Someday, will visitors gaze upon the enormous Donald Trump Memorial gracing Washington’s Mall, exuding the size and emotional power of the Lincoln Memorial? Maybe. And, someday, will Canadians be moved by the Justin Trudeau Memorial on Parliament Hill, with his bronze likeness towering above us within a giant Romanesque building with soaring Corinthian columns akin to Washington’s Jefferson Memorial? Never. Not a chance. Not in a million years.
Is the idea that Mr. Trump may have such a glorious memorial and Mr. Trudeau never will because Trump is the better leader; more ethical, moral, honest, more stirring in his soaring rhetoric and inspirational in the content of his character? Of course not. Mr. Trump has a better chance because Americans do that kind of thing. Canadians don’t.
Thomas Jefferson Memorial Lester Pearson’s Grave (Wakefield, Quebec)
Americans have always exalted their presidents. Presidents have always been the source of awe and myth. To Americans, the president is the epitome of the American dream, the office to which every child could aspire, the man whom all should respect and admire: “Hail to the Chief!” To Americans, the president has their back as a warrior prince while expressing American swagger and exceptionalism to the rest of the world; those who are merely failed attempts at being them.
Even when ending their time in office, presidents are cared for and revered. They continue to be addressed as Mr. President. There are fourteen presidential libraries. In each, the president’s papers, and those of his senior secretaries and staff, are carefully preserved. More than that, the libraries are museums. They celebrate the presidency and the man and with each, you exit through the gift shop containing books, busts, and posters suitable for framing.
Further, since 1958, every retired president has received a generous pension. They are also afforded money and assistance to transition to private life. They are gifted more money to maintain a permanent staff and office, secret service protection, access to top-secret security briefings, and, important in the United States, free medical coverage. And, of course, some are afforded towering memorials in Washington and their home towns.
And what of Canadian prime ministers? They leave office with only a member of parliament’s pension. Kim Campbell did not serve the requisite six years and so was out of luck. An oil portrait is hung outside the House of Commons. Some may get a modest statue or two or an airport, school, or street named after them but beyond that – nothing. Diefenbaker has a modest museum in Saskatoon but only because he bequeathed it.
I was once on my way home from a New Brunswick speaking engagement when I saw former prime minister John Turner waiting near me in the tiny Moncton airport lounge. There was no security. He had no assistant. He was alone. Mr. Turner had been at the same event and so I said hi and we chatted for a while about our families and the magazine article he was reading. While everyone else surely recognized him, none paid him any mind. As I watched him board the plane I pondered Bill Clinton or Barack Obama in a similar situation. The moment said it all.
Maybe the difference between how Canadians feel about their prime ministers and Americans about their presidents is rooted in the perhaps accurate notion that Canadians are generally a more modest people, warier of mythology, and more attuned to irony. We never chant “We’re Number One” even if we’re winning. We apologize – a lot. Rick Mercer once said that there should be a sign at every border crossing saying: Welcome to Canada – We’re Sorry. Americans are more likely to see a mansion on a hill and think that someday it could be them while Canadians are more likely to ask, “Who does he think he is?”
Perhaps because Canadians are less willing to feel awe, prime ministers inspire less of it than presidents. Prime ministers are certainly never mythologized. In Washington’s American History Smithsonian Museum rests an enormous statue of George Washington carved in gleaming marble, seated upon a throne, suggesting a Roman emperor, bare-chested and ripped. I have watched Americans snapping pictures and being genuinely moved by the thing. I imagined Canadians roaring in laughter at a similar statue of Sir John A. Macdonald.
Washington as Roman Emperor
Maybe Americans venerate their presidents because they hire them through a direct vote. In 2016, nearly 63 million Americans voted for Mr. Trump. Canadians, on the other hand, construct a House of Commons with the winning party’s leader becoming the head of government. In 2019, the only Canadians to directly vote for Justin Trudeau were just under 25,000 people of Quebec’s Papineau riding. The link between Canadians and their prime ministers is thus less direct and less visceral than between Americans and their presidents.
Conceivably, the American veneration is partly because the president is head of government and head of state and so directly involved in the ceremonial, celebratory aspects of leadership. The Canadian prime minister is only the head of the government with the monarch the head of state, represented by the Governor-General. The prime minister does the tough stuff but enjoys none of the reflected glow of things like the Presidential Medal of Freedom as Canadians are celebrated through Governor General’s awards.
Maybe the president’s emotional power rests partly upon the fact that he is available to the American people only on his own terms, with his lines ready, and the setting perfect. The Canadian prime minister, on the other hand, must face the Loyal Opposition nearly every weekday for an hour of grilling that is laughingly called Question Period – there are no real questions and fewer answers. Still, it is hard to imagine an American president, or the presidential myth, surviving the relentless onslaught of piercing queries and ruthless heckling.
So, how Americans treat their presidents – dead or alive – is distinctly different than how Canadians treat their prime ministers because Americans and Canadians are different. Trump may but Trudeau will never get a big marble monument. And that’s okay. Let us respect but not worship our prime ministers. Let us admire them when earned but never deify. Let’s remember former prime ministers as leaders from among us not mythical figures above us. Let us continue to see our politicians as not fabled purveyors of unobtainable dreams but public servants trying to make our country and lives just a little bit better.
(If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others through your social media of choice and consider checking more at http://www.johnboyko.com)