Popsie Tribble, the Washington socialite, came over this afternoon and brought me bad news about my country. “You have a heavy burden in this city, Sondra, ” Popsie said. “Cañada is just not chic. ”
When Sondra Gotlieb, wife of the Canadian ambassador to the United States, began her twice-monthly satirical letters on life in the U.S. capital for The Washington Post nearly two years ago, officials in Ottawa were not amused. In a Commons committee Sinclair Stevens, then foreign affairs critic for the Conservative opposition, questioned the propriety of a diplomat’s wife poking fun at the tribal rites of Washington’s sociopolitical jungle. That reaction, as it turned out, was a good barometer of the differing sensibilities north and south of the 49th parallel. While Canadians recoiled from the self-parody and self-promotion, Americans were raising their glasses to its refreshing chutzpah. Indeed, in the four years since Sondra and Allan Gotlieb first arrived in Washington, her iconoclastic public correspondence and her calculated party-giving have turned the unchic Canadian Embassy into the toast of that microcosm of geopolitical gamesmanship which she christened Powertown.
Last spring the March issue of Vanity Fair, the current Bible of upscale trendiness, devoted a full page to her candid musings on diplomatic life, describing her rambling Rock Creek Drive residence as “the only hot spot on Embassy Row.” On July 29 the front page of the renowned Wall Street Journal celebrated her husband as the capital’s most effective and well-connected diplomat. In a separate article devoted to the ambassador’s wife, the Journal hailed her as “the Alice Roosevelt Longworth of her time”—a comparison to U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt’s irrepressibly acid-tongued daughter, who liked to declare, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, sit by me.”
In fact, last month, as 45 of Sondra’s “Dear Beverly” missives were published on both sides of the border in a book called Wife Of, it became clear that the satirist who wrote that married women in Washington “are known as wives of famous jobs or countries” has emerged as much more than the Wife Of, as she calls herself. At 48, Sondra Gotlieb has become a star in her own right. Acknowledged the ambassador: “I could
not have done it without Sondra. To the extent that I am well-known here, it is because of her.”
Just how much of a star Gotlieb has become is clear from the fact that her lionization has generated its own backlash. In recent months two women journalists and socialites have criticized Gotlieb’s style. In The Toronto Sun columnist Joan Sutton dismissed her hostessing on the grounds that she served luncheon with paper napkins “that looked as though they had come from
Air Canada.” And in a current issue of a glossy Washington magazine, Regardiez, freelancer Sandra McElwaine delivered a devastating mix of unattributed accusations charging her with rudeness, butting her cigarettes in the saltcellar and “assiduously courting” The Washington Post’s editorial page editor, Meg Greenfield, to win a berth for her column.
Gotlieb dismissed the article as sour grapes from a woman who had not made the embassy’s guest lists. But the latest controversy merely confirms how the Gotliebs have raised the profile of a country that until recently had pro-
voked little interest in Washington. Said Gotlieb: “Certainly people know who we are now.”
That is clearly not an accident. A brilliant onetime Rhodes Scholar and bureaucrat, Allan Gotlieb had realized that Canada’s historical behind-thescenes policy of persuasion was not effective in the realpolitik of the United States, where 80 per cent of Canada’s exports were at stake. In the carefully devised strategy of “public diplomacy” that he pioneered on arriving in Washington, his wife became one of the key elements in winning the country more publicity—and greater access to power.
Soon after their arrival, Sondra Gotlieb delighted a Washington Post reporter with ingenuously nervous confessions of bumbling through the city’s social maze. She related how at the first embassy party she gave, she found herself unable to recognize any of her guests. “Hello, I’m the hostess. Who are you?” she said to one. “I’m Caspar Weinberger,” replied the secretary of defence. Gotlieb emerged from the Post’s story as a scatterbrain who blurted out whatever trenchant witticism came to mind.
She says now that her nervousness was real. “I spent the first year-and-ahalf with my stomach in knots,” she said. But she acknowledges that as a seasoned traveller and Leacock awardwinning humorist —for her 1978 semiautobiographical novel True Confections—she is not quite as unsophisticated as she came across. When she arrived in Washington she had just completed a cross-Canada tour promoting her second novel, First Lady, Last Lady. “I was still thinking in terms of a book tour,” she said. “I thought, ‘You’ve got to give them an angle.’ ”
In fact, the confessional angle that she gave to the Post produced an article which the Gotliebs credit with launching them in the capital. The day after it appeared, Sondra was invited on The Today Show, and Allan began to see his speeches reported prominently in The New York Times. As Sondra once wrote to Beverly: “If the Media don’t know you exist, the Powerful Jobs won’t know either.”
But the ambassador says he still found that the Powerful Jobs at the White House did not answer his calls. He realized that the place where all of Washington’s scattered power centres converged was the social circuit and he prepared to assault it. Said Sondra: “It is a pretty cynical approach. But it was a totally concerted effort on both our parts.” When she reported that she had met the Wives Of administration officials with whom Allan could not get an appointment, he prodded her into throwing a dinner party for one of them: Jean French Smith, wife of then-attorney general William French Smith, who
was also one of President Ronald Reagan’s closest confidants.
Gotlieb says that she was terrified when she phoned to invite Smith, who she was not even sure remembered meeting her. “I thought, ‘Gee, that’s pushy,’ ” she said. “I had a really Canadian attitude.” But that guest list lured most of the cabinet, giving the Gotliebs a social entrée which has lasted to this day. Said Sondra: “We discovered parties are a way for your husband to get his views across. People will tell you things over drinks that they will not tell you in the office.”
The ambassador credits after-hours socializing with giving him the inside story on what the White House really resented about former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and clearing the way for last spring’s Shamrock Summit in Quebec City. When Sondra’s Dear Beverly letters began to appear in The Washington Post—each one vetted and approved by the ambassador—they cemented his position. And their celebrity status was a major factor in winning the Gotliebs an extended tenure in Washington when Brian Mulroney took office last year. Indeed, when Mulroney was still opposition leader, they threw a black-tie gala for him that outdrew those for their friend Pierre Trudeau. The glittering guest list included Secretary of State George Shultz, former White House strategist Michael Deaver and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. In front of that assembly, the ambassador toasted his guest of honor in such glowing terms that one invitee later termed it a gambled endorsement which apparently impressed the future Prime Minister.
But the latest attacks on Sondra have demonstrated the risks of public diplomacy. Notoriety can be a double-edged sword, and the Gotliebs say they are concerned that aspersions cast on a diplomatic high profile can spill over onto their country. Said the ambassador after the appearance of the Regardie’s critique: “I hope the record of what we have done here will prevail.”
Mulroney has assured the Gotliebs of another year in Washington. But although Sondra Gotlieb acknowledges that the Washington posting has been the happiest four years of a strong marriage that began three decades and three grown children ago in Winnipeg, she has no desire to stay on after the party is over. “It would be a mistake,” she said. Or, as Sondra wrote to Beverly, “This is a town where status shifts so swiftly that a euphoric Powerful Job who never had time to return his phone calls can easily turn into a decompressing Used-To-Be-Close-To whose telephone never rings.”
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