In his five years as White House deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver built a reputation as President Ronald Reagan’s master image-maker. But last week officials from the General Accounting Office (GAO)—the investigative arm of the United States Congress—testified that the public relations consultant, who resigned from the White House in May, 1985, appears to have violated conflict-of-interest laws as a $105,000a-year Washington lobbyist for the Canadian government. By dealing with the acid rain question both in the White House and later as a lobbyist for Canada, the GAO said, Deaver may have breached laws restricting the lobbying activities of former government officials. And Deaver, acknowledging that “the public perception at this point is not good,” conceded last week that the one image he had failed to safeguard was his own.
But as new questions were raised in Washington and Ottawa about the Canadian government’s involvement with Deaver, critics charged that there may be another casualty: Canada’s own image in the United States. Said Liberal MP Lloyd Axworthy, deputy external affairs critic who last week called for a
parliamentary investigation into Deaver’s hiring: “The fact that we are running really close to the line in being an accomplice to breaking the law is extraordinarily bad for our image.”
Deaver, who denied violating any laws, at the same time eliminated some sources of the controversy. The morning after the GAO turned its report over to the justice department for an investigation into possible criminal charges arising out of his lobbying, Deaver announced that he was giving up three of the privileges that symbolized his unique access to the President. He will no longer have a copy of Reagan’s confidential daily schedule, use the White House tennis courts or retain his White House pass.
For Ottawa, involvement in the Deaver affair is seen by many observers as the most harmful development in a series of recent blows to Canada’s prestige in Washington. That negative cycle began on March 19 when Sondra Gotlieb, wife of the Canadian ambassador, slapped the embassy’s social secretary, Connie Connor, at an official dinner during Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s visit to Washington. Gotlieb and her husband, Allan, had achieved such success in attracting
powerbrokers —led by Deaver —to their soirées that the Wall Street Journal had hailed them as the hottest couple on embassy row. But the incident became the leading subject of press reports and gossip in the capital. Since then, the Gotliebs have kept an uncharacteristically low social profile.
Washington society seems to have retreated from its initial defence of Sondra Gotlieb. Last week, in a twopage article in the Washington Post entitled “A Big Chill for Canada?”, reporter Lois Romano wrote, “Many guests were genuinely shocked by the insensitivity and arrogance Sondra Gotlieb’s behavior implied.” She added that some Washington luminaries are now having second thoughts about attending Canadian Embassy functions—and are speculating how soon Ottawa will terminate the Gotliebs’ posting. Said Sonia Adler, editor of the city’s monthly social chronicle Washington Dossier. “When it happened we cringed and stood behind her. But in fact all the ambassadors’ wives said, ‘Thank God, it’s her.’ Sondra Gotlieb was never that wonderful to her peers and she won’t be missed.”
Much of the controversy over Sondra Gotlieb’s action reflected the resent-
ment the couple had created on their way to cutting a social swath in Washington—including her controversial twice-monthly satires in the Washington Post on social life in the city she called Powertown. Acknowledged one Canadian diplomat: “If the wife of the Somalian ambassador had done this nobody would have noticed. But given the path this couple has chosen, there
are people who are rushing in now for the kill.” In fact, a senior Ottawa official confirmed that Allan Gotlieb “has been mortally wounded as ambassador.” He is expected to leave his post by the time of the November congressional elections, possibly for an academic position at Harvard. Among the candidates for his job: former ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor, now an executive with the U.S. food conglomerate RJR Nabisco Inc.
But the “slap flap”—as one headline described
it—had all the more serious implications for Canada-U.S. relations because of the strategy of “public diplomacy” that Gotlieb himself devised to raise the country’s
profile in Washington. That strategy employed increased press coverage and direct lobbying on Capitol Hill to press Canada’s case. Even the ambassador’s severest critics give him credit as a highly effective diplomat who has won
unprecedented U.S. attention for his
country’s interests. But observers in
both capitals are beginning to ask whether that media prominence has had a negative effect on the country—now that the press notices have become less laudatory. Said a former Reagan administration official: “It’s a great irony that after five years of being the toast of the town, all that anybody is going to remember is the slap.”
Some critics also blamed the ambas-
sador for the fact that Ottawa was caught off guard last month when the Senate finance committee abruptly threatened to vote against Canada’s bid to begin free trade negotiations. The committee finally agreed to the negotiations, but some observers charged that Gotlieb should have known that a majority of key senators planned to vote against the measure. They also claim that Gotlieb angered Finance Committee chairman Robert Packwood—who represents lumber interests in Oregon—by indicating that Ottawa, because it had White 9 House support, did not I feel compelled to como promise its position of selling lumber to the
Other analysts say that Canada was nothing more than an innocent victim of American political battles. They add that in the Deaver case Canada may have stumbled into a similar fight. Said Paul Robinson, U.S. ambassador to Ottawa until last year: “It’s people
trying to get Deaver because he’s close to the President. It has no long-term effect on relations with Canada.”
The Deaver investigation—initiated by Congressman John Dingell (DMich.), who represents automakers opposed to emission control standards— may already have damaged further progress on the acid rain issue. Said David Hawkins, senior attorney at the National Resources Defence Council, a Washington-based environmental organization: “Opponents of acid rain controls are already using the Deaver affair as an excuse to stall legislation.” And while U.S. critics have charged Deaver with overzealousness in promoting action against acid rain, Canadian critics doubt that he was really effective. Deaver has claimed that he does not even know what acid rain is. Demanded Newfoundland Liberal MP George Baker last week: “If he doesn’t know what acid rain is, what does he actually do for his $105,000?”
The circumstances of Deaver’s employment raised serious issues that have led all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office. After the Canadian Embassy refused on five occasions to cooperate with the congressional investigation into Deaver’s activities, Gotlieb finally submitted a letter on the GAO’s final deadline for information. In it, he claimed that the first discussion of a contract with Deaver occurred on May 16, 1985—six days after he had left the White House. But that account contradicted published reports citing unidentified Canadian diplomats as saying that informal discussions had taken place with Deaver during preparations for the March, 1985, Shamrock Summit between Mulroney and Reagan in Quebec City.
Three days after sending his letter, Gotlieb dispatched a second note. He acknowledged that a Canadian official— later identified as Mulroney’s close friend and senior adviser, Fred Doucet—had made “a lighthearted conversational remark” to Deaver during the summit preparatory meetings that Canada could use his “talents.” But Baker told Maclean's last week: “The senior policy adviser to the Prime Minister does not make ‘lighthearted’ remarks. In a courtroom, that phrase is your defence when you’re caught.”
The Deaver case may lead to a total re-evaluation of Ottawa’s strategy in Washington. Last week Axworthy said that Ottawa needs to re-examine its lobbying tactics. He declared, “It is time for a much more correct, proper, comprehensive style to get our case heard on its merits, as opposed to who you know.” Axworthy added, “Irish eyes have been a little bit blackened over this.”
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