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Why the U.S. press corps can’t get enough of Canada’s Prime Minister

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, and their children, greet students from Paterson Elementary School, in Washington, as they arrive at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Wednesday, March 9, 2016.

Cliff Owen/AP

The U.S. media can be as nasty as a rabid pit bull, but throw it a new toy in the shape of a pretty prime minister and it turns into a purring pussycat. Case in point: For the past week, American news outlets have been treating Thursday's state dinner in Washington as something akin to a debutante ball, each breathlessly outdoing the other in a race to introduce their audience to Justin Trudeau.

The Washington Post ran a series of adulatory articles about him; 60 Minutes, which noted he was "the scion of political royalty," led its Sunday night broadcast with a 14-minute report that focused on his glamorous and troubled family history and his 2012 boxing match with Senator Patrick Brazeau; the Associated Press talked up his "star power," and on Tuesday the Beltway-based Politico ran a story titled "Justin Fever Hits Washington," which opened with a quote from an unnamed senior Obama administration official who declared that "with his looks, heart, and mind, he's dreamy … my new political crush."

With eight months still to go before their own general election, the U.S. press corps seems exhausted and demoralized by their inability to bring Donald Trump to heel. Mr. Trudeau offers them a pretty distraction – and one who, having quoted Abraham Lincoln's reference to "the better angels of our nature" in his victory speech last October, has flattered their own political history. His win reminds Americans of the last brief moment they were (more or less) politically unified, in January, 2009: The D.C. news outlet The Hill trumpeted Mr. Trudeau as "the Canadian Obama."

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When reporters turn their gaze toward the leaders of other countries, they usually treat them in one of three discrete ways: As an object of ridicule (see: Silvio Berlusconi); as an object of fear (see: Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad); or as someone whose experience might inform their own country's politics (see: David Cameron and Angela Merkel, currently engaged in battles against anti-federation forces which echo the periodic challenges of both Canadian and American leaders).

Because of a rare confluence of factors, Mr. Trudeau supersedes those categories.

Partly, that's because the last time Americans turned their gaze northward, they were gawking at the car-crash mayoralty of Rob Ford. (See: object of ridicule, above.) For most of his time in office, Stephen Harper barely attracted much notice at all. He was too boring, by design; and besides, his notorious antagonism toward the press meant that, even when other countries' media paid him any mind, it was more pro forma than passionate.

Toward the end of his term, though, the ridicule began to rain down, capped by a lengthy segment on John Oliver's HBO program Last Week Tonight that aired on the eve of his electoral defeat last October in which the host, noting some of the then-prime minister's more conservative policies, suggested Canada was "America's next-door neighbour, and Stephen Harper is her [expletive deleted] boyfriend."

That ridicule has now turned to curiosity about the man who replaced him. Last weekend's Christian Science Monitor featured a 3,300-word cover story headlined: "Justin Trudeau: Is He Canada's J.F.K.?"

"It was a natural fit for us," explained Scott Armstrong, a senior editor with the Monitor who oversees long-form features. "He's a new young leader on the world stage, he presumably will be taking Canada in a new direction after a decade of conservative rule."

But there's more. "Any new leader puts a bit of a mirror back on the U.S., and I think his sunny optimism, whatever is behind that, certainly represents something of a contrast in tone to the politics that's going on in the U.S. I think that's of interest to people," Mr. Armstrong said.

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"His stand on refugees is certainly different than a lot of prevailing views in the U.S. He's got different views than the administration does on the commitment of hardware to battling ISIS, and I think that makes a natural interest.

"Plus, he just has an interesting biography, beyond the family background. I'm not sure how many world leaders have taken ballet lessons in the past, however briefly, and worked as a bouncer."

Critics of Mr. Trudeau will be gritting their teeth as they take in the honeymoon phase of the U.S. media and the new Prime Minister. There is little tough coverage in this first wave.

"I think sometimes people get the benefit of the doubt," Mr. Armstrong acknowledged. "I don't think we know how he'll be as a leader or precisely where he'll take the country, or how much good fortune he'll have, or how adept he will be. I think that second chapter is waiting to be written, and people will certainly be keeping an eye on it."

After all, Mr. Trudeau's term of office is four years. That leaves plenty of time for the U.S. press corps to turn on their new best friend.

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More


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