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At least Obama didn't call him 'Steve'

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Drummer Ringo Starr never lost his Liverpool working-class roots. Yet as the Beatles achieved worldwide fame, he became aware that his immediate family started treating him quite differently. And it made him uncomfortable. As he later recalled in the Beatles Anthology, one day he came home for a visit and his mother and aunt rushed around the house insisting that he sit in the plush chair usually reserved for his father. His tea cup was kept full and hot and they hung on his every word.

Thursday in Ottawa, President Barack Obama received similar treatment. In fact, for much of the week, newspaper and television journalists have been flitting around Washington and Ottawa hyping the president's six-hour stopover. On Tuesday evening, the CBC's National anchor Peter Mansbridge was granted a 10-minute audience with Obama to talk about trade, oil and security matters. The CBC then milked this brief interview that night and on Wednesday's National broadcast analyzing, dissecting and commenting on the president's every word and nuance. Obama's off-the-cuff remark that Canadians "should not be too worried" about the "buy-American" clause in Congressional trade legislation, drove Mansbridge and his expert analysts to distraction.

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Just as Ringo felt so uneasy by the fuss he encountered, it is all a bit much.

The fact is, while Ottawa was locked down Thursday like Fort Knox, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, who was allotted 15 minutes with the president, were on their best behaviours, little of substance will arise from these discussions -- despite the media's excessive attempt to spin it as akin to the Second Coming. The story of Obama's visit did not make the front page of the New York Times on Thursday nor was it even noted on its main website page. Instead, the newspaper carried a wire copy about the talks buried inside.

This is par for the course for many past presidential visits to Canada: a lot of hoopla and salivating by Canadian journalists but nothing in the way of producing serious policy developments. There are polite handshakes and vague discussions about future plans. Indeed, the best thing that can be said about these presidential-prime ministerial tête-à-têtes is that they reassure Canadians that Americans know we exist.

Amazingly, the first U.S. president to set foot in Canada was Warren Harding and that was in 1923, more than five decades after Confederation. It was not even an official trip. He was on his way home from touring Alaska when he decided to play a round of golf in Vancouver. He became ill with pneumonia and died seven days later in San Francisco. Vancouver's Stanley Park has a princely memorial to commemorate the fateful visit.

During the 1930s and 1940s, William Lyon Mackenzie King idolized president Franklin Roosevelt. The two were Harvard graduates, a fact which King took great pride in. FDR was the only person who curiously referred to the prime minister as "Mackenzie." King, on the other hand, who was the older of the two men called Roosevelt "Mr. President." Author and journalist Bruce Hutchison recalled that King regarded FDR "with public adulation and privately with a mixture of admiration, amazement and skepticism."

Roosevelt summered at his family home on Campobello Island, N.B., and made eight state visits to Ottawa. The most notable was the celebrated Quebec Conference in 1943 at which FDR conferred with British prime minister Winston Churchill. While Roosevelt and Churchill invited King to join them for photographs which appeared in North American and European newspapers, the substantive discussions between the American and British leaders on the war effort and nuclear technology took place when King was out of the room.

The arrival of John F. Kennedy in Ottawa in May 1961, his first foreign trip as president like Obama's, was as hyped-much to the utter dissatisfaction of prime minister John Diefenbaker.

Unable to compete with JFK's charismatic style and youth and bothered by the American president's view that Canada should blindly follow U.S. foreign policy, Diefenbaker grew hostile. When he accidently found one of the president's confidential briefing memos prepared for Kennedy's Ottawa meeting, he not only failed to return it to the Americans, but threatened to blackmail Kennedy with it.

As is well known, Richard Nixon thought the more intellectual Pierre Trudeau "an asshole" and his visit to Ottawa in 1974 accomplished little.

More recently, Brian Mulroney bathed in the media attention -- including famously leading a rousing chorus of When Irish Eyes are Smiling to mark St. Patrick's Day -- when he met with Ronald Reagan at the Quebec summit in March 1985. Those discussions paved the way for the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1988 and the subject of yesterday's talks between Obama and Harper. Bill Clinton and Jean Chrétien enjoyed golfing together on Clinton's few trips north and George W. Bush received a rough ride on his lone trip to Canada in 2004.

President Obama's visit to Ottawa may be a genuine gesture of friendship and recognition that Canada's significant trade with the United States cannot be ignored. But regardless of the endless media coverage, Harper's meeting will not engender any substantial changes in U.S. trade laws or change the direction of American foreign policy.

Both leaders did agree to work on a comprehensive clean energy strategy, although not surprisingly nothing concrete was settled.

Visiting a new neighbour makes a lot of sense from a public relations point of view and Obama is, if anything, a gracious man. Canadians can take comfort in one positive outcome of this meeting: At least, the president didn't call the prime minister "Steve."

 

Allan Levine is a Winnipeg historian and writer. His next book, Coming of Age: A History of Jewish People of Manitoba, will be published in May.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2009 A11

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