Chairman's Desk

How Gregoire Trudeau brilliantly changed her image

The article appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, June 12, 2016.’

Sophie Gr’goire Trudeau dropped the proverbial mic for both herself and the prime minister at last week’s annual Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner.

Critics step aside.

The annual dinner, held at the Museum of Canadian History in Ottawa, is Canada’s subdued replica of the White House Correspondents Dinner. It provides politicians with the opportunity to break bread with journalists and poke lighthearted fun at themselves. On a good night, it can be a very funny evening. But, often, things go horribly wrong.

Gr’goire Trudeau has been at the subject of a significant amount of criticism since her husband became the prime minister in October. Whether it is her’last name, her lullaby singing or public comments on the demands of her new role, it would appear that every week brings something new for the critics’to complain about.

She doesn’t deserve such criticism — nor should the prime minister’s family affairs become media fodder for a struggling press gallery.

The prime minister and his wife do not have the option to press pause on their public lives. Terrorists do not plan attacks around children’s hockey commitments, nor do G7 summits organize around sudden bouts of the common cold. A prime minister is always on the clock. And he and his family is entitled to support that recognizes this reality.

Gr’goire Trudeau does not get paid, nor does she have any official responsibility. However, by virtue of her own charisma and dedication to public life, a’large number of individual Canadians and organizations look to Gr’goire Trudeau for her support. Her progressive advocacy on issues such as mental’health and eating disorders is both important and rightly celebrated.

Yet her critics spew vitriol in their attacks. Whether it is her decision to hire an additional assistant, let her children’s caregiver go or embrace her husband in public she has been continuously criticized.

Gr’goire Trudeau seemed doomed to permanently damage her reputation.

Everything changed last Saturday at that Press Gallery Dinner. Sophie single-handedly re-calibrated the conversation. She forced a new perspective on how Canadians, her critics and the press gallery think about her and her family.

It is seldom that a single speech or appearance has the power to change public discourse so effectively. In a strategic stroke of brilliance, Gr’goire’Trudeau challenged the pundits, silenced the naysayers and rallied the troops ‘ all while creating shareable content that’s been viewed on social media’umpteen times.

Gr’goire Trudeau’s performance that night was reminiscent of First Lady Nancy Reagan and Former Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson’s career changing’remarks.

Back in 1982, prior to the patriation of the Canadian constitution and when Michael Jackson’s Thriller was on the top of the charts, Nancy Reagan was criticized for her ostentatious designer clothing and fancy new White House china. A narrative was cementing: Nancy Reagan was rich and out-of-touch with the American reality.

Mrs. Reagan would have none of it. At the suggestion of her press secretary, she surprised many at the annual dinner of the Gridiron Club when she appeared in a skit dressed as a cleaning lady and sang Barbra Streisand’s ‘Secondhand Rose.’ Reagan’s rendition went: ‘Second hand clothes, I’m wearing second hand clothes, They’re all the thing in the spring fashion shows.’

Her decision to poke fun at herself was embraced, the reviews were tremendous and it was reported that the president was thrilled. This one act fundamentally realigned the tone of future media coverage and her popularity soared. A single moment in time was responsible for resetting the conversation for a generation.

Similarly, when Adrienne Clarkson was appointed governor general in 1999, criticism was ripe: another left-leaning, CBC broadcasting, Laurentian elite had been appointed as the Queen’s representative in Canada — or so the critics claimed.

However, Clarkson, like Mrs. Reagan before her, silenced the critics with a singular performance that reinforced national cohesion and respect of country.

Clarkson’s eulogy read at the repatriation of the tomb of the unknown soldier was unanimously received as a powerful statement on Canadian identity. As journalist John Fraser reported, ‘You have to go back pretty far to find anyone who stirred national emotions the way Clarkson did with her magnificent speech ナ’

In public life, impressions are formed instantaneously. First impressions are almost always everything. However, occasionally the right combination of authenticity, strategic brilliance, self-awareness and luck single-handedly disrupt public discourse and opinion.

On this score, at least, Gr’goire Trudeau’s appearance last weekend hit all the right notes.