25 April 2006

Why columnists need editors

Bill Rowe's column in the Telegram on Saturday, April 22 offered some comment on the new biography of Pierre Trudeau, already out in French and due in English this June.

Based on the former prime minister's personal papers, the first of several volumes on Trudeau's life paints a curious and fascinating portrait of a young Quebecois, devout Roman Catholic and supporter of a future Quebecois nation on the shores of the St. Lawrence.

Bill made a few comments including these:
"It's from a new biography of Trudeau by two great friends and admirers. He had given them, Max and Monique Nemni, unfettered access to his personal papers and they staggered out of the archives, traumatized by the evidence they'd found, to produce this book..."
That sounds just a tad like this:
" Well, he didn't know Max and Monique Nemni, two energetic academics who carefully read all the material, and emerged stunned and horrified from their search. The Nemnis were actually Mr. Trudeau's personal friends and among his most unconditional admirers. "
Later on Rowe offers this sentence:
"Even at the age of 27, as a student in free-spirited Paris, he still felt constrained by orthodoxy, they say, to ask permission from the church to read books censured by the Vatican Index."
Now that definitely sounds familiar:
"Even at the age of 27, when he was a student in Paris, he would still ask the authorization of the church to read books that were a l'Index (condemned by the Vatican)."
Now here's the thing: while Rowe offered his own comments on Trudeau and the Nemnis' book, linking in his own support for Trudeau in 1968, there are a couple of sections of his column that sounded a bit too much like the column by Lysiane Gagnon of la presse. Gagnon's piece appeared in English in last Thursday's edition of the Globe and Mail.

I am reasonably certain that Lysiane Gagnon read the book whose title she gives as Trudeau: fils du Quebec, pere du Canada. She offers some general comment on the revelations in the book and the wider context of Quebec society in which Trudeau grew up.

For his part, Rowe does his usual job of piling on the unrestrained criticism once he gets past the summary of the Nemnis' book that one suspects was cribbed from Gagnon's work. "This prejudiced and politically stupid young man, this slavish conforming ideologue..." is typical of Rowe's over-the-top and dare one say inaccurate writing.

But I have a simple question: has Bill read the book yet?

Somehow, I doubt it very much. Certainly his column doesn't even contain the insight into the book's substance to be gleaned from reading an extract available online in L'actualite. Nor does it contain information that could be found in other places any time up to 10 days before Rowe published his column, places like la presse, le journal de Montreal, Radio Canada, le devoir, or Michel Vastel's column in l'actualitie. Oddly none contain the comments on the Nemnis that Gagnon's does - the bit about being shocked by their findings - and since Rowe took time off his political career to study French he should have enough facility with the language to have read more than the stuff in the Globe.

As a sign of the limited basis of his column, Rowe correctly translates the title as given in Gagnon's piece; but the full title -in l'actualite - includes the important words les annees du jeunesse: 1919-1944 - "The years of youth". of course, this is a key aspect of understanding how Trudeau changed from being a young man very much the product of the culture in which he was raised into a grown man of very different views.

The words are important to understanding how the Nemnis have portrayed the young man Trudeau before he left Quebec to study at Harvard and elsewhere outside Quebec. To do that, though, one would have had to have read more than Gagnon's column.

With additional information, Rowe might have been able to write more insightfully than he did; after all, his paragraphs on the 1968 federal leadership convention are throw-aways. Certainly nothing available so far in French or English suggests that this was, as Rowe describes it, a "tawdry story". Nor is it as secret a story as Rowe suggests. The anti-Semitic, corporatist politics of Quebec in the 1930s and 1940s is well known. It is surprising to see Trudeau engulfed in the ideology, but it is understandable. What Rowe gives us instead of insight is overly dramatic use of adjectives, perhaps to mask that he only knew what he'd gleaned from a column in Toronto's national newspaper.

What is remarkable in this emerging story - even with the revelations of Trudeau's beliefs as a child and young man - is that Trudeau preserved his papers and allowed someone to have unfettered access to them after his death. The transformation Rowe claims is remarkable - from collectivist to liberal - is actually less so. As Gagnon notes, some of the most virulent critics of Marxism are former Marxists. The more virulent critics of the church are former clerics. The willingness to let history, and others, judge from the original material, now that is astounding for any public figure.

This first volume suggests that the whole story of Pierre Trudeau to come from the Nemni's multi-volume work may prove much more compelling than whatever little Trudeau's supporters - like Rowe at the time - knew of him in 1968.

At the very least, though, an editor should have caught the bits of Bill's column that were a bit too close for comfort to something that appeared in the Globe. After all, we know the editors at the Telly read the Globe's editorial page faithfully. They might have even picked up on the possibility that Bill was riffing without enough information to make a decent column.

Bloggers do that sometimes; it's in the nature of the beast. But we can suck back our gaffes. Once they are in print, though, it's much harder to pull the words back, and that's why God invented editors.