Goodbye Wilson, Hello Doer
Politico.com recently did a neat writeup of our incoming and outgoing ambassadors to the United States; a quite flattering piece to Gary Doer, in fact.
Meet Gary Doer, Canada’s new ambassador, who is said to fully live up to his surname. Funny. Charming. Energetic. A true retail politician. “He is going to tend to be assertive and communicative and probably occupy quite a high profile,” says former Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Frank McKenna. “I think he suits the moment.”
With a Democratic administration in the White House, the liberal Doer’s arrival is well-timed. As premier of Manitoba, he spent a number of years cultivating bonds with U.S. governors, including former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, now President Barack Obama’s homeland security secretary. He’s a center-left politician, says Chris Sands, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, who can help Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper better grasp “the divisions between center and center left that now define Washington, the fault lines between a [Henry] Waxman and [a John] Dingell, the subtleties between Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and Obama.”
Doer, the longest serving of the current crop of Canadian premiers, offers a significant contrast to his predecessor. Wilson — who was a conservative House of Commons member, finance minister and financial executive — had represented Canada since 2006. He was increasingly seen as being perhaps a bit too conservative (big “C” and little “c”) to fit the emerging scene in Washington, and his tenure was viewed as the victory lap following a long and robust career in both government and business.
“The downside of elder statesmen is that maybe they are a little less dynamic,” says Sands. “You have somebody who is working within their safe zone.”
Plus, Wilson didn’t exactly kick things off to a good start with the Obama administration, having been at the center of the so-called NAFTA-gate scandal during last year’s Democratic presidential primaries.
At the time, Hillary Clinton’s campaign tried to make hay of a leaked memo from the Canadian Consulate in Chicago. The memo claimed Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee had privately told Canadian officials that the campaign’s pledges to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement were simply “political maneuvering,” not to be taken too seriously.
In the wake of the ensuing dust-up, Harper launched an investigation, and Wilson was forced to repeatedly deny that he was the source of the leak. Though there were calls for him to step down, he weathered the storm.
Doer himself got a taste of American political drama recently, but the gregarious man was able to charm his way out. In June, he spoke before an energy and climate luncheon sponsored by the Canadian American Business Council. As a last-minute fill-in keynote speaker that day, he had flown in overnight from northernmost Yukon. He won over the crowd by joking that “you can see the Alaska governor” from where he had traveled.
A few minutes into his speech, when Doer started discussing Canada’s oil and natural gas exports to the United States, a protester started shouting, “All fossil fuels are false solutions!”
Doer retorted that his country was also in the business of producing renewable hydroelectric power. When the protester, nevertheless, carried on about the evils of oil, the premier sighed and cracked wise: “I don’t know how I’m going to get home now.”
“It was a great moment,” says Sands. “It illustrated that Doer is someone that can speak on his feet and has a certain kind of credibility here.”
Doer is seen by Canada watchers as being cut from the same mold as McKenna, also a former premier. When, several years ago, American criticism started to mount over Canada’s nonparticipation in the Iraq war, McKenna launched an ad campaign with signs posted in Washington Metro stations lauding his country’s boots-on-the-ground efforts in Afghanistan.
“We have to go outside the traditional ambassadorial box and get out and tell our story to Americans in the state capitals and to the people of the United States,” says McKenna.
In selecting Wilson as his replacement in 2006, Harper was mainly concerned with trying “to avoid mistakes and centralize decision making and also [trying] to restrict freelancing,” McKenna says.
But Scotty Greenwood, executive director of the Canadian American Business Council, says the conservative Harper deserves credit for picking a politician from the left. “It is like Obama sending Gov. [Jon] Huntsman to China,” Greenwood says, referring to the Utah governor who was tapped to serve as ambassador to China.
Former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, who served as U.S. ambassador to Canada from 1993 to 1996, recalls that on his first ambassadorial trip to Canada 16 years ago, Doer was considered an up-and-comer with a good intuitive sense about U.S.-Canadian relations.
“I think he’ll fit very well into the Washington pressure cooker,” says Blanchard. “He doesn’t take himself too seriously, yet he’s passionate about important issues. He’s a proud Canadian but very conversant in U.S. politics and U.S. history.”
Doer’s challenge will be consistent with that of his predecessors: Keep expectations from home at bay while reminding the United States about its softwood-lumber-bearing northern neighbor at a time when the U.S. is fighting two Middle East wars and dealing with an economic crisis. (Canada, after all, did provide 20 percent of the funds devoted to the American auto bailout.)
Doer has an impressive base of operations to work from: Canada’s sleek, Arthur Erickson-designed embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, conveniently located between the White House and the Capitol and roundly considered one of the most desirable places in town to attend a party. But even so, the task of inveigling American interest is never easy — no matter how sumptuous your maple syrup may be.
“It is a cliché that we take Canada for granted,” says Blanchard, “but that is a fact. It is also true in this town that unless you are a country with a real hot spot, people aren’t always paying attention.”