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Staying True to Trudeau

IN recent decades, most leaders in the industrial nations have been well-educated. President Clinton, for example, is a Rhodes Scholar. But former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau ranks as an intellectual, and that is different and rare for those running a nation. He studied Greek and Latin. He is fluent in English and French. He voluntarily spent one summer in high school reading great works of political writing, such as Aristotle, Plato, Rousseau's ``Social Contract,'' Montesquieu, and others. He read unassigned chapters in textbooks. He acquired degrees from the Universite de Montreal, Harvard University, the London School of Economics, and the Ecole Libre des Sciences in Paris.

Clinton had youthful political ambitions. Trudeau, according to this autobiography ``Memoirs,'' had during his educational years ``not the slightest interest in either the news in general or political developments in particular. Reading newspapers or listening to the news on the radio struck me as a waste of time, an unjustifiable squandering of energy, when there were so many books to be read....''

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Yet Trudeau became leader of the Liberal Party and prime minister of Canada from 1968 to 1979 and from 1980 to 1984. He retains some influence in Canada today, making an occasional public pronouncement on issues of major importance. A longtime friend and cabinet colleague, Jean Chretien, is now Canada's prime minister.

Trudeau's intellectualism is reflected in this book. It is not a political ``kiss-and-tell'' autobiography, where some ex-leader gossips about his former colleagues, taking a poke here and there. He doesn't say much, and certainly not an unkind word, about his ex-wife, Margaret. Nor is the book very detailed, reflecting its origin in Trudeau's collaboration with a television memoir series. ``There is something self-aggrandizing about the political leader who surrounds himself (or herself) with teams of researchers and literary assistants, who then produces many volumes rife with footnotes and references to Cabinet papers and internal memoranda, that treat almost every single detail in office as worthy of attention in detail,'' he writes in the preface.

``Memoirs'' was written for Canadian readers. Those without a background on the Canadian political scene will find unfamiliar names and events. However, the book is an easy read and often entertaining, as when Trudeau describes his childhood in Montreal and his hair-raising adventures during a round-the-world trip as a young man. There are many photographs - 253 of them - giving the book the flavor of a family photo album.

Moreover, the book offers some important insights into the Canadian political scene. It tells of how Trudeau, a patriotic Canadian, fought against the Quebec separatists. Trudeau is no friend of those fellow French-Canadians who want to separate Quebec from Canada. He has a vision of a nation with a strong federal government, not as a community of 10 provincial communities. After Rene Levesque led the separatist Parti Qucois to power in Quebec in 1976, Trudeau went on national television to calm people's fears of what the election might mean. ``I made it clear that I felt it would be a sin against the spirit, a sin against humanity, if we were to be torn asunder,'' he recalls. And Trudeau helped lead a campaign against separatism, leading to its defeat in a subsequent referendum called by Mr. Levesque. Again today, however, Quebec separatism is an issue still troubling Canada.

Trudeau's story of how he brought Canada's constitution to Canada, adding a Charter of Rights in the process, is fascinating. The constitution had remained legislation of the British parliament (the British North America Act, 1867) from Canada's founding until ``patriation'' in 1982 to Canada. The Charter limits the power of government, much as the Bill of Rights does in the United States. That constitutional action alone makes Trudeau a truly historic figure in Canada.

The last chapter of the book is the most relevant to current affairs. Trudeau notes that when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan held a summit in Geneva in late 1985, they used elements of his ``peace initiative'' two years earlier to reduce world tensions. He criticizes US policy for encouraging the breakup of the Soviet Union into various republics and for pushing Russia into so rapid a conversion to a free market. He welcomes the failure of the Meech Lake Accord for further constitutional changes put together by former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

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