12.22.2015 01:10 AM

In this week’s Hill Times: pictures > words (updated)

Most people – most normal people, anyway – pay little or no attention to politics. 

They’re Joe and Jane Frontporch, and they’re busy. Ferrying the kids to and from hockey practice, getting stuck in traffic, worrying about paying the mortgage or the rent, trying to catch up on their sleep. Busy.

 They don’t have time for voluminous political party platforms, or sitting through ministerial speeches, or reading departmental press releases. Most days, Joe and Jane Frontporch don’t care about any of that stuff. In the digital era, they’re overwhelmed by too much information – what American writer David Shenk calls “data smog” – so they just tune it all out.

That’s why the politicians who attract the most attention are the Donald Trump and Rob Ford types. Guys like that are so outrageous, they break through the data smog, and capture everyone’s attention. But smoking crack or making racist statements – while indisputably newsworthy – isn’t always the best way to win elections.

So politicians and politicos instead devote most of their waking hours to dreaming up ways to pierce the aforementioned data smog, and capture and maintain the attention of voters. They concoct ways to simplify what they’re doing, or what they want to do. Thus, back in 1992, Bill Clinton was all about the economy, stupid. At any point in his 40-year career, Jean Chretien was the unity guy – vive le Canada! And in 2008, Barack Obama represented “real change.”

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals liked Obama’s 2008 slogan so much that they stole it in 2015. “Real change” was their mantra, repeated over and over, until it became their brand.

In the early days of the new Grit government, the outlines of something else is emerging. Real change is taking place, to be sure – in fiscal policy, on law and order issues, on the refugee file. No question: it’s a real change from what preceded it.

But something else is happening, too. And it’s this: Justin Trudeau’s government is the TV Government.

TV is pictures, and pictures are power. More than any Prime Minister in our lifetime, Trudeau seems to understand that they best way to captivate Canadians – the best way to pierce the data smog – is to be all about pictures.  

So, there he was, greeting Syrian refugees at Toronto’s airport in the middle of the night. Or sitting on the steps of Parliament, talking to a school kid having a bad day. Or posing for Vogue magazine, or taking a Maclean’s magazine pop quiz. Or taking a bunch of hospitalized kids to see Star Wars. Or – day after day after day – cheerfully posing for selfies with average folks.

Some people have noticed, and some of them are not impressed. Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose sniffed: “While on the international stage we saw leaders of the Western world come together, coalescing around the fight against ISIS, the impression that was left with Canadians and the international community was that our prime minister was consumed with taking selfies,” Ambrose said, hastening to add: “I mention this because it was mentioned to me many times by constituents.”

She added that last bit, of course, because she knows it’s working. Trudeau does, too. Asked about the selfies at town hall thing run by Maclean’s, Trudeau verbally shrugged. “It’s not about image, it’s about substance,” he said. “You have to get to know people.”

Of course. For sure. But it’s more than that. Trudeau was pretty young when his Dad rubbed shoulders with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, thirty-odd years ago. But even a little kid could understand that Reagan was always much more preoccupied with images than words.  

One of Reagan’s most influential advisors, Michael Deaver, didn’t hide it. “I have always believed that impressions are more important than specific acts or issues…I believe TV is a great boon to us in judging our leaders. It lets us see all the dimensions that, in the past, people could only see in person: the body language, the dilation of the eye, the way they perspire. We see them when they are tired, worried, under great crises. If television focuses on somebody every day, it shows all the dimensions.”

So too Justin Trudeau, who the camera loves and – to his critics – loves the camera right back. Trudeau knows, perhaps, that leaders are measured by the impressions they create, not the policies they promulgate.  

There’s a risk in all of this, naturally. If, six months from now, Trudeau is branded as Prime Minister Selfie – if his administration is simply regarded as a four-year-long photo op, punctuated only by state dinners and the occasional foreign trip – he’ll be in trouble. He needs to be more than the callow and shallow caricature his opponents suggest he is.

But if his visuals strategy works – and it’s working so far, big time – he’s golden. He can end up in 2023 as Reagan did: beloved by his partisans, and remembered as the great communicator by all.

So far, so good. But it can all end pretty swiftly, if Joe and Jane Frontporch sense that you’re all sizzle, and no steak.

UPDATE: And here’s the Troy media link. And, yes, for those who have asked, I am suing Michael Bate and Frank magazine – again – for their latest bullshit. Bate evades service, however. Anyone with info on locating him will be richly rewarded!


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    BillBC says:

    Sizzle or steak…that’s the question. I don’t know the answer, but I’d be glad to see what other people think. I’ve always thought he was a vacuous airhead, but perhaps I was influenced by his hair. I’m open to changing my mind about him.

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      nobonus4nonis says:

      we already did. on October 19th 😉

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    dean sherratt says:

    I must admit that any comparison between Trudeau and Reagan is certainly an interesting, indeed counter-intuitive one but I get your point.

    That being said, all the Parliamentary Press Gallery is committing the sin of extrapolating two months of wildly great first impressions over four years and even beyond. Most are compelled because they must write weekly columns and “mortgage” the future of their stories to write about the future now.

    It is to judge day old scotch or even the great 1870 Bordeaux (which only became great after twenty years or so – its first tastings were nothing but the acrid and purple violence of its youth. It needed time).

    Justin is starting off probably the most popular that he may ever be. He has been busy but I’m not sure if he is exhausted. For two months he has done a lot of the relatively easy things that can be done quickly by PMO fiat. I think he is going to need to add substantial and hard won accomplishments to seal with deal with the Canadian public. A poor economy will be a drab background to a selfies. He is expecting and truly believes that the future of green is explosive yet sustainable growth. I’m dubious but only time and a big investment of money will need to take place to prove the theory that after green comes only gold.

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    doconnor says:

    It is before my time, what was it about Pierre Trudeau that kept him popular for so long? He had his famous looks, but he his gaffs too, like his price control flipflop. I’m sure some of quips he is remembered for (fuddle duddle, pirouette behind the Queen) where vigorously attacked by the opposition at the time.

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      The Doctor says:

      I’m old enough to remember those days, and people typically fail to remember or mention the fact that Trudeau Senior benefited tremendously from having two epically politically inept and uncharismatic leaders of the opposition, i.e., Bob Stanfield and Joe Clark. And even with those gifts from the heavens, Pierre Trudeau came within a couple of seats of losing his second election in 1972, and lost the 1979 election.

      Trudeau versus the early incarnation of Mulroney would have been an interesting matchup. In the high point of Trudeaumania in 1968, Pierre Trudeau got 45 percent of the popular vote, which was the best he ever got. In 1984, Mulroney got over 50 percent.

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    Mapsonburt says:

    Real change is him changing his mind on his promises. He’s up to at least five now. He keeps having to back down and though he’s not admitting it, default to Harper’s position. The CPP plan is just the most recent. In the meantime he’s spending his political capital on reversing Union and native financial transparency laws so his cronies can go back into the shadows. He’s showing who’s pulling his strings.

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    Sean says:

    The Justin BS is piling up quickly….

    Refugees – missed the target.

    ISIS – Justin continues to bomb even though Justin insists bombing is a bad idea.

    Gender Parity – What is good for Cabinet isn’t good for the PMO staff according to the Hill Times this week.

    Finance- wild out of control deficits with no plan in sight to get it under control. These guys aren’t even *trying* to *pretend* to stick to the plan.

    Senate / Electoral Reform: the Minister of Candy Floss and Unicorns continues to make silly proposals which obviously can’t be achieved. Honestly, can we just fast forward to the point she resigns already?!

    After the inevitable four year selfie parade mingled with rampant job losses and break neck policy reversals, these guys aren’t headed for a second term.

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      Cory says:

      On ISIS: Yesterday the DND minister said that the jets will be pulled within 6 months….but Harper’s mission was set to end in March. This means that Trudeau may actually be extending the mission.

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    patrick says:

    Wasn’t this discovered with Kennedy vs Nixon?

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    e.a.f. says:

    anything is better than 9 years of harper and his cons. they were mean and nasty. they passed laws which violated our Constitution. Even if Trudeau turns out to be P.M. selfie, I’ll still like him better than harper and his con. What they did to Canada, I’ll never forget. I wouldn’t vote for the Cons, if they could deliver the second coming of Christ. Not as long as one of those Cons who sat there for 9 yrs and voted with Steve and his slimers. I’m not a Liberal or a Con. Would I vote Liberal to keep the Cons out of office? In a heart beat.

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      Cory says:

      You do realize that for the majority of those years Harper had a minority and did all those evil things only because the Liberals supported him right?

      Will you still think that anything is better when we realize that we’re getting pretty much the same policies as Harper but with a smiley face on them?

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        The Doctor says:

        I’m assuming e.a.f. Is not a lawyer, or if he/she is, God help us. Because every single federal government has “passed unconstitutional laws.” for example, you don’t think the Chretien-Martin government ever lost a separation-of-powers or Charter challenge case?

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      dean sherratt says:

      There is little point jousting about whether you should or should not like PM Harper. If you found his government nasty, I daresay you are part of quite a large number of people. However, I do take issue with “passing laws that violate our constitution”. This includes the Charter and the BNA Act. The Supreme Court can very easily judge unconstitutional an entirely benevolent law whose only fault, for example, is whether it can be jammed into the “Peace Order and Good Government” federal power. Every piece of legislation is vetted by the Department of Justice for its constitutionality. That practice extended well before the Harper administration. And Justice lawyers are not patsies by any means and are thoroughly trained in the law. Given that filter any government that decides on the basis of policy that legislation is needed should proceed. The Supreme Court will be the final arbiter and that is their role but unless you ask for a Reference beforehand, they always have the advantage of deciding the constitutionality of legislation after the fact and their views do change over time. I think a government that never passes legislation that was ever challenged was likely not doing its job and will ignore ills when good public policy should have been given the chance to correct them.

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    Elisabeth Lindsay says:

    The most important rule of politics that the Liberals have broken so far is to under promise and over deliver.

    They seem to be constantly over promising and under delivering.

    Too bad. We expected more.

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