Everything was looking good for Canadian supporters of free trade as 1988 began. The polls were improving, the President and the Prime Minister had signed the agreement. Sure, the issue was tearing the country apart, but maybe the tearing apart would stop. Things were moving along right on schedule. There was just this small feeling of unease, a sense of something being not quite right.
If you wanted an analogy for the way supporters of free trade were thinking, you might remember the last time you bought a new car. You loved the car, you loved the smell of it, the feel of it; you were just beginning to stop hearing the little voice whispering that you had spent too much, that you should have bought a different one. Everything was fine. Then, just as you drove off the lot and turned the corner, you thought you heard a noise. Not an engine noise, necessarily, not a transmission noise. Just a noise. Probably nothing to worry about. Still ....
For Canadian supporters of free trade, the unease began when they saw pictures of the agreement being signed. Canada and the United States signed the free trade agreement on Saturday, Jan. 2. The Prime Minister of Canada put on his best suit, or one of his best suits, and travelled to Parliament Hill, where he signed the accord in his office. There was a little ceremony, and the whole thing was serious and solemn, as befits a matter of great importance. It looked just right in the newspapers: Mulroney, dignified, well-dressed, holding a pen, an optimistic look on his face.
Right beside the picture of Mulroney with pen in hand was a picture of Ronald Reagan. Reagan also had pen in hand, but there was something just a little off about his picture. The President of the United States was not at the White House. He was on vacation in California. He didn’t go to the office to sign the free trade agreement with Canada. Furthermore,, the President was wearing a sweater and an opennecked shirt. He didn’t even put on a tie to sign the agreement that was tearing Canada apart.
You can imagine Mulroney, a day later, hearing a little noise in his car as he looked at the pictures in the newspaper. You can imagine Mulroney deciding not to worry about the noise,
because the car was running pretty well anyway. So what if the Americans don’t put on ties to sign free trade agreements. The Americans are like that. They’re informal people. And maybe the President wanted to put on a tie. He did say, after all, that the agreement was a “truly historic pact.” Maybe he just couldn’t find a tie. Maybe he didn’t take any ties with him to California. Hardly anyone ever wears ties there.
That would explain it, right? Goshas the President might say—everybody was informal these days. Informality was a trend. Remember Gorbachev— how he wore an ordinary suit to that big dinner in Washington when everybody else was wearing black tie?
Still .... Could the President have allowed himself to be distracted a bit? Could there have been other things on his mind? More important things? His handlers might have been bugging him
Was something wrong? The President didn’t even put on a tie to sign the agreement that was tearing Canada apart
about them. Those talks with Gorbachev. Nicaragua. Congress. The dollar. The balance of payments. Maybe the President was not giving Canada his full attention.
Looking at the picture again, what was that the President had on under his sweater? That would be terrible if the only time they could schedule for the signing of the free trade agreement was during his vacation, first thing in the morning: put a sweater on over his pajamas and sign whatever that Canadian thing was and then get him ready for the breakfast meeting with the ambassador from El Salvador.
Something wrong with the car? Did you hear a noise? No. It couldn’t be. Everything was just fine. The protests on signing day were small. The Conservatives were up in the polls. According to the latest polling information—or at least some of the latest polling information—the free-trading Conservatives had caught the antifree-trading New Democrats and were closing the gap on the equally antifree-trading Liberals. The election on
free trade that the Liberals and New Democrats had been demanding was just around the corner. The Liberals and New Democrats were not as happy about it as they thought they would be.
What could go wrong? After all, there weren’t that many other countries for which the President would give up some of his hard-earned vacation time to sign a free trade agreement. Signing the agreement on his holidays just showed how much he thought of us. Belgium and Malaysia and places like that wouldn’t get treatment like that, probably.
Everything was fine. Sure, the President had some trouble at home. It’s true that congressional leaders were urging him to postpone submitting the deal to Congress. And it is true that protectionist sentiments were on the rise a bit in the United States. Unfortunately, American protectionism is always up a bit during an election year. But that’s politics, right? Whereas, what we’re talking about here is not politics. It’s a trade agreement. Reagan himself said that he was proud and happy that the agreement happened during his presidency. And Reagan was still very popular.
Just to give you an idea of how popular Reagan was, here’s a newspaper photograph of him with Bob Hope. Americans love that stuff. As long as Reagan can keep shaking hands with Bob Hope, Americans will love him and those people in Congress won’t dare vote against the free trade agreement he was so proud to sign. In the photograph, Ron and Bob are both wearing black tie and Ron is honoring Bob during the opening of the Bob Hope Cultural Center in Palm Desert, Calif., on Saturday night. The award is presented to—wait a second. Saturday night? When he was on vacation? The same Saturday he signed the truly historic free trade agreement, when he didn’t put on a tie? And then he got all dressed up that night for Bob Hope?
Well, you can see that some people would feel a bit uneasy about that, the President dressing for the free trade agreement as if he were dressing to ride a horse, then getting all fancied up later on for some movie star. But there is no real significance to it, no reason to worry. The President is on record as saying that the free trade agreement is very important to him. And Bob Hope is very important to him as well.
Charles Gordon is a columnist for The Ottawa Citizen.
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