Canada: A Stroll, a Sauna and au Revoir

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The West's senior statesman calls it quits

After a solitary late-night hike last week through Ottawa's worst snowstorm in four years, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 64, trudged home, took a sauna and "just made up my mind." Without bothering to notify the press or his own Members of Parliament, he coolly penned a resignation letter to the president of his ruling Liberal Party, Iona Campagnolo. Serving as Liberal leader, he wrote, "had been one of the joys of my life, but I now feel this is the appropriate time for someone else to assume this challenge."

As far back as 1980, Trudeau had promised that he would not run in the federal elections that must be held no later than next March. But his retirement nonetheless took the nation by surprise. During nearly 16 years in office, the longest tenure of any contemporary Western leader, Trudeau has become a national institution, whose glitter has given normally staid Canada a certain image of political élan.

Lately, however, Trudeau's Liberal Party has been battered by criticism for its failure to boost Canada's ailing economy, while the opposition Progressive Conservative Party, under its new leader, Brian Mulroney, has surged ahead in public opinion polls. Trudeau's long-promised resignation amounted to an admission that he was highly unlikely to win another bitter electoral struggle.

With a mysterious half-smile playing across his lips, a trademark red rose in his lapel and gaggles of young women clinging to his words, Trudeau often seemed more a rake than the philosopher-statesman he aspired to be. Still, the rake's progress was remarkable. The son of a Quebec millionaire, Trudeau had played the stylish dilettante who was occasionally known to ride motorcycles until a successful election bid carried him to Parliament in 1965. There such habits as occasionally wearing sandals to work and driving sports cars made Trudeau a darling of the media. When he called a general election, after winning his party's leadership in 1968, Trudeau was swept into office on a tide of delirium dubbed Trudeaumania.

Once housed in the Prime Minister's residence, Trudeau continued to cavort in public. He stunned staid pols by sliding down banisters and squiring young women to chic discothèques. After a secret courtship came his 1971 marriage—since failed, amid excessive publicity—to Margaret Sinclair, then 22.

The playboy veneer concealed keen political vision. Jesuit-educated, Trudeau frequently quoted "reason over passion" as a maxim and often applied it in reconciling the longstanding divisions between Canada's anglophone majority and the French-descended minority concentrated in his home province of Quebec. In one of his finest hours, Trudeau argued successfully for passage of the Official Languages Act of 1969, which effectively established bilingualism as national policy.

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