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King Henry I of England, youngest son of William the Conqueror, is said to have died of a surfeit of lampreys, as did the evil King John.

Queen Mary met her end as a result of a surfeit of black pudding (whatever that is).

Lampreys are parasitic eel-like fish, which are notorious in Canada for having entered the Great Lakes after the construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

They then ravaged the once valuable lake trout population — which should qualify as a devastating surfeit.

Of late, this writer feels as though he is suffering from a surfeit of his own, a surfeit of Justin.

It may not be fatal, but it can cause significant digestive upset.

Everywhere he goes, this reporter finds otherwise rational and reasonable people swooning over the Liberals’ young and amiable leader.

“Mulcair, like Harper, is an angry, old white man,” says a successful white, male, 50-something business man. “Trudeau is young and fresh.”

“I like Trudeau’s plan to decriminalize marijuana,” says a woman of a similar age, who demurs when asked if she can name one other Trudeau policy.

Undeterred, she insists her enchantment with Trudeau is not about policy.

It is about the fact that she cannot abide Stephen Harper, and that “Mulcair doesn’t have a chance,” whatever that means.

That view seems to be, to this writer’s distress, widely shared.

We’ve got to get rid of that nasty Harper, a lot of folks say, and then add that “Mulcair is no Jack Layton.”

The youthful and glamorous son of the now-sainted former Prime Minister is the only one who can slay the Harper monster for us, they argue with conviction and vigour, if not many facts.

Even mildly criticizing the Liberal leader brings out his numerous ardent defenders.

“Enough about the hair and good looks,” writes one such Justin-o-phile. “It’s lazy journalism.”

In response to critical comments about the Chatelaine puff piece and the photos of Trudeau and his family photographed fully clothed in their pool, another Trudeau-ite reminds us that politicians have to do that sort of thing when the media commands it. Sheila Copps, this defender relates, once allowed herself to be photo-ed clad in leather and seated on a motorcycle.

Ask whether the young Liberal leader has the judgment or experience needed of a Prime Minister and you get the answer: “He has good advisers.” And it is possible they may not all be named Butts.

Last week, NDP leader Tom Mulcair came out with a major policy plank on daycare, which got some fairly intensive coverage in the first 24 hours.

But, later in the week, did The National’s “At Issue” panel focus on the Mulcair announcement?


Instead of childcare, they discussed the Chatelaine piece on Trudeau at length, trying to decide whether or not it was demeaning to women.

A lot of that discussion, and other commentary by the likes of Rex Murphy, has been, in fact, quite critical of the Liberal leader’s artfully studied air of casual superficiality.

But if all publicity, however negative, is good publicity, Trudeau is doing fabulously well.

He is a rare Canadian example of pure celebrity, based on very little content. He gets attention for just standing there, especially fully clothed in a swimming pool.

We seem to crave a dynasty

One reason for the appeal of the son of a former Prime Minister, I fear, is that, as a society, we are not entirely comfortable with the idea of popular democracy.

Democratic government, in which all can take part regardless of race, gender, property ownership or social status, is a very new idea in historic terms.

Governments by oligarchs, aristocrats, elites and monarchs have been around for a lot longer, and we still seem to have a fascination with those whose chief quality is that they are to the manner born.

Witness the ridiculous fascination with William and Kate, or, not too long ago, with the jet-setting royals of the tiny principality of Monaco.

Our love of inherited privilege and power makes us hanker, in the political domain, for dynasties, although in Canada those have happened more at the provincial than the federal level.

We’ve had the Bennetts of British Columbia, the Johnsons of Quebec, and the Ghizes of Prince Edward Island, to name just three.

Not all potential dynasties live up to their promise. Others exceed expectations.

After the death in a plane crash of John F. Kennedy Jr., there doesn’t seem to be another Kennedy who might aspire to the U.S. presidency.

The family of the fairly obscure Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush, on the other hand, has already produced two presidents, and my yet churn out more.

As for Canada, there are many who, deep down, feel that Justin Trudeau somehow deserves to become Prime Minister simply by virtue of his blood.

More than five years ago, when Trudeau was but a very fresh, newly-elected MP from Montreal, a much more seasoned colleague of his from New Brunswick told this writer: “He’s our future leader.”

The MP for Papineau riding had barely taken his backbench seat in Parliament, and had virtually no record of public service or policy expertise.

By his own admission, Trudeau’s chief (and not without merit) interest on first entering the House was encouraging youth volunteerism. He also had some concern for conservation and environment matters (although you could not guess that from whatever one can glean of the current Liberal program). But on what so many consider to be the biggest issue of all, the economy, he was a self-avowed novice.

No matter.

The young MP already had colleagues who were ready to anoint him with the crown of leadership.

The reason had nothing to do with talents or his ideas. It was all about his genes, and nothing more.

The younger Trudeau was well aware of that dynastic phenomenon long before he even sought to enter the House.

There’s a story to the effect that even as he prepared his memorable and moving eulogy for his father, Trudeau had help from folks who were to become key political advisers. It seems he very much had his eye on how this one public pronouncement might help him launch his political career.

NDP pushes policies over personality

All of this is, no doubt, highly frustrating for the NDP.

For more than than three years the Official Opposition party has been skillfully and diligently taking on the Harper agenda day-in and day-out, in Parliament, in committees, and out in the country.

The NDPers response to Trudeau-mania Mark II has been to emphasize real and serious policy, and let the contrast with the Liberals’ reliance on personality and nothing else speak for itself.

And that strategy has won them plaudits from some unlikely sources — from small-c conservative columnists Rex Murphy and Michael Den Tandt, for instance.

After last week’s childcare announcement, we can expect more of that sort of policy initiative from the New Democrats in the coming months.

They could come up with some serious proposals on sustainable development (especially in the light of current oil prices), for instance; or on higher education and encouraging the creative economy; or on a new deal for First Nations people; or on measures to encourage small business.

There are lots of options.

Still, the New Democrats may decide that they don’t want to concede the personality politics field entirely to the Liberals and Conservatives.

We know how the Liberals define their leader’s personal attributes: young, fresh, exciting, optimistic, dashing, and maybe even sexy.

The Conservatives are clear on theirs, too: competent, responsible, tough, experienced, strong, and gets the job done.

New Democrats have not, as yet, expended much effort on Tom Mulcair’s image, but they are not lacking in raw material.

Mulcair: man of the people, defender of minorities, has engaging wife…?

In the months to come, we can expect the Official Opposition party to emphasize its leader’s grassroots origins. He comes from a working class family of 10 children and pulled himself up by his own bootstraps.

They might also mention that Mulcair has his own claim to being connected to something resembling a political dynasty. His mother’s great-grandfather was reforming 19th-century Quebec Premier, Honoré Mercier.

In Quebec, Mercier is seen as a precursor both of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, and of the Quebec nationalist movement (although the 19th-century premier would have been shocked that any Quebec leader might ever have the effrontery to suggest separation from Canada.)

Mulcair’s wife, Catherine Pinhas, might also be a political asset, despite the fact that the NDP leader seems much more anxious that his Liberal counterpart to guard his family’s privacy.

Pinhas is Jewish, descended from a Sephardic family that moved from Turkey to France, and then survived the Holocaust. She is a psychologist, and more important, a lively, candid and extroverted figure. Hers is a lineage that would attract some voters, and her personal qualities are useful in a political spouse — except perhaps for the part about being candid.

Finally, to balance his Quebec nationalist heritage, Mulcair and the NDP might want to let folks, especially in English Canada, know about his work during the 1980s as Director of Legal Affairs for Quebec’s main Anglophone rights organization, Alliance Quebec.

Most English Canadians outside of Quebec do not know that the current Official Opposition Leader has been a fierce, life-long opponent of the Quebec sovereignty project.

The NDP, in fact, has an unearned reputation for being soft on separatism, because of its so-called 50 per cent plus one policy. That policy means the party would recognize a yes vote of 50 per cent plus one in a Quebec referendum — in which the question was utterly clear and unambiguous, and the voting process untainted — as a basis for negotiation.

Although the issue of a referendum is moot now, the NDP never sold its own policy very well, and allowed other parties — especially the Liberals — to effectively caricature it as crypto-separatist.

English Canadians, in general (and that includes most non-Quebec journalists who cover national politics), are quite unaware of Mulcair’s history of working in the trenches on behalf of minority rights in his own province.

The challenge for the NDP would be to play up Mulcair’s Alliance Quebec connections without turning off the many French-speaking Quebec nationalists who are open to voting for the NDP federally.

That would be quite a trick, but who said politics is supposed to be easy?

The Liberals have turned an inexperienced and untested near-rookie MP into the putative next Prime Minister, if you believe the media and the pollsters.

If they could pull off that manoeuvre, anything is possible.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...