Pierre Trudeau, 1919-2000

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Pierre Trudeau, who died Thursday in Montreal at age 80, served an almost uninterrupted 16 years as Canada's prime minister, from 1968 until his resignation in 1984. Flamboyant, determined and occasionally quixotic, Trudeau helped establish Canada's modern identity, opened its eyes to the wider world, and fought the Quebec separatist movement that threatened to split the country in two. Richard Duncan, former Ottawa bureau chief (and TIME.com editor), remembers Trudeau from the years he covered him.

I think of Pierre Trudeau as the first big-time postmodern politician. He loved to repudiate conventional partisan ideologies, and if in the end that served his partisan goals, well, there would be just the little Gallic upturn at the corners of his mouth. He had a near-perfect understanding of the possible uses of celebrity. With a little jacknife off the low board here if a photographer was positioned right, a lively judo tussle there (again, photographers were present), a rose in his buttonhole, a pretty woman on his arm, he knifed through dowdy Canadian politics like the classy skier he was — moving gracefully, radiating energy and freedom, yet somehow making all the gates.

He was sardonic, often arrogant, prone to lecture. In parliamentary debate, his style drove the good solid Tories of the opposition into spasms of rage. His shoulders would sag with boredom at a question, his head would sink down and sidewise and he would begin a soft singsong response to a hostile inquiry, radiating contempt. When aroused, he was a different animal. His chin would jut and he would sneer, spitting out answers.

One memorable afternoon in the House of Commons he sat at his desk while the Tories attacked him, and then, with exaggerated mouth movements, he responded almost silently: "Fuck off." In fury, the Tories appealed to the Speaker to discipline the prime minister, but the Speaker managed not to hear the insult. Trudeau did it again, turning slightly so the press gallery could be sure. He was not called to order. As in most things, he got away with it.

There's a danger that Trudeau will be remembered more for his style than for his achievements. That would be a big mistake. It seemed at the time that he was holding Canada together, and historians haven't challenged that evaluation yet. He used the army against Quebec terrorists, while forcing the English-speaking provinces to make services and education available in French. He led a rethinking of the entire constitutional structure of the country and its relationship with England, both through his own legal expertise and through his incessant challenging of the status quo. ("Why should I sell your wheat?" he asked a meeting of western farmers who were complaining about federal marketing arrangements, and it took months for his subordinates to cajole farm leaders down from the roofs of their silos.) He turned Canada's attention toward Asia, proclaiming a new orientation toward the "Pacific Rim" 20 years before that phrase became a byword in the U.S.

He was smarter than most politicians and worked harder. In contrast to the agonies of the U.S., struggling through Vietnam under Richard Nixon in those days, Trudeau's Canada was an energetic, mostly hopeful place, enlightened with debates about important things and enlivened by a new sense of style. Some of that faded, as did Trudeau's verve, as his private life went wrong.

But he presided over some special years in Canadian life.