WASHINGTON, D.C. —A cruel heat wave may have left this great city a tepid puddle, but you'd never know it by looking at Gary Doer.
With the humidity, it is well over 40 C. It is grimly overcast and the early evening air is as hot and dirty as car exhaust. Sweat-soaked tourists with matted hair shuffle along sticky sidewalks. A sour smell is everywhere.
None of this slows down Doer. The former Manitoba premier, now Canada's ambassador to the United States, is crisp and cool. His trim blue-grey suit jacket is done up, his white shirt is buttoned to the top and his tie is snugly knotted. There isn't a bead of sweat or a wrinkle anywhere to be found.
As Doer strolls toward one of his favorite restaurants, he cannot stop reciting the history of the buildings on either side of Pennsylvania Avenue, where Canada's stunning embassy is located. This is the Washington Mall, home to iconic government institutions, museums and galleries. Doer already sounds like a veteran tour guide.
One of Doer's favourite spots is the Willard Hotel. This is where Rev. Martin Luther King wrote his famous "I have a dream" speech in August 1963. The hotel's lobby, long a haunt for legislators and the special interests that hunt them, is reputed to be the place where the term "lobbyist" was born. Others disagree on the origin of the term, but most agree lobbying as an art form was perfected at the Willard.
This recitation of DC history is interrupted when Doer spots something out of the corner of his eye. He deftly changes directions and dashes down toward the curb. "Yep, that's one of ours," he says while scanning a hybrid transit bus roaring past. "That's a (Winnipeg-made) New Flyer bus. They're all over the place."
You can take the premier out of Manitoba, but clearly you can't get Manitoba out of the premier. "I can't stop cheering for the home team."
It was one year ago next week that Doer turned the Manitoba political system upside down when he announced he was leaving the premier's office to accept an appointment as Canada's ambassador to the United States.
The sudden departure of a man who spent more than two decades in provincial politics — half that as premier — created an enormous void in the consciousness of Manitobans that, many argue, has yet to be filled.
Doer remains keenly interested in events in Manitoba, although his new job doesn't allow much time to indulge in maudlin nostalgia.
Doer was on a plane flying to Washington to take up his new post on the day last October when former finance minister Greg Selinger was being sworn in as the new premier. "I started my new job the day after I finished my old job. There wasn't time to catch my breath."
Having now caught his breath, Doer is able to, for the first time, discuss the behind-the-scenes events that took him from Winnipeg to Washington.
The offer to serve as ambassador came in early June in a phone call from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Doer said. Although it was not explicitly stated during that call, Doer said he believes a private conversation with Harper a few months earlier might have paved the way for the offer.
Last April, the two leaders were sharing a quiet moment on a plane to Churchill for a funding announcement when the topic turned to the shelf life of politicians. Both men agreed good politicians were always on the lookout for signs they had worn out their welcome.
"We were talking about our families, sports and politics in general. One of the things I said to him was that I have always appreciated people who could get out on their own terms. I always thought that 10 years was about right in terms of getting ready to leave. I've seen too many good people making speeches and not being able to leave on their own terms."
Doer said he also related some wisdom he picked up from Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, a quote machine on Capitol Hill. "He once told me, 'You've got to get out before the grim reaper or the grim voter get you.' "
Even though he had been in the job for just over a decade, his own self-described term limit, Doer did not accept the job immediately.
Family was consulted and Doer said he wanted to know exactly what was expected of him, and what his relationship would be with Harper. This job would "take me from being the alpha dog to being a member of a team. I wanted to be sure I knew the rules of engagement."
He accepted the job in June, but it took until early August to complete a detailed security screening by both Canadian and U.S. authorities. Up until this time, Doer said, only immediate family and the PMO knew what was going on. "One of the things I had going for me was that I have always known how to keep a secret. It's something I pride myself on."
Once security clearance was granted, it was time to let the cat out of the bag. On Aug. 25, two days before his announcement, Doer told NDP house leader Dave Chomiak and Paul Vogt, the clerk of executive council, to discuss strategies to keep the legislative agenda intact following his departure.
The night before the announcement, senior staff were brought into the loop. Early on the morning of the announcement, senior NDP party brass gathered with Doer at a North End Salisbury House to get the news.
Life now is a blur of security briefings and meetings with legislators, cabinet secretaries and state governors. "When you're dealing with 435 members of Congress and 100 senators and the White House, it can be pretty busy around here."
And then there are the parties. The Canada Day party at the spectacular Canadian embassy was a must-attend event for Washington elites and locals are still talking about the Olympic soirees, including the night a star-studded crowd gathered at the embassy to watch the men's gold medal hockey final. The Olympics, Doer noted, enhanced and amplified Canada's reputation in the U.S. in a profound way.
Whether or not Doer will still be ambassador to the U.S. the next time Canada pursues Winter Olympic gold is anyone's guess. Ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the prime minister, and the uncertainty gripping Canadian politics certainly leaves open many scenarios. And that's OK with Doer.
"Whether it's politics or this job, the media always focuses on the perks and power," Doer said. "But what makes being premier or being an ambassador fun is the adrenaline rush from the unexpected. Both jobs have that. The rush you get when you have to deal with something that you didn't expect."
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.