What did Pierre Trudeau actually say about Richard Nixon upon learning that the president had called him an ‘asshole’? Likely, not exactly what we think.

By Kathy English, for the Toronto Star

What did former prime minister Pierre Trudeau actually say about Richard Nixon upon learning that the president had called him an “asshole” in his private tapes?

The media, historians, and certainly the Internet, have reported the PM’s retort as one of the all-time best comeback lines, telling us that Trudeau said: “I’ve been called worse things by better people.”

Is that a fact, or rather, now, some four decades after the event, a widely accepted, best-available version of the truth?

Certainly the Star has reported these words as fact numerous times in recent years, most recently in my “You be the Editor” column in which I referred to Ottawa columnist Tim Harper’s reference to the iconic quote in his column about the outlook for Canada-U.S. relations under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Given the widespread reporting of that quote, Harper and I were somewhat taken aback when presented with new information challenging this version. Moreover, the source who challenged us is one we both regard as highly reliable: the Star’s (now retired) former managing editor and editorial page editor, Ian Urquhart, who was the Star reporter travelling through Europe with Trudeau in the fall of 1974 when the Nixon revelations became public.

“He did not say that. He said: ‘I’ve been called worse things by WORSE people’.” Urquhart told us. “I know. I was there. Indeed, I asked him the question.”

But, I told Urquhart, challenging his recollection: In his 1993 Memoirs, Trudeau himself said of Nixon’s slur, “My only response was that I had been called worse things by better people.”

Certainly this would seem to indicate that Trudeau himself, in looking back on his political life, had believed he had stated the iconic words as they have long been reported and shared online.

Continue reading this story on The Toronto Star website, where it was first published.