Her only bad habit was us

A few of us were standing around the bar at the National Press Club in Ottawa on a Friday night in late 1975. Some couples were dancing in the next room. Mostly it was just the usual bar scene, boozing and boasting. Until Margaret Trudeau swept in with a certain devil-may-care attitude and a security detail officer a few steps behind.

Such a drop-in was unheard of. A few MPs might come for lunch, a lobbyist or two might mingle, but not the prime minister’s wife. Margaret had recently been in the news so maybe she thought she should come hang out with some hacks. She was just back from a trip to Cuba and Venezuela with Pierre where she’d entertained guests of Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez at a formal dinner with a little “song of love” she’d written herself. Canadian officials were chagrined at her behaviour.

A small knot of barflys gathered around Margaret while Trudeau’s press officer, Ian Macdonald, who happened to be present, phoned the boss in a panic. Pierre was across the street in the West Block attending an event, so was able to arrive in less than ten minutes. As he stood beside Margaret, she threw a quarter onto the bar and said, “Get this man a soda. I guess I can afford that.” Peter Meerburg, of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, was on the phone at the other end of the bar dictating a story about the scene to his night desk.

Pierre spoke quietly to Margaret and took her onto the dance floor where they had more words. There must have been some agreement struck because Pierre soon departed and a few minutes later so did Margaret, lighting up a joint as the elevator door closed while her security officer pretended to look elsewhere. There was much gossiping and tongue-clucking in the days that followed.

We now know that Margaret was unhappy in her marriage, suffering from a bipolar malady, and taking various drugs that drove her to do outrageous things. In the years since, she has dealt with her demons, found peace and is now helping others handle their own mental issues.

And so it was wonderful to see her as a full participant at the swearing-in of her son, Justin. Margaret, a wife of and a mother to a prime minister, has come full circle. Along the way she has gained many admirers and the rest of us have learned a little humility.

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