The political book has been reshaped in the last quarter-century, for better and for worse, by the inner-working explorations of high-profile journalists like Bob Woodward and Michael Wolff.
Their use and misuse of anonymous, contentious, often vexatious sources of information about leaders, lieutenants, decision-making and policy-framing has zoom-lensed us from a faint distance into a close-up intimacy with the political world.
Which is why it is mostly, but not totally, refreshing that Canadians have as a resource the timely release of Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister on the eve of the federal election. Journalist John Ivison (full disclosure: a former colleague at the launch of the National Post) has depended for the most part on unconcealed informants as the book’s framework. There are no stoolies of significance, no riveting ratting out and thus – a little disappointingly – no major news flashes as one consumes it.
Instead, the basis of the book is clear research, checked facts and a moderate hand in stating the obvious about the prime minister – that he is brand-obsessed, privileged and not particularly plugged in to the plights of anyone’s struggles.
Access is always important with political books. Without it you’re largely curating Google results. Woodward seems to be some sort of snake charmer, Wolff manages to befriend the right squealer, but Ivison doesn’t have the same seeming guile of method. He depends on the public record, on his plentiful on-the-record talks over the term with Justin (wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau would not co-operate) and on some benign and often eye-rolling tire pumping by the prime minister’s past and present aides.
There is little of the gleeful unattributed criticism that besets the genre today, none of the recreated conversations that Woodward and Wolff employ as literary devices, and if there are insiders in the book, they are well hidden.
Which is to say the book is a reliably reported document of Trudeau’s term as prime minister and a rather spartan account of what preceded it. There is no dirt here, no pursuit of salacious rumours, and as a result his critique is a little inarguable.
To wit: the absurdist India trip, the Aga Khan holiday, the backing away on electoral reform, the payment to Omar Khadr, the reckless smear of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, the debacle of small-business tax reform, the morass of SNC-Lavalin, the black hole of infinite deficits, the precocious culture of apologies, the fumbling of Jody Wilson-Raybould, the miscalculation of China, the hubris of handling Donald Trump and the shortcomings of First Nations reconciliation. Among others. These and more tales are told with sobriety and restraint.
Only in the last chapter does Ivison take the velvet gloves off and tackle one of the critical questions: Is Trudeau his own man, or is he a cog in a machine of others’ making?
No question, the influence of former principal secretary Gerald Butts is immense. But Ivison does not absolve the PM of agency. On each count he chides Trudeau for choosing, whether it was something symbolic like his appropriating wardrobe for India or something substantial like his gang-tackling pressure to keep SNC-Lavalin away from a trial.
Still, the author asserts, Justin had the last word and made the bad call. Repeatedly.
Write him off as a single- termer, though? Not quite. The book is fresh enough as journalism to capture the sense of resilience and rebound in the Liberals as the campaign looms, even if Ivison surmises the party is to the left of Canadians. He credits the impact of tax changes, perhaps all the way to the ballot box, that helped lift many families to better straits. He does not proffer Andrew Scheer and certainly Jagmeet Singh as eminently deserving successors.
But he does question the exercise of Trudeau’s term as one of excessive promises and plentiful failures to deliver. If the book strives to examine the education of a prime minister, there is little evidence of a gifted student applying the hard-earned lessons.
(Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister is published by McClelland & Stewart; 368 pages, $32.95.) •
Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.