Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Personal diplomacy

On that January day in 1982 when Allan Gotlieb held his first diplomatic reception as Canada’s new ambassador, an airliner departing Washington National Airport crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, killing 74, and a Metro subway car derailed, killing three passengers. A severe snowstorm had shut down Washington.

“A bad omen for us?” he asked in his recently released memoirs, “The Washington Diaries: 1981-1989.”

Mr. Gotlieb, who returned to Washington last week to promote his book, spent most of his first three years here in the difficult position of representing the elitist and enigmatic prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, who disdained President Reagan. The Reagan administration, meanwhile, was angry at Mr. Trudeau over energy and investment policies that threatened U.S. interests in Canada.

If he thought his tour as ambassador began with a curse, it ended with a political miracle when Brian Mulroney became prime minister in 1984 and established a “special rapport” with Mr. Reagan from the moment of their first White House meeting.

“As for conversation, well, it was jokes, jokes and more jokes,” Mr. Gotlieb wrote of an intimate lunch in the president’s private dining room in September 1984. “Reagan was amiability itself. … These two Irishmen are going to get along like blazes.”

Soon Mr. Reagan and Mr. Mulroney had agreed on a free-trade pact and reached a deal to reduce acid rain produced by U.S. factories that was drifting north and killing Canadian lakes and forests.

Throughout Mr. Gotlieb’s 613-page book filled with backroom details and insider gossip, he repeatedly highlights the lessons of personal diplomacy. His memoirs, published by McLelland & Stewart, could serve as a “how-to” book for aspiring ambassadors.

“The personal relationship was absolutely of critical importance during the Reagan era. … Mulroney set out to develop a personal relationship,” Mr. Gotlieb told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he discussed his book in an interview with former Time magazine journalist Chris Ogden.

Mr. Gotlieb knew Canada was “in the doghouse” when he first arrived in Washington in December 1981 and presented his diplomatic credentials to Mr. Reagan, whom he called the “Sun King.”

“The experience was so sterile it was memorable,” Mr. Gotlieb wrote in his memoirs.

The ambassador representing America’s No. 1 trading partner was lumped together with envoys from impoverished African nations and given only seven minutes in the Oval Office.

The ambassador recalled that presidential adviser Dick Darman later revealed Canada’s problem as far as the administration was concerned.

” ‘Reagan has a soft spot for Canada, but Canadians are too stupid to recognize it,’ ” he quoted Mr. Darman as saying.

Mr. Gotlieb, a career civil servant, quickly made friends in the administration with the help of his wife, Sondra, who soon charmed Washington society, especially the Georgetown crowd that responded with invitations to Sunday brunches and private dinner parties.

He also realized that an ambassador, whose role he described as “salesman, promoter … huckster … and lobbyist,” had to hit Capitol Hill, so he made his rounds of Congress where he discovered that Canada “had no friends and no enemies.”

“We had friends and enemies on the issues,” he said, finding allies on acid rain in the Northeast, which was also affected by the toxic fallout, or opponents in Detroit who considered the Canadian auto industry competition.

He wrote that Michigan Democrat John D. Dingell, then (and now) chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was the “number one Canada-basher.” When “the auto industry fiddles, he dances.”

“The Hill, it is theater, and too often, it is the theater of the absurd,” Mr. Gotlieb said at the Wilson Center.

“In the Congress of the United States, a foreign country is just another special interest — and not very special at that.”

• Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@

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