Canadians almost always vote Democrat in U.S. elections—and this time they have more reason to cast those surrogate ballots than ever before. Walter Mondale, who won his party’s nomination in San Francisco two weeks ago, is probably the only U.S. politician of either party to have a genuine understanding of the vague noises from their attic that Americans hear and usually ignore. I became aware of his more than superficial appreciation of Canadian realities during an interview I had with him in Washington, a political lifetime ago, when he was about to assume the vice-presidency in the Carter administration.
“The old notion,” he told me at the time, referring to the tricky relationship between our two countries, “was that Canada was to the north of us and could be taken for granted—that when we coughed you got pneumonia. Somebody in Washington would always advise that we try to match our problems with your resources, and that was that. Well, those days are over, and should be. Certainly, we must each pursue our own national interests, but, having said that, there is a special relationship that exists, if for no other reason than that we have a long border between us and are each other’s largest trading partners. There is so much that requires us to try to understand one another, not in an employer-employee or master-servant relationship but as two respectful national sovereignties that must simply get along with each other. That involves responsible leadership so that we don’t stir up the know-nothings in our respective societies. It involves not expecting too much or too little. I don’t think that U.S. efforts in the past decade get us a very high grade.”
That declaration may not deserve to be preserved in needlepoint to be hung above Ambassador Allan Gotlieb’s desk in the Canadian Embassy in Washington, but as a practical guide to resolving some of the silly quarrels that have kept our economic and political relations in a fairly frigid state over the past couple of decades it is not a bad start.
Mondale first became aware of Canada in the most mundane and traditional ways by fishing in our lakes when he was growing up. Later, as the junior senator from Minnesota, his state was dependent on the import of Canadian natural gas, and he became a high-profile spokesman on transborder energy issues.
The Canadian diplomat who knew him best was Richard O’Hagan, the former Lester Pearson press aide who became minister counsellor in our Washington embassy. Wanda and Richard O’Hagan often entertained Walter and Joan Móndale, and at one of their gatherings introduced Joan to Geills, the wife of an ambitious young Canadian cabinet minister named John Turner, who was visiting Washington. Their friendship has endured, and O’Hagan, now a vice-president with the Bank of Montreal, still has a 15-year-old cat
named “Kitty,” given to his family by the Mondales. “Fritz is the quintessence of American decency and honor,” says O’Hagan. “The kind of prairie populism we know in this country as being concerned with ordinary people’s problems doesn’t stop at the border. Mondale, never a man of pretension or elevated expectations, is a throwback to this great tradition. If elected, he would have a more intimate knowledge of Canada than any U.S. president before him, and the United States’ northern relationship would be very high on his agenda.” My own impression of Mondale was that of a politician much more inter-
ested in gaining social reforms through incremental compromises than ill-fated crusades. His unassuming style marks him as a colorless politician, but Móndale spoke to me with great conviction about the future of his strong belief in social reform. “The whole thrust of our Constitution is basically a distrust of government,” he said. “The birth of this nation wasn’t an affirmation but a distrust of power. It was the people who were going to protect democracy and it was the government that was going to threaten it. Everything followed from that.”
The Watergate scandal was in the air at the time, but Mondale saw it as proof of the strength of the American system, rather than a sign of its weakness—because the system proved to be stronger than a corrupt president. When I pointed out it was only by accident that the scandal had been revealed, he agreed, adding: “Yes, but what I feared was that the system would not prove able to assert itself in a way to restore constitutional balance. It did. That is a very comforting and consoling fact that ought to make our northern neighbors feel very good about us, even though temporarily they might not.”
Even if Mondale seemed to be making the case that there wasn’t more corruption under the U.S. system—just more disclosure—he did subscribe to the fascinating notion of U.S. democracy being in a perpetual state of revolution, with each political generation having the right (and the duty) to invent the kind of country it wanted to live in. “A lot of people have an unanalysed notion that the best society is a totally tranquil one. That is not true in my opinion. If we are going to change, going to reform, it requires debate and disclosure and often bitterly fought-out elections. That is the only hope for long-term progress.” As for the Washington Establishment, of which he is now indisputably a leader, Mondale declared, “It has been inbred in Washington for so long that its perceptions are not to be totally trusted.” He cited its failed attempt to rally public opinion behind the Vietnam War effort.
Móndale has a real chance of winning the U.S. elections, not so much because he chose an Italian woman to be his running mate but because the Democrats are that country’s majority party and because he himself personifies the Protestant ethic that still rules the volatile society to the south of us. For Canada, a Mondale victory could prove a real benefit. And if he didn’t behave, we would always have his cat as a hostage.
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