Review: The Man In A Panama Hat

Years ago as a documentary producer I learned true insight into public figures is rare and exceptional when the subject is still living. Only death loosens tongues and unlocks secret diary entries. But documenting our times is not all-or-nothing. We cannot wait decades to ask, who was Justin Trudeau?

Justin Trudeau On The Ropes by columnist Paul Wells is the first of many expected profiles. Wells calls it an essay and not an obituary. “Every time he’s in trouble he thinks, I’ve been in trouble before and they were wrong to count me out,” he writes.

“In June he’ll have had this job longer than Louis St. Laurent,” writes Wells. “Nobody can take that away from him. What are his qualities? I’ve spent less time talking to him than I had spent with Harper before he became prime minister, but politics in Canada is a village. Paths cross. I’ve seen him up close.”

Trudeau On The Ropes is anecdotal and only slightly irreverent. “He is an introvert who has become skilled at pretending the contrary,” readers learn. “At a rally where he seems to hunger for attention and human contact, he sometimes needs time alone, in a quiet room, playing video games on an iPad or doing nothing at all. I’m told his need to decompress at the end of his work day didn’t always make him popular at home.”

The essay acknowledges critics’ derision of Trudeau as affected and silly. Wells recalls spotting the Liberal leader at a 2015 garden party: “His outfit was faintly ridiculous: white shoes, light jacket, some kind of Panama hat at a rakish angle, no socks.”

Wells is also defensive, almost apologetic. Panama Hat Man “is more intelligent than a lot of people are willing to believe,” he writes, adding: “Somebody who worked closely with Trudeau once told me he gets the big things right and everything else wrong.”

“He prepares,” says Wells. “He grasps complexity. He can take criticism. You can blue-sky with him, imagine alternatives, play out various scenarios for how an issue might evolve. He has the thing that some politicians have, where he remembers the last time he saw you.”

“Justin Trudeau has defeated three different Conservative leaders,” concludes Trudeau On The Ropes. “He could have lost any of those elections.”

Is Trudeau done? Maybe, maybe not, writes Wells: “It would be possible to imagine Trudeau coming back yet again if he had lately shown any inclination toward introspection or humility or a driving urge to improve his game. In the absence of those qualities, bad habits become entrenched.”

By Holly Doan

Justin Trudeau On The Ropes by Paul Wells; 95 pages; Sutherland House Books; ISBN 9781-9908-23824; $19.95

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