A Victorian-style intellectual becomes ambassador in Reagan's roughhewn Washington
A chess player’s moves to the top
A Victorian-style intellectual becomes ambassador in Reagan's roughhewn Washington
PROFILE: ALLAN GOTLIEB
When boys at a B’nai B’rith camp near Winnipeg wanted to learn how to paddle a canoe or climb a tree, Allan Gotlieb was about the last counsellor they turned to for help. In a setting where most young men were keen to prove their ruggedness, Gotlieb steered clear of sports and
confined his competitive activities largely to the chess board. “The campers could have been off drowning for all he knew,” recalls onetime camper Larry Zolf, now a television producer. “The campers be damned! Gotlieb was off somewhere reading Schopenhauer.”
Gotlieb’s ability to zero in on what is important to him—whether it’s a game of chess, an arcane twist of international law or the labyrinthine paths to power in the civil service—has propelled him to exactly where he has always wanted to be. As a pampered child in the rich south end of Winnipeg, he
dreamed of being in the foreign service. This week, at 53, he takes up the prestigious post of Canadian ambassador to the U.S. But while Gotlieb is undoubtedly well versed in the complexities of Canadian-American relations— he has served in the powerful post of undersecretary of state for external affairs for four years—he is sure to find the challenge waiting for him in Wash-
ington a change from those he has faced in the past. With relations between Canada and the United States at a postwar low, Gotlieb will have to be part salesman, part huckster. The role is an odd one for a man whose intellectual and artistic bent makes him, according to one friend, best suited to being director of the National Gallery.
Nor will he have the luxury of easing in gradually. Right away, Gotlieb will have to deal with an intimidating lineup of American politicians, officials and businessmen intent on bullying the Canadian government into watering down the nationalistic thrust of the National Energy Program and Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA). Gotlieb insists that Canada plans to stick to its positions, but gives no hint of how hard he’s prepared to push, sidestepping the issue with bland assertions about the need to keep an open mind. “If we don’t listen to them, they don’t listen to us.” So far, Canada has been listening quite well. Ottawa has already shown its willingness to knuckle under to loud Yankee griping by shelving plans—temporarily at least—to toughen FlRA’s already weak provisions to screen foreign investment. Ironically, Canada’s nationalistic energy regulations are far milder than those in Britain, Norway, Mexico, Australia and other western oil-producing countries. A big part of Gotlieb’s job will be to remind the disgruntled Americans that even with Ottawa’s nationalistic rules, Canada is still one of the friendliest investment climates around.
While there’s little doubt Gotlieb can deliver this message, some question how much impact it will have coming from him. Gotlieb would have probably fit in well with the Washington crowd of the Kennedy or even Carter administrations, and some suggest his appointment must have been planned long before Reagan’s victory. Gotlieb’s impressive intellectual credentials—he stood first in his Harvard law class and taught private international law at Oxford—could well antagonize the roughhewn anti-intellectuals who now populate Congress and the Reagan administration. Moreover, he lacks the relaxed chitchat style that makes for easy rapport with strangers. Gotlieb insists this won’t be a problem. “I honestly don’t have any doubts I can rise to the occasion,” he says. “I’m a pretty articulate fellow. I’m a man of strong opinion and
I’m not particularly timid.” But no matter how articulate Gotlieb is, Reagan’s men, with their strong pro-business sentiments, may not be inclined to listen when a man with no business background starts talking to them about business. “What’s needed is someone who can stay up all night drinking scotch with these guys,” says one observer, who goes so far as to suggest that Reagan officials may take the Gotlieb appointment as an insult. “If the prime minister had sent down their kind of person, the gesture in itself would have been appreciated. This way he’s sending down an intellectual and essentially saying to the Americans: screw you.”
The son of a well-to-do merchant, Gotlieb grew up in an elegant home in south Winnipeg and displays the manners and tastes of a refined academic. In wire-rimmed glasses and a dark brown corduroy suit that looks like velvet, Gotlieb looks very much the Victorian man he considers himself to be. An avid art collector, he began buying 19thand 20th-century prints while he was at Oxford, and his Tissot collection was exhibited last year at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Gotlieb even toys with the idea of opening his own private gallery after he gets out of the civil service. “Allan can get more heated over a painting than over a world crisis,” says Zolf.
More esoteric still, Gotlieb has a collection of hand-carved 18th-, 19thand 20th-century chess With wife Sondra sets from Europe and -
Asia. Among his collection of-^^ietois a Qwwm'Rif Victor Gramophone, circa 1900.
Gotlieb is accustomed to getting ahead on the strength of his intellect. His string of academic credits sounds like that of a college dean, and in fact he has been approached to head university institutes and law schools. It was his sharp mind and grasp of issues that caught Trudeau’s attention in 1968 after Gotlieb joined External Affairs. Trudeau, who was then justice minister, asked Gotlieb for his views on foreign affairs and was apparently so impressed by the long submission he received that he incorporated some of Gotlieb’s ideas into his early foreign
policy platforms as prime minister. From there, Gotlieb moved quickly though the ranks of the civil service, becoming deputy minister of communications and then deputy in the key department of manpower and immigration—both areas in which he had little expertise. He has maintained a close association with the prime minister over the years and served as Trudeau’s personal representative in dealings with foreign governments at last summer’s economic summit in Ottawa and Monte-
bello. He remains one of a handful of people with easy access to Trudeau. But Max Yalden, Canada’s commissioner of official languages and a longtime friend, bristles when he hears people say that Gotlieb’s career has accelerated because of his connections with Trudeau. “It’s not as if Allan was a childhood friend to whom Trudeau’s given a push. He got Trudeau’s respect because of his capacity; they respect one another.”
Partly because of his ties to Trudeau—and close Trudeau associates Jim Coutts and Michael Pitfield—Gotlieb is known in Ottawa as a shrewd political insider who has stepped on more than a few toes on his climb through the ranks.
Even a close friend describes him as having “sharp elbows in Ottawa corridors.” And some of those who have worked for him are harsher. “There have been two kinds of bureaucrats in Ottawa from 1968 on,” says Boris Celovsky, a retired economist who served under Gotlieb at Manpower and Immigration in the early '70s. “One kind operates for the glory of the country, and the other kind operates for the glory of Trudeau. Gotlieb is the second kind.” Flora MacDonald levelled a few thinly disguised attacks on Gotlieb, who was her deputy while she served briefly as minister of external affairs. In speeches and articles after leaving office, MacDonald lashed out against senior mandarins who try to usurp ministerial power and freedom of action. She accused them of using “entrapment devices,” delivering documents to her desk too late for adequate consideration before cabinet meetings and somehow getting possession of cabinet memos designed exclusively for her eyes. MacDonald denies she meant to single out Gotlieb. “I’m not sure every deputy minister wasn’t part of that system.” Sitting in the spacious anteroom to his office, Gotlieb looks anything but ruthless and Machiavellian. In fact, he comes across as pleasant but formal and is not given to personal revelations. Recalling important childhood influences, he points not to his family, but to the strong internationalist sentiment
in Winnipeg in the ’30s. “Wheat was the basis of the economy. People looked to the world to sell their products.” He has, however, developed a reputation for throwing lively parties at his stately home nestled in among the embassies and estates of Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park. Gotlieb also has a varied assortment of friends, from top mandarins and politicians to novelist Mordecai Richler and the eccentric Zolf, who used to stay with the Gotliebs and their three children whenever he was in Ottawa. Zolf says he and Gotlieb have been friends for years, despite the fact that “I have about as much in common with him as I do with a Massey-Ferguson tractor.”
On the surface, Gotlieb’s wife, Sondra, doesn’t appear to have much more in common with her husband. Looking slightly sloppy and out of place in her own living room, tastefully decorated with art-deco and art-nouveau pieces, Sondra, an award-winning novelist, is as brassy as he is subdued. She grew up chubby, self-indulgent and unacademic—a childhood she documents in rich detail in her autobiographical novel True Confections. Into her rather mediocre Winnipeg existence Allan Gotlieb—or Martin Manheim, as he’s known in the novel—glided with all the grace of a fine Cognac, appearing as an intellectual god returned from the exotic world of Oxford. But he quickly bridged the huge gulf between them at their first meeting. Moments after she handed him a bowl of maple walnut ice cream at a party, he looked up from his chess set and replied, “Well, my plump little duck, let’s go upstairs where it’s quiet so I can learn all about you.” They had known each other only nine days when their scheming families trapped them into becoming engaged during a long distance telephone call with a poor connection. Gotlieb denies he was tricked into marrying Sondra; she replies that he’s just being gallant.
Sondra’s latest novel, First Lady, Last Lady—a tale of murder, sex and politics in Ottawa—isn’t autobiographical, but it does perhaps contain some insights into the Gotliebs’ lives. Although she swears the characters are fictional this time, Sondra admits she identifies somewhat with the heroine, an ambitious woman who has worked to advance her husband into 24 Sussex Drive. If that isn’t enough to make Canadian officials wince, there’s the question of just what Sondra will choose to write about next, with the Washington vista spread out so invitingly before her. Certainly if any guests at Gotlieb social functions in Washington find the new ambassador too stiff or academic, they can entertain themselves wondering in what form they may appear in Sondra’s next book.
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