04.26.2016 01:00 AM

In this week’s Hill Times: the sweet science of image

The media advisory slipped silently into email inboxes on Wednesday afternoon.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be in New York from Wednesday to Friday to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change.  While there, he would be speaking to some NYU students, and answering their questions.

Oh, and this: “The Prime Minister will train at Gleason’s Gym.”

“Media should arrive no later than 1:00 p.m. for accreditation,” it said.  “Photo opportunity only.”

Gleason’s Gym used to be located in the lower Bronx, and it’s been around for nearly 80 years. Jake (The Bronx Bull) LaMotta, Mike Belloise, Phil Terranova and Jimmy Carter trained there. So did Carlos Ortiz, Roberto Duran, Larry Holmes, Mike Tyson, and a guy named Cassius Clay, who would become Muhammad Ali, readying himself to take on Sonny Liston.  Movie stars go there, too, getting in shape to play boxers in the movies: Robert DeNiro, Wesley Snipes, Hilary Swank.  It’s a famous place, and big names train there.

Justin Trudeau now, too.  They’ll put his framed picture up on the walls along with the other notables after he heads back home, no doubt.

If you’re a boxer, and if you’re in New York, you’d want to train at Gleason’s Gym.  It’s the St. Peter’s Basilca of the fighter’s game, pretty much.  Hopes and dreams and fears, played out on about 400 square feet of canvas.  A chess game, using fists.

Anyway. Apologies. Writers get carried away with boxing, yes, because it’s such a perfect metaphor for everything else, especially politics.

Justin Trudeau is keenly aware of that, of course.  That’s why he called around for days, casting about for someone to fight with him back in March 2012.  The match was supposed to be a fundraiser for a cause that – I wager – very few folks can remember.  But, Holy God, they remember that fight.

That fight is what transformed Justin Trudeau.  It transformed him from a relatively inoffensive backbencher, representing the third party in a remote perch in the House of Commons – and it made him into a Prime Minister.  The 2015 general election was a mere formality, after that.

The night of the fight, I was at the now-departed Sun News.  I couldn’t watch it, because Trudeau was still a friend, then, and I was scared shitless he was going to get beaten up, and his political career would be over.  I could see it on the faces of the Sun News stars like Ezra Levant, who were on hand to broadcast every minute of that fight. They wanted to see Trudeau, who they hated, humiliated.  They wanted to see him ground into the canvas, a smear of blood and sweat.

But he won.  He won.  And, for the first time, I saw alarm – and something approaching fear – on the faces of the Sun News folks.  They knew the Canadian politics changed, that night, and not in a way that favoured their side of the debate.

So, yes.  Boxing helped Justin Trudeau win.  And Gleason’s Gym is where winners go to box. Got it.

But here was the highest office in the land, issuing an official-looking media statement beneath the Great Seal of Canada, no less, that  “The Prime Minister will train at Gleason’s Gym.”  No questions, just be there to take his picture.  Don’t be late.

Some of us, sitting in the cheap seats outside the ring, have written about Justin Trudeau’s sheer mastery of image.  In my view, there is no politician alive who is as adept at visuals. Words equal information, but pictures equal power, and Justin Trudeau – grinning out at us on the cover of GQ, this week – knows that better than anyone.


But are you starting to feel, like me, that this stuff is getting pushed a bit too far? That there is a danger, here, that he is dancing too close to the klieg lights, and is about to fall into the orchestra pit?

I was unsure, so I asked my barber, Bruno.  I haven’t seen him for a while, because he’s been in Italy.

Bruno has been cutting hair in and around Union Station for a half-century or so, you see. He’s as Liberal as it gets. He bleeds Liberal red.  And there he was, trimming away, his brow furrowed.  “So, your friend,” he said, but I didn’t correct him.  “Your friend did well in the election.”

“Yes, he did,” I said.

“But the pictures, the…what do you call them?”

“The selfies?”

“Yes, the selfies,” he said.  “They make him look too young.  Not serious.”

Not serious.

The Gleason’s Gym press release hadn’t gone out, yet.  But if it had, I might have quoted to Bruno – who has barbered the heads of many a hockey and basketball player, and not a few boxers, too – the following, from the Italian-American writer, Brian D’Amrosio.  Here’s what D’Ambrosio said:

“Boxing begins in illusion and ends in real blood and tears. That’s what makes it so beautiful.”

Justin Trudeau, Master of Illusion, take note.


  1. Peter says:

    Heh. I’m surprised that such an experienced public opinion guru and war room veteran would look to his barber to tell him what’s going on out there when everybody knows the most accurate authorities are taxi drivers.

  2. Vancouverois says:

    “That fight is what transformed Justin Trudeau. It transformed him from a relatively inoffensive backbencher, representing the third party in a remote perch in the House of Commons – and it made him into a Prime Minister. The 2015 general election was a mere formality, after that.

    Maybe that’s a teensy bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think? 😛

  3. Brian Graff says:

    Taxi drivers? Which ones – the immigrants with PhDs? Or the ones who are immigrants who just arrived here and barely speak English? Or maybe the Uber drivers?

    Trudeau certainly knows how to promote himself – Jack Layton was pretty good at it from all his years on Toronto City Council. Then there was Mulroney, who thought he could charm anyone with his Irish gift of the gab. But Trudeau is beginning to wear thin when we are no longer in an election. Often the governments that do best keep a low profile

  4. dean sherratt says:

    Well Ontario Premier Peterson also had an affection for boxing though I don’t think that did his career very much good.

    Its now close to 7 months in power and Justin Trudeau is as popular as ever following his quite large bounce upwards at the time of his election in October.

    I think his election as PM as a result of the fight with Brazeau is rather 20/20 hindsight and I don’t believe it. At various times during the 2015 election, any of the three parties could have won, though only the CPC would have only won by a minority.

    I wonder what the people at Gleason’s Gym thought of Justin Trudeau entering with a bevy of staffers and photographers? Would they look at him as a serious athlete or more of a dilettante? Would he have enjoyed a few rounds with a guy trying to beat the crap out of him, rather than a more staid training partner? I expect that outcome was ensured not to take place. I’m in a minority but he reminds me a bit of Commodus in his role as Emperor/Gladiator though I would like to search for a more sympathetic image as mine is overdone.

    • The Doctor says:

      The more apt comparison is to Putin. In both cases, a celebrity cult of personality is being assiduously cultivated and promoted, with a focus on macho virility. Trudeau boxes, Putin does judo. There are the shirtless photos, the arresting images. And of course they’re both tremendously popular, and we all know from high school that popularity is a sign of virtue.

  5. CuJoYYC says:

    No post needed. Just a friendly reminder that it’s not “twenty square feet of canvas” but rather “400 square feet of canvas”.

  6. patrick says:

    Hey, we’re seeing you too much.
    Hey, we’re not seeing you enough.
    Hey, we’re the damn press we demand to be informed when it’s important to see you and when it’s not. It’s a bit much for us to have to decide.

    Was there really “fear and loathing” in the dimwitted Sun cellars after Trudeau’s win? Awesome.

  7. Art says:

    Naw, it’s like a guy playing golf at a famous course or Chrétien golfing with Clinton. It’s his hobby. The media are always there.

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