When an old pal moves into the White House, the last thing you want to do is leave town. So it comes as no surprise to learn that being Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Canada was not at the top of James Blanchard’s wish list back in 1992. No, Blanchard wanted to be in Clinton’s cabinet and let it be known that he’d like Commerce or Transportation. Just before Christmas, everything seemed to be set: the president-elect’s men assured him that Clinton wanted him as transportation secretary. Blanchard celebrated with his family and waited for the final phone call from Clinton, who only weeks earlier had told him that he had been “like a brother to me.” Instead, Blanchard learned via CNN that someone else had been given the job; his old pal had left him high and dry. “I thought I knew him really well up until this moment,” Blanchard writes in his new book Behind the Embassy Door.
Canada, Clinton and Quebec. “Then I decided I didn’t know him at all.”
Instead, Blanchard got the consolation prize: a ticket to Ottawa, where he was U.S. ambassador from 1993 to 1996. A few of the Canadians mentioned in his memoir may wish he had stayed home after all. The RCMP will not enjoy learning that the U.S. Secret Service viewed them as “rather clumsy” during preparations for Clinton’s visit to Ottawa in 1995. Nor will the Mounties appreciate his account of how they staged a practice motorcade in front of the U.S. embassy across from the Parliament buildings, alerting any potential assassin of the President’s route and leaving the Secret Service agents in charge of Clinton’s security “practically weeping.” And Preston Manning has been embarrassed by Blanchard’s disclosure that he called the ambassador three days before the 1995 Quebec referendum to propose that an “international panel” figure out how to divvy up Canada’s debt in the event of a Yes vote. A tad too eager, perhaps?
But those who have most reason to regret Blanchard’s tenure are Quebec’s separatists. As he describes it, he found that Washington’s exquisitely balanced “mantra” on the independence issue—how it enjoyed good relations with a united Canada but Quebec’s future was up to its voters—was so bloodless that sovereigntists were portraying it “as a sign of support, sympathy or indifference.” So Blanchard, a onetime governor and longtime Democratic party operative in Michigan who helped Clinton win the presidency in 1992, threw his considerable political skills into making sure the U.S. government tilted decisively towards the federalist camp in its hour of need. Ultimately, Clinton himself
spoke out days before the referendum, extolling Canada as a “wonderful partner.” There wasn’t much doubt: Washington likes things just as they are. Or as Blanchard puts it: “Americans aren’t into separations and secessions.”
None of that comes as a surprise. Even sovereigntists who know the United States well realize they will never get active support from Washington; the best they can hope for is to convince Americans that a new country on their northern border is something they could learn to live with. What is more revealing is how emotionally involved Blanchard became with the No cause and
how close were his ties to Chrétien and his circle. He was in the shower getting ready for a TV interview on referendum night when his wife rushed into the bathroom to tell him that the CBC had finally called the vote for the No side. “ Thank God!’ I yelled back.”
At times, it seemed as though the ambassador was an ex officio member of the Chrétien team. He figured out quickly that power in Ottawa is highly centralized, that there were only “15 or 20 key players” he had to deal with, and he set about cultivating them. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, he was on the phone frequently with some of the Prime Minister’s closest advisers, including Eddie Goldenberg, Jean Pelletier and John Rae. He golfed with Chrétien, and was steered to a private meeting in Montreal with the PMO’s pollster, Maurice Pinard. As the poll numbers worsened for the federalists, he arranged for Warren Christopher, then secretary of state, to speak out on Canadian unity, and worked to get Clinton and Chrétien together at the United Nations. How tight was he with the people who matter? So tight that the Prime Minister took time to call him only minutes before he addressed the giant end-of-campaign rally in Montreal.
Is any of this worrying? Canadians normally fret that Americans don’t pay us enough attention, that for them we are, in Blanchard’s telling phrase, the “invisible world next door.” On the other hand, we don’t want them getting too interested. They’re bound to have definite ideas of what should be done and, being American and all, not shy about making sure it happens. Blanchard even suggested his own “Plan B” to Chrétien—proposing ways Ottawa could fight separatism more aggressively. And the timing of his book is no accident. With a Quebec election under way and yet another referendum looming, the message to separatists is clear. Forget Paris. Washington is the capital that counts, and there will be no aid or comfort from that quarter.
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