Like Pierre Trudeau, whose leadership campaign roiled the waters of the Liberal party 40 years ago this winter, Barack Obama belongs to a national minority but refuses to express its grievances in the fashion of the day.
Just as Trudeau distanced himself from Quebec separatism, Obama views black nationalism with suspicion. He's a black American politician without black rhetoric.
That's not their only similarity. Like Trudeau, Obama seemed almost to come from nowhere:
One day he was hardly known, the next he was a tidal wave. Like Trudeau in 1968, he stands for "change," which means anything you want it to. He appeals, as Trudeau did, to citizens who have lived through a time of fractious partisanship and yearn for a new era, with fresh energy and fresh optimism.
In the context of national politics, Obama looks young, as Trudeau did. Trudeau was 48 when he became prime minister; Obama will be 47 at his inauguration next winter, if it takes place. Both of them taught in law schools, showing a particular interest in constitutional law. Both have been called thoughtful, exceptionally smart and charismatic. Neither came with experience in large-scale administration.
Obama burns with raging ambition (he wouldn't run otherwise) but he somehow conveys, just like Trudeau, the feeling that this job doesn't matter nearly as much to him as it does to some people. He manages to make even cynics like me consider the distant possibility that his ideals are more important than his ego.
He has a way of suggesting (as Trudeau did in his early days) that he sees the comedy in politics, even in his own drive toward the White House. On Thursday night, visiting David Letterman's show, he read out his Top Ten campaign promises, vowing to make Oprah Winfrey vice-president.
Letterman having made a running gag of Mitt Romney's matinee-idol face ("He looks like an American president in a Canadian movie"), Obama announced he would appoint Romney "secretary of lookin' good."
In places Obama and Trudeau differ sharply. Trudeau was rich in his youth, Obama relatively poor. Obama often says that there are decent people on the other side of any argument, and perhaps they should be heard.
That's not a notion we associate with Trudeau. The multiculturalism program of the Trudeau years put identity politics at the centre of Canadian society. Obama, the son of a woman from Kansas and a man from Kenya, grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii.
He argues for the kind of Americanism, once commonplace but now relatively rare, that minimizes identity politics and emphasizes the ideals all Americans, at their best, hold in common.
On sexual freedom, however, he again recalls Trudeau. Last Sunday, speaking at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Obama attacked black homophobia. Blacks, he said, haven't been true to Martin Luther King's vision of a beloved community. "We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters." Trudeau would approve that.
Politicians, American and otherwise, tend to be pretty boring. They work desperately hard (Hillary Clinton is the perfect example) to sound just like all other politicians. It drives them crazy when someone like Obama comes along with a new sound and upsets everything.
Charisma requires mystery and Obama supplies it. Obama, after months of campaigning, remains something of an oddity. For instance, he actually writes his own books (and pretty well, too). Love him or hate him, he's the most interesting American to enter national politics in many years. Being interesting, the right kind of interesting, does a lot for a politician. Obama, a leftish Democrat (he couldn't be nominated otherwise), doesn't insist on his ideology as others do. Even on Iraq, a card he's played as a leftist, he often grows vague.
Given the context of history, electing him president would be a radical act for America. But in the most important sense, Obama looks like the least radical of all the serious candidates More than most politicians, he believes in an America where people understand each other, tolerate each other, and work together. That dream may no longer be possible but it has about it the charm of an ancient tradition.