(From now through the end of the campaign next week, I’ll be with the Liberal tour. Regular reports should appear here irregularly.)
“Alors,” he said.
“Alors!” the crowd called back.
“Bonsoir tout le monde,” he continued.
“Bonsoir tout le monde!” they cheered.
Jean Chretien had only just begun.
A few caveats. The former prime minister’s popularity is generally over-stated. In 1993, he won his first mandate with 41.2% of the vote. Four years later, 38.5%. Three years after that, 40.9%. For sure, the current prime minister would be thrilled to see such support on Tuesday night, but these are not the numbers of a popular phenomenon. Hindsight may flatter his political skills, but Chretienmania this was not.
That said, in Mr. Chretien’s case, all objective analysis cannot refute what is obvious and apparent.
He walked into a packed high school gymnasium looking every bit his 74 years, but seeming not to have aged a day since leaving office. The crowd chanted his name and once on stage he picked so effortlessly where he left off.
Word-for-word his English might be worse than Mr. Dion’s. But Chretien’s charms have always been in the delivery. That growl. That shrug. The wagging finger. The pointing to imaginary references and symbolic directions. His language always plain and implicitly self-deprecating.
“The choice is clear,” he said. “The choice is Dion or Harper.”
“Dion! Dion! Dion!” the crowd chanted on cue.
It is astonishing to hear an audience laugh with Mr. Chretien. Often the chuckles start before the punchline is delivered, his lines so obviously telegraphed. And the resulting laughter of the sort you’d expect between friends, somehow familiar, weirdly inclusive. Everyone’s in on it, even if it’s obviously at someone else’s expense.
“He said buy,” Chretien remarked of Mr. Harper’s investment advice. “On Tuesday, Canadians will say bye bye Stephen.”
It was infantile. But it was vaguely brilliant.
He enunciated the Conservative government’s failings on half a dozen fronts and appealed directly to half a dozen target demographics. He blessed and elevated Mr. Dion—”our leader”—in a way he perhaps never spoke of the man who led the party in the interim between them.
He glared around the room and smacked the podium. And when he introduced his successor, his eyes exploded.
He lingered on stage then as Mr. Dion made his way down the kilometre-long receiving line his staff had set up. Then Luke greeted Yoda and the mentor took his place behind the unlikely protege. While Dion made his last grand plea—and not without a bit of success himself—some near the stage pestered Chretien for autographs.