Brian Mulroney has every right to question the often inflexible constitutional opinions of his long-time nemesis, Pierre Trudeau. But Mr. Mulroney has gone too far when he suggests that Mr. Trudeau, who died in 2000, was morally unfit for leadership because of mistakes of his youth. The personal attack is an unwarranted assault on a politician whose entire later career tacitly repudiated his earlier beliefs. It is unworthy of a former prime minister.
In an interview with CTV News this week to promote his upcoming memoirs, Mr. Mulroney was asked about Mr. Trudeau's opposition to his government's Meech Lake constitutional accord. It was an apt question, given Mr. Trudeau's highly partisan and inflammatory objections to the accord and his significant role in its 1990 defeat. Instead of confining himself to the question, Mr. Mulroney savaged Mr. Trudeau's reputation. He evoked his opposition to the Allied cause during the Second World War, noting that so many other young men had enlisted to fight the Nazis.
"Pierre Trudeau was not among them," Mr. Mulroney continued. "That's a decision he made. He's entitled to make that kind of decision. But it doesn't qualify him for any position of moral leadership in our society." He added that Mr. Trudeau was "far from a perfect man."
Recent intellectual histories of Mr. Trudeau depict a youth who was very far from perfect. As scholars Max and Monique Nemni chronicled in Young Trudeau: 1919-1944, Mr. Trudeau was then a captive of the nationalist cant prevalent among Roman Catholic intellectuals in Quebec during the 1930s. He espoused chauvinist francophone nationalism. There was a whiff of anti-Semitism. In 1942, he was a member of a secret organization that advocated revolution to establish an authoritarian regime. He was a creature of his very limited place and time.
Then he grew up, and atoned. In the 1950s, he defied insular Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, defending the rights of workers and the need for a secular state. As prime minister, he denounced narrow ethnic nationalism. He fought for the inclusion of a Canadian Charter of Rights in the Constitution. He embraced and officially recognized multiculturalism. He defended bilingualism and biculturalism. He fostered the careers of Jewish Canadians. He defended the idea of a strong central government. It was an estimable, if controversial, life. And Mr. Mulroney has trashed it.
In many democracies, former political leaders practise a tradition of statesmanship. After a lifetime of bitter partisanship, they are permitted to rise above it, to treat former political enemies with respect. They may criticize each other's ideas, but not their moral aptitude for office. Were he alive, Mr. Trudeau would have relished a constitutional debate. He would not have answered an intellectual challenge with the observation that his opponent was morally unfit for leadership. Mr. Mulroney has damaged only himself.