Justin Trudeau's f-bomb and authenticity in politics

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There's much to learn from Justin Trudeau's brief moment of obscenity at a charity boxing gala last weekend.

The National Post's Robyn Urback called it "less a verbal slip than a strategically planned trial balloon," designed to make him seem like a regular guy. It didn't look that way to me. He stepped into the ring, where he'd fought two years ago for the same good cause, and began revving up the crowd to donate. Then he interrupted his straight-ahead delivery to say this kind of performance isn't easy but "it's the best feeling in the world to measure yourself against an opponent and test yourself" because "your fortune, your intelligence, your beauty, none of that fucking matters." Then he continued fluidly for another minute urging them to dig deep.

It's more like it struck him spontaneously and he chose not to censor it. That was the calculation. He was willing to take the risk, or even embrace it -- because it might be politically beneficial, or he wants to be that kind of person, or both. But what matters isn't premeditation; it's whether it seems real. When a politician kisses a baby or shakes a hand, it isn't spontaneous, but it must draw on real feeling or it reads as fake. It's the same with actors speaking lines for the hundredth time. You pull it out of someplace real in you or it won't work.

That's a rare and precious skill in politicians. When Stephen Harper puts on a Stetson at the Calgary Stampede, he doesn't look like he'd rather not be there, but he does look as if he doesn't know how to be there. He's found nothing to draw on. Same at hockey games. He looked most at home, semi-publicly, in a leaked video mimicking previous Conservative leaders John Diefenbaker, Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney and Preston Manning. In it he conveyed some affection along with superiority; it felt like the real Stephen. Tom Mulcair must have a private side but hasn't found ways to reveal it publicly. Rob Ford does that effortlessly. Compare brother Doug, who functions as Rob's brain in articulating issues but has zero ability to project a sincere personality: no spontaneity, all calculation.

Why does this connectivity matter? Not just because voters like to feel they know the guy and would enjoy a beer with him. It's because leaders in power are inevitably faced with unexpected challenges. They must improvise, never mind what they promised before being elected. So voters need a read on the kind of mind that will have to grapple with the unknown.

As for the political peril of speaking the f-word, f-bomb and other musty euphemisms, I think it's passé. Cable TV is littered with the term. Kids use it not to shock or because they're too lazy to find the right word -- as used to be charged. It has a precise, non-provocative usage. It emphasizes that an emotion is deeply felt. Justin's dad once apologized for using a cognate term; he smirked that he'd said fuddle-duddle. How ancient does that sound? There's no taboo now. Only the out-of-touch do that pardon-my-French stuff. Harper minister Lisa Raitt said her mother wouldn't have been pleased by Justin's language. Note that she didn't say she herself, as a mom, was displeased. Political smarts on her part. Who wants to play the dinosaur?

I was also struck by Trudeau's mention of "your beauty." Physically attractive people, especially if they're otherwise privileged, often carry a burden of self-doubt and unworthiness, though they're rarely ready to forego the advantages. I'd give him points for the courage to discuss that.

So the relation between pubic figures and private selves is ambiguous -- but there are connections. Actors are a good comparison. They draw on their lives for their characters -- but they aren't the same. Traditional theatre had a good way to indicate that duality: the curtain call, where actors take a bow as themselves. It's been lost in film and TV; as a result, people sometimes assume the actor is the part. The little bow taken by the cast of How I Met Your Mother in their farewell video was a nice reminder of that distinction.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Justin Trudeau/flickr

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