The Power to Move the Soul

When the federal election campaign started, months ago, I posted a photo on Facebook of Justin Trudeau in a scrum after an event at the University of Toronto. I helped organize the event, and I’m standing just behind him, with a slightly quizzical, slightly proud look. I liked the guy. But I was still sizing him up. As were Canadians.

What’s fascinating is how aware of this scrutiny Trudeau was from the beginning of his improbable ascent to the prime minister’s office and how he foreshadowed the Conservative criticisms against him by quoting St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians in his campaign launch speech to become Liberal leader back on October 2, 2013.

My first question on stage at the UofT student Q&A was blunt: “Why is a teacher qualified to be prime minister?” Trudeau answered it well, speaking about listening and convening people to find answers together. It’s an answer that encapsulates his philosophy about leadership. He’s shared similar answers throughout this campaign.

And that consistency, in many ways, struck me. There is a scripted sense to Justin Trudeau, and I don’t mean in the talking-point ladened, teleprompter-based style. I’m not making a criticism. I mean, “scripted” in the traditional, literary sense of the term: he made a plan, and he stuck to it, even when many, myself included, questioned the plan. There’s a dramatic quality to his ascendancy.

Go back to his speech almost exactly three years ago when he launched his campaign for Liberal leader in Montréal. Read it. It will surprise you. He had longer hair then and a trendier suit. But he almost presciently choreographed this campaign, including the “just not ready attack.”

In fact, he basically embraced it.

Quoting St. Paul, he owned up to the challenge of proving his mettle and called on an entire generation to join him: “‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child. But now that I am a man, I put away childish things.’ It is time for us, for this generation of Canadians to put away childish things. More, it is time for all of us to come together and get down to the very serious, very adult business of building a better country for ourselves, for our fellow Canadians and for our children.”

I remember at summer camp painting those words from 1 Corinthians 13 on the wall of a cabin in the eldest boys’ section, thinking they were apt words for 16-year-old boys to hear. Turns out those words of an ancient rabbi can define a political career too.

For 13 verses, St. Paul’s famous 13th chapter focuses on three virtues: “faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love.” It was read at Princess Diana’s funeral and weddings innumerable. It includes the famous phrase describing life on Earth: “now I see things as through a mirror dimly, then we shall see each other face to face”.

U.S. President Barack Obama, likewise, quoted from this chapter in his first inaugural address, saying, “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history … In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.”

Trudeau, similarly, also noted that night, “this road will be one long, Canadian highway. We will have ups and downs. Breathtaking vistas and a few boring stretches. And with winter coming, icy patches.” He would top the polls before plummeting to third, only to rebound, slowly but surely throughout this campaign, to take the lead at exactly the right time.

I remember flying that afternoon in October 2013 with two friends from Toronto to Montréal, with the eerie sense we were going to witness what might just be the start of something historic. It’s fascinating how clearly that speech set out Trudeau’s plan. His whole philosophy—about middle class economics, First Nations rights, national unity, the hard work of politics—is there.

More still, it’s fascinating how the speech was inspired by his Catholic upbringing and his McGill English Lit degree (and no doubt that of his chief advisor, Gerry Butts).

It’s fascinating to realize they had a plan all along.

Trudeau opened that speech in Montréal with a quote from Goethe: “Make no small dreams, they have not the power to move the soul.” He might also have quoted Goethe’s epigram, “Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him,” for that is exactly what Trudeau did during this campaign. And it worked.

Throughout his years as leader, Trudeau had to prove that he is up to the task. National Post columnist Michael den Tandt was the first to label this narrative frame as “the hero’s journey” writing: “A young warrior appears, often of secretly noble parentage. He or she is called to adventure, initially refuses the call, but eventually yields to destiny, to take up the mantle and burdens of leadership.” Den Tandt mentions King Arthur, Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, who goes from irresponsible playboy prince to noble leader between Henry IV and V, as literary parallels; he even compared this process of maturation to Luke Skywalker. (As my roommate points out, the King Arthur parallel extends to “table of equals” approach to assembling “Team Trudeau.”)

There’s something intriguing about the young hero-versus-villain paradigm; certainly for a Liberal, it’s a flattering lens through which to view this election. But as I noted in a Globe and Mail piece earlier in Trudeau’s leadership, the allure of the King Arthur story—specifically “the once and future king” motif—is one Trudeau himself pushed aside in his eulogy of his late father: “He left politics in ‘84. But he came back for Meech. He came back for Charlottetown. He came back to remind us of who we are and what we’re all capable of. But he won’t be coming back anymore. It’s all up to us, all of us, now.”

Instead, Trudeau the Younger set his own path, embracing his own words at the eulogy of his father that “it’s all up to us, all us, now,” and echoing those words again in Montréal in 2013, saying, “It is time for all of us to come together and get down to the very serious, very adult business of building a better country for ourselves, for our fellow Canadians and for our children.”

Others have noted the irony that Stephen Harper, whose own political career began as a revolt to Pierre Trudeau, faced his demise at the hands of Trudeau’s eldest son. This is the stuff of tragedy, in its fullest dramatic sense.


Photo by Can Pac Swire via Flickr, licensed by CC 2.0 

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About Jonathan Scott

Jonathan Scott is a former Liberal speechwriter, communications consultant and a member of St John's, Bradford, Ont. @j_scott_.