More than 20 years after they studied together at Oxford, Montrealer Richard French still has vivid memories of the smiling, outgoing classmate who, he recalls, “was much more of a social animal” than most other students. Among the elite group of Rhodes Scholarship students from North America at Oxford University, Bill Clinton “knew more people and is the guy that most would remember of the whole class,” French said last week. “He was the one most conspicuously interested in other people.”
When French became a member of Quebec’s National Assembly from the riding of ^estmount in the 1980s, he recognized similar characteristics in one of his constituents: Brian Mulroney. “They both have an astute understanding of human nature and are instinctive politicians,” said French, now a senior vice-president with Bell Canada Enterprises in Montreal. And because of that, French— one of the few people with firsthand knowledge of both men—has little doubt about how the two leaders will relate to each other when they meet for the first time. Mulroney and Clinton, predicted French, “will get along like a house on fire.”
The first chance to establish that relationship arose late last week, when Mulroney, vacationing in West Palm Beach, Fla., telephoned Clinton in Little Rock, Ark. Their 10-minute conversation dealt primarily with shared economic concerns, from the role that Clinton will play at the next G-7 summit of the world’s largest industrialized nations, to the state of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the crumbling international talks on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
Personal: Mulroney also invited Clinton to visit Canada, traditionally the first foreign visit for an American president after taking office. Although Clinton did not formally respond to that invitation, one Mulroney associate said that the tone of the president-elect’s remarks demonstrated “a remarkable degree of knowledge about both Canada and the Prime Minister.” Mulroney also telephoned and sent a personal note to vice-president-elect AÍ
Gore—they met at the Earth Summit in Brazil in June.
Those calls demonstrated Mulroney’s determination to build the same easy, informal relationship with Clinton that he forged with former president Ronald Reagan from 1984 to 1988, and subsequently with President George Bush. But when Clinton takes office next January, both leaders will probably find the tone of their dealings dictated by a series of events that are beyond their control. Among them: the insistence of surly electorates on both sides of the border that their leaders focus on domestic, economic concerns and, within Canada, grow-
ing questions about Mulroney’s political future in an election year.
The two countries may find themselves on a collision course in several areas, particularly over NAFTA, to which Clinton has said he wants supplementary agreements, and by the possibility that the president-elect may be driven by America’s slumping economy to impose new protectionist trade measures. As well, Clinton says that his administration will collect an additional $54 billion in taxes from foreign— including Canadian—firms with operations in the United States (page 40). Said Dr. Victor Konrad, an American political scientist who is now the Ottawa-based representative of the Fulbright Foundation: “The Prime Minister is likely to find that a new president from a different political party may translate into a new and different way of doing business.” Isolationism’: Still, Konrad and other analysts interviewed by Maclean ’s say that it is unlikely Clinton will take ^ any direct steps that would
1 risk harming the warm relao tions between the two coun-
2 tries. Instead, there is a more s subtle danger. Said one senïï ior official at Canada’s embassy in Washington: “The biggest challenge for Clinton is resisting the trend towards
isolationism in the United States.” Such a scenario rekindles nightmarish visions for Canadian industry and politicians, who recall the discomfitting 1971 experience when President Richard Nixon imposed a 10-per-cent surcharge on some goods imported into the United States. That measure included Canada because, as White House officials later acknowledged, Nixon simply forgot to make an exception for America’s largest trading partner. Canada won an exemption from the action after then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made a hasty trip to Washington to plead Canada’s case.
Most analysts say that a repetition of the Nixon incident is unlikely. Said Stephen Blank, the head of the New York City-based Society of the Americas: “Canada and the United States are now so inextricably linked economically that a repeat of that kind of blunder would be virtually impossible.” But there is some concern in Ottawa about short-term uncertainty. Not only will Mulroney and Clinton be unfamiliar with each other, but both governments are expecting a turnover of key appointees. Derek
Burney, Canada’s highly respected ambassador in Washington, has announced his resignation and will leave office on Jan. 10 to become executive vice-president with Bell Canada Enterprises. For his part, Peter Teeley, the newly arrived American ambassador to Ottawa, is a longtime friend and political appointee of Bush, and he is expected to resign in January in order to allow Clinton to put his own appointee in place.
Still, the strength of the well-established, cross-border relationship normally ensures that it does not suffer when new presidents take office, no matter how slight their own
acquaintance with Canada. Even so, Clinton will enter the White House having had almost no direct contact with America’s northern neighbor. The Arkansas governor’s first visit to Canada was in 1987, when he spent one day in Montreal speaking to a conference of international city managers. He made his second visit last year, when he and his family took a ski vacation in British Columbia. And, because Clinton concentrated almost entirely on domestic, economic issues during his campaign,
his positions on a number of bilateral issues remain either unclear or unformed—and the views of his closest campaign advisers are equally unpronounced. Said Blank: “One might have wished that he could have managed at least one sentence in his acceptance speech to acknowledge our neighbor and largest trading partner.”
That is a far cry from recent years, when Mulroney often boasted of his first-name-basis friendship with Bush—and how his easy access to the President by telephone gave Canada what he once called “an unequalled relationship with the most powerful country in the
world.” Mulroney’s supporters have always argued that the close ties produced direct benefits for Canada, such as the Prime Minister’s successful efforts to persuade Bush in 1990 to agree to a bill limiting American acid rain emissions, despite the objections of many advisers in his administration.
But that political coziness also had drawbacks for Mulroney. Critics in the opposition Liberal and New Democratic parties argue that the friendly relationship was only buttressed by Mulroney’s willingness to appease White House calls for international support for its foreign ventures. They cite Ottawa’s subscription to such controversial policies as the 1989 armed overthrow of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Said Liberal external affairs critic Lloyd Axworthy: “We fell into traps like endorsing the Panama invasion simply because of this cozy little club atmosphere which had developed.”
And even Mulroney supporters acknowledge that his friendship with Bush reaped uncertain political dividends, largely because of the traditional ambivalence of many Canadians towards their powerful neighbor. The Mulroney family’s annual August visit to Walker’s Point, Bush’s summer compound in Kennebunkport, Me., “turns as many Canadians off as it turns some of them on,” acknowledged Jodi White, a longtime Tory activist and onetime chief of staff to then-external affairs minister Joe Clark.
Recession: But Canadians will be affected by Clinton’s presidency, even when his eyes are fixed firmly on America’s own internal problems. For one thing, hopes for a Canadian economic recovery clearly hinge on Clinton’s ability to end the deep, three-year-old American recession, which would increase demand for some Canadian-made goods. And some of Clinton’s interventionist plans are likely to spur calls for similar measures in Canada. Canadian analysts say that the new president’s proposal to create a federal workers’ compensation package is certain to put pressure on the Tories to streamline the present Canadian system, which currently offers more than 480 municipal, provincial and federal programs for laid-off workers. Declared Charles McMillan, a York University professor of administrative studies and former senior adviser to Mulroney: “The challenge for us—and I am not sure Ottawa is up to it—is to have our own initiatives and policies in place.”
More positively, Clinton’s selection of running mate Gore—who has made environmental causes a foundation of his political persona—may ease Ottawa’s quest for higher environmental standards. Since Reagan’s election in 1980, successive Liberal and Tory governments have had difficulty negotiating environmental agreements with the United States because the Reagan and Bush administrations maintained that tougher standards would harm industry and eliminate jobs. Now, the Liberals’ Axworthy and the New Democrats’ external affairs critic, Svend Robinson, both say that should change, leading to greater co-operation in such areas of shared responsi-
THE TORIES MAYBE PRESSED TO MATCH CLINTON’S ACTIVISM
bility as cleaning the polluted Great Lakes and strengthening the existing Clean Air Act. Said Robinson: “A Clinton-Gore administration will have a serious commitment to protecting the environment and, clearly, that has a major impact on us.”
But perhaps most unsettling for veteran federal politicians would be any spillover into Canada of the American voters’ call for a change of leaders and new political directions. A fresh, activist administration may have the effect of making Canada’s current crop of leaders—including both Mulroney and Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien—appear comparatively tired and bankrupt of ideas. Simply repeating the mantra that Canadians must rely on market forces to lift the country out of the economic doldrums, as Finance Minister Donald Mazankowski did last week, may pale in appeal beside Clinton’s determination to prove that governments should play a leading role in reviving national economies.
Political opponents say that trend will translate into electoral defeat for Mulroney if he decides to stay and fight another election. Clinton’s inauguration in January will take place at precisely the same time that Mulroney is likely to make his own final decision on whether to run again. Even Mulroney’s close associates acknowledge that he will use the
period between now and January to measure whether his chances of being re-elected are likely to improve.
At the same time, Mulroney may be encouraged by predictions from some analysts that Clinton’s election will have little bearing on Canadian voter preferences. At most, said pollster Michael Adams of the Toronto-based Environics firm, “the value of the American election is like the Blue Jays winning the World Series: it’s interesting entertainment.” But others suggest that Bush’s defeat may have a
more subtle effect on the already embattled Mulroney. Said Victor Konrad: “In the past, when he or Bush were down in the dumps, they had the kind of rapport where they could phone and commiserate with each other.” Now, added Konrad, “he will not have that with Clinton—and I think that is going to make Brian Mulroney a much more lonely leader.” That fact may weigh on Mulroney in the months ahead as he seeks to determine whether he can succeed where Bush could not—or if he even still wants to try.
ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH with NANCY WOOD in Ottawa and HILARY MACKENZIE in Washington
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.