Before the glow was dimmed by an ill-timed slap, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s visit to Washington last week had a homey feel. It seemed less like an official voyage and more as though two trusted friends, Brian and Mila, had just dropped in on Ron and Nancy. Senior American and Canadian government officials spoke of the “warm personal relationship” between Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan, who spent a total of six hours together. During welcoming ceremonies on the White House lawn, Mulroney, surveying the flag-waving crowd, the Marine band and joint service honor guard, leaned across and told the President,
“That’s a gorgeous -
sight.” That night during a gala state dinner at the White House, Reagan wistfully noted that Mulroney’s 47th birthday was two days away. “And kid,” said the 75-year-old president, “I wish you the very best.”
But even before Mulroney’s return to Ottawa later in the week, opposition critics questioned whether tougher negotiating rather than firstname informality might not have given Mulroney greater leverage on bilateral issues ranging from acid rain to free trade. And in a jarring contrast to the amicable relations between the two leaders, the closing stages of Mulroney’s visit were marred when
word spread that Sondra -
Gotlieb, wife of Canadian Ambassador Allan Gotlieb, had—in a stunning breach of diplomatic decorum—slapped an American member of the embassy staff on the face as guests arrived at the ambassador’s residence for a dinner given by Mulroney in honor of VicePresident George Bush.
Most of the dinner guests, who included Secretary of State George Shultz and Katharine Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Co., were unaware of the incident. But about a dozen people, including photographers
and a journalist, saw the ambassador’s wife strike Connie Connor, embassy social secretary, after a discussion about a guest’s late arrival. Said Pamela Price, a Washington photographer who was on assignment for Maclean’s outside the mansion: “She really backhanded her.”
According to Price, a visibly upset Connor then ran down the front steps and re-entered the embassy by a back door. A few minutes later Mrs. Gotlieb—who has a reputation for sometimes being outspoken and impulsive—
followed after Connor. Price said that the two women then reappeared at the front entrance acting “like nothing had happened.” But Price said that Connor’s hair was askew and her face was red.
The next morning Canadian Embassy spokesman Bruce Phillips, a former CTV Ottawa bureau chief, issued a terse statement acknowledging that “an incident of a purely
personal character” occurred before the dinner. The statement added that “the incident was immediately regretted, an apology extended at once and at once accepted, and the issue was immediately resolved.” The next day the episode was reported prominently in major American newspapers. It was also a hot
item of gossip in Washington. Told of the slap, Susan Mary Alsop, a leading Washington socialite, commented, “Sondra Gotlieb must have been very tired, is all I can say.”
Still, Mulroney claimed that his visit to Washington for his fifth meeting— and second formal summit—with Reagan since taking office 18 months ago had produced impressive achievements. Those included a renewed U.S. commitment to talks on widened bilateral trade, a five-year renewal of the NORAD military defence agreement and Reagan’s acknowledgment, for the first time, of acid rain as a serious environmental problem.
In another announcement designed to fire the public imagination and spur Canadian high-tech research, Mulroney revealed that Canada will participate with Japan and several European countries in the construction and operation of a permanent, manned U.S. space station. Despite the government’s preoccupation with the $34.3-billion federal deficit, Mulroney said that Canada will spend about $800 million during the next 15 years to develop a mobile servicing centre for the space station.
But the most carefully orchestrated event of the summit was Reagan’s endorsement of a report that recognized acid rain as a manmade pollution problem and recommended that the United States launch a five-year, $5-billion program to find ways to control it. The 35page report was commissioned at the Quebec City summit meeting between Mulroney and Reagan last year and prepared by Reagan’s acid rain envoy, Drew Lewis, and former Ontario premier William Davis. But critics argued that Reagan’s endorsement did not commit Washington to any cuts in sulphur dioxide emissions, which are believed to be the major cause of acid rain. Instead, they noted, Reagan only promised to try to persuade Congress to appropriate the $2.5-billion cost of the recommended program. The other half of the $5-billion total would have to be provided voluntarily by U.S. industries. “It’s just an exercise in public relations. There’s really nothing here,” charged Adele Hurley, co-ordinator of the Canadian Coalition on Acid Rain. Said Henry Waxman, a Democratic congressman from California: “What I fear is that it may be a setback for efforts in Congress to get a control program.”
During the visit, Mulroney reserved his greatest display of charm for separate meetings with members of the Senate foreign relations committee and the House foreign affairs committee, some of whose members can propose a veto of U.S.-Canadian trade talks. Mulroney met in closed sessions for two hours with the U.S. legislators to discuss some 300 protectionist bills
in Congress to restrict Canadian trade in lumber, fish and other products. Representative Don Bonker, a Democrat from lumber-rich Washington State, told Mulroney that such “subsidy problems” as low stumpage fees paid by Canadian firms for cutting timber on provincial land had to be addressed before, or during, free trade negotiations. Mulroney’s reply, Bonker later complained, was “warm and gratuitous but not very specific.”
During the visit, American officials were adamant in their insistence that all issues—including a host of Canadian economic assistance programs that Washington regards as subsidies—
must be on the bargaining table during trade talks. And evidently Mulroney did not make much of an impression on Senator Claiborne Pell, a Rhode Island Democrat, who emerged from a meeting with Mulroney only to get his name wrong. “We’re very lucky to have Muldoon as Prime Minister,” noted the senator, “because he got into office not by American-bashing but by saying kind words about us.”
Still, Mulroney succeeded in winning a prediction from Thomas (Tip) O’Neill, the powerful speaker of the House of Representatives, that Congress was unlikely to stall trade negotiations. And Reagan repeated his support for negotiating the broadest possible trading arrangement “while recognizing that we are separate countries, each with our own national pride.”
The extension of the NORAD treaty also drew sharp criticism in Ottawa. The reason was the Mulroney government’s failure to insist on a clause that would have prevented Canadian in-
volvement in the U.S. Star Wars defence system. New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent charged that under the treaty, Canada could be “forced willy-nilly into Star Wars,” the proposed U.S. space-based ballistic missile defence system formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. Wellplaced Canadian government sources said that Canada had wanted the two countries to issue a joint statement avoiding any linkage between NORAD and Star Wars by reasserting U.S. support for the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Antiballistic Missile Treaty. But the Americans refused, so Gotlieb was on the telephone until 2:30 a.m. Tuesday with a
senior American official discussing the details of separate statements.
In the end, Mulroney—in what arms control critics branded a weak compromise-issued a statement Wednesday, timed to coincide with the signing of the NORAD treaty, noting that the two leaders had “underlined the importance of full compliance with existing arms control obligations.” Clearly, in the face of strong U.S. pressures, Ottawa had opted for the maintenance of good relations with Canada’s powerful neighbor. But as Mulroney returned to Ottawa, media reports of the embassy incident all but eclipsed the results of the summit itself, while in Parliament opposition critics angrily portrayed the Prime Minister as far too eager to appease American interests—an impression that could in itself prove a damaging slap at the government’s credibility.
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