordeals ahead.

While it is undoubtedly true that Justin Trudeau would never be where he is if his name were, say, Justin Harper, he has consistently exceeded expectations.

The candidate who should have lost, the boxer who should have been knocked out, the leader who should have melted in the debates is now the Prime Minister. And yes, he has also been lucky.

But luck is an ephemeral, unpredictable asset. And nothing matches the challenges he now faces.


Justin Trudeau Swearing-In Day
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