Those who have done business or politics with Gordon Giffin over the years use roughly the same set of adjectives to describe the 49-year-old Atlanta lawyer who is now the United States’ ambassador to Canada. Serious. Analytical. Discreet. Extremely hardworking. This is a man who, after all, when preparing for the coming renegotiation of the NORAD agreement between Canada and the United States, made a point of reading the entire original treaty. So it is more than mildly surprising when, with a toothy smile and no hesitation, the earnest ambassador fesses up that in Atlanta corporate circles, his nickname was Howdy Doody.
Nicknames, it seems, are a bit of a thing with the senior executives headquartered at The Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta, where for several years Giffin was on a retainer to provide advice on the very serious business of administrative law. And at his 30th birthday party, one Coke executive took a look at a photograph that had been set out of Giffin as a young boy and stuck him with the name. Not that the ambassador minds. “Oh, Gordon is a painfully serious man about whatever task is at hand,” says his longtime friend Connell Stafford, a vice-president at Coke (nickname: The Possum, “because I don’t talk much and look like I’ve been hit by a lot of cars,” he explains). “But Gordon just loves his nickname.”
There is a great deal else Giffin seems to be enjoying these days. For starters, the ambassador’s job has provided a chance to reacquaint himself with the country he grew up in. Though born in Massachusetts, Giffin lived in Montreal and then Toronto until he was 18, a period he recalls with a certain nostalgia and the common Canadian certainty that winters used to be harder and snowier than they are now. Then there is the unique platform Ottawa offers to the ambassador from the world’s only fully functioning superpower. When the American ambassador speaks, Ottawa must listen—however grudgingly. And despite a professional background in Georgia and Washington back-rooms that helped put Bill Clinton in the White House, Giffin has shown a readiness to come out from the political shadows to make a public case for the American interest.
And he has been very visible. After a quiet first few months on the job, Giffin came out swinging haymakers this past winter. He threatened massive trade retaliation from the south if the Liberals proceed with their controversial bill to protect Canadian magazines, cocking a few smart bombs for good measure in the direction of the steel industry in Heritage Minister Sheila Copps’s Hamilton riding. He bluntly told Ottawa to spend more money on its stretched armed forces. And he made it clear that the Liberals’ desire to push NATO into reconsidering its first-strike nuclear policy is a bad idea. Giffin delivers his messages so politely that Liberal ministers are left remarking on his high southern manners and gentlemanly style (Copps, who has gone head-to-head with him more than any other cabinet minister, calls him “Gord,” and watched the Super Bowl at his residence). But they have been stung by his attacks. Whatever happened, Liberals must wonder, to good old Jim Blanchard?
Ah, Blanchard—the likable former Michigan governor who preceded Giffin as U.S. ambassador to Ottawa and who so shamelessly proclaimed his love for Canada. Blanchard was regarded so fondly by Jean Chrétien and his top advisers that many of them still call him up on a regular basis just to chat. Blanchard arrived in Ottawa just before the new Liberal government in 1993, then bonded with the Chrétien gang during the 1995 referendum. The Prime Minister’s entourage shared polling data and their deepest fears about Lucien Bouchard’s mythic crusade with Blanchard, and they became brothers-in-arms in the process.
Giffin has left no doubt in Ottawa circles that, as one Foreign Affairs adviser put it, “the U.S. Embassy is under new management.” There is a marked difference in style between the two ambassadors:
Blanchard, the gossipy politician who liked to cut deals; Giffin, in keeping with his own professional background, the lawyer with a client’s interest to defend—in this case, the policies of the Clinton administration. “My style is to be pretty much in the weeds, and I spend 90 per cent of my time in private dialogue,” he told Maclean’s last week during an interview in his Ottawa office with its direct view of Parliament Hill. All the public fussing, he says, “is just the dp of the iceberg.”
But Giffin’s client is in an ornery mood these days, saddled with a record trade deficit as, almost alone in the world, its economy booms and frictions with trading partners increase. On the issue of the magazine bill, Giffin argues a forceful approach was necessary because “early on, nobody was paying attention to an impending problem. It was necessary to get people to recognize we were on a certain course and private discussions were not getting that attention.” The shift in strategy required “a little evolution for me” in terms of style. (Like others in Atlanta, former law partner Buddy Darden says he has known Giffin for 25 years and never heard him give a speech.) But Giffin quickly figured out other effective ways to convey his message, notably by cozying up to the National Post, which is philosophically inclined against any government policies that smack of protectionism or cross the Americans.
The result has been some nasty collisions of view between Giffin and the Liberals, with the most bruised being Copps and Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy. The dispute with Copps over magazine policy descended into some frosty language in a back and forth of letter writing and newspaper interviews. Copps suggested Giffin asked for an advance peek at the legislation. Giffin denies it. He contended she had refused to respond to his telephoned request to sit down to negotiate a compromise to the bill. Liberal aides argue his message arrived when Copps was out of town, and describe the ambassador’s public attacks on the minister as “crummy and cheap.” Giffin has since executed a tactical withdrawal back into the weeds on the magazine front, allowing Washington-based trade negotiators to take the lead.
Foreign Affairs officials also express alarm at the U.S. Embassy’s aggressive attempts to short-
A gentle U.S. envoy hits hard
circuit a parliamentary committee’s call for a reevaluation of NATO nuclear doctrine. And they contend the embassy has engaged in a campaign to paint Axworthy as anti-American, and his theories about the potential for “soft power” diplomacy as soft-headed. Few things bother Axworthy as much as suggestions he is anti-American, and a department official complains that Giffin’s “goons in the embassy are undermining Lloyd with attacks that border on the personal.”
As with Copps, however, the differences have not seemed to affect personal relations with Giffin. Axworthy and Giffin have socialized, most recently in early March at a small private dinner that went late into the evening. “Axworthy is a remarkably talented man who raises ideas that are worth having as part of an international dialogue,” Giffin says diplomatically when asked for his opinion of the minister. As for any antiAmerican streak in the Liberal government, Giffin says: “I seriously doubt anybody goes to work in the federal government on any day and says I’m going to be antiAmerican today.”
Actually, Chrétien is always happy when his government can show some independence from Washington by tweaking American noses—provided, of course, the cost to Canadian interests is minimal. And Chrétien advisers say they like Giffin personally and have never been under any illusions about where his loyalties should—and do—lie. “I have good relations with Gordon and we work well together,” says Ambassador Raymond Chrétien, his Canadian counterpart in Washington. “The job of an ambassador is to be an effective defender of your country’s interests, and he does that well.”
Senior Liberals say the only grating part of Giffin’s style is his tendency, as they see it, to invoke his own Canadian upbringing as a licence to suggest there is no such thing as a distinct Canadian culture. Giffin refuses to be cornered into giving any definition of what constitutes culture and whether, if it exists, it merits protection in global trade. And he does have a tendency to recite a checklist of his Canadian credentials. Saturday nights at the Forum watching the Montreal Canadiens (a stick autographed by the 1959 Habs team rests on a mantle in his office), watching Gordon Lightfoot at the Mariposa Folk Festival and attending the last baseball game at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Stadium all reappear in various interviews. Blanchard loved to recall the inspiration he got from an early train trip he took across Canada to get to know the country better. Giffin never considered it. “I took that trip,” he says curtly, “when I was 8.”
But his Canadian experiences also seem to be too formative to dismiss as a mere attempt to round out a résumé. Friends and political colleagues in Georgia are all aware of his Canadian roots. “Gordon is one of the few guys in Atlanta who knew something about hockey,” says old friend Stafford, “though he never had enough influence over me to get me to a game.” Giffin’s own impressions are easy to stoke. A flip through his high-school yearbook from Richview Collegiate Institute in Toronto (with an inside cover photograph of Parliament Hill eerily taken from a vantage point just steps from his
current office door) shows the slightly built, close-cropped Giffin in a football jersey. A defensive back and kick returner, he can describe exactly what it was like to stare into a sky of driving snow waiting for a punt to come down, and the unique fear of returning kicks without a fair-catch rule.
But he says he never really doubted he would end up in the United States. His mother was born there; his Canadian-born father was a naturalized American who brought the family to Canada as an employee of an American firm. Giffin left Canada after high school, though not before registering for the U.S. military draft on his 18th birthday, dropping into the U.S. consulate in Toronto to do so. “Not many Americans in Canada were registering for the draft,” he recalls with a smile. “They had to send away for the forms.” Giffin then left to attend Duke University in North Carolina and Emory University Law School in Georgia.
His exposure to politics came as a member of Georgia senator Sam Nunn’s Washington staff in the post-Watergate 1970s. Under Nunn, the values of probity, good listening and working long hours were nurtured. Even after retirement from politics, Nunn remains a political deity in Georgia and on Capitol Hill. His appearance on Giffin’s behalf at the ambassador’s Senate confirmation hearings seemed to be all the convincing the committee needed in a session notable as much for its jocularity as its brevity.
Giffin left Nunn’s Washington staff after four years, ending up in Atlanta where he practised law and became Nunn’s fixer in the city. “Some people would have used the Nunn connection like a hammer, but Gordon used it judiciously,” says former U.S. congressman Lindsay Thomas. Giffin’s success in Georgia politics, by all accounts, came from his ability to broker competing interests in the state’s Democratic party machine, perhaps most importantly, between Nunn and Clinton, who share crusty feelings about each other. He was also a big Democratic fund-raiser in the state. “Gordon has been known to shake a tree or two and stuff falls out: sometimes cash, sometimes cheques,” laughs Atlanta pollster Claibourne Darden.
But Clinton’s debt to Giffin dates from 1992, when the Georgian helped move his state’s primary to the front of the political calendar. Clinton was a sure bet in Georgia, and the big win there boosted his momentum after a scandal-plagued campaign in New Hampshire. Since then, Giffin has remained close to the President, which ultimately is what matters to Ottawa. Forever insecure about the big power to the south, sensitive about its place in the pecking order of American affections, Ottawa measures its U.S. ambassadors by how fast they can get the White House on the phone. On that, Giffin delivers. The Liberals just better hope they like what he is hearing from the other end. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.