Canada’s legendary ambassador to the United States reveals his personal diaries from his time in Washington, from 1981 to 1989.
Allan Gotlieb was ambassador to the United States during a high point in U.S.-Canada relations, the Reagan and Mulroney eras. One of our country’s most effective diplomats, he was renowned for forging inside connections to the capital’s key decision-makers, and as he has said, “In Washington, gossip is not gossip — gossip is intelligence.”
Gotlieb kept a diary almost daily during his time in Washington, and its entries are filled with anecdotes about meetings and parties with the capital’s social, media, and political elite. Katharine Graham, Jesse Helms, and Sandra Day O’Connor are just a few who appear in its pages, as are such Canadian visitors as Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark, and even Wayne Gretzky.
With frankness and self-deprecating wit, Gotlieb recounts the absurdities and pretensions of life in Washington and his fight to make Canada’s voice heard. His diaries chronicle not only the major international issues of the time — such as the forging of the Free Trade Agreement — but also his own growth from Washington outsider to sophisticated power-broker.
About the author
- Short-listed, Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing
Allan Gotlieb has written widely on international law and diplomacy. He holds an M.A. from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and a law degree from Harvard. A prominent member of Canada’s business community, he serves on numerous boards and is a Companion of the Order of Canada. Gotlieb and his wife now live in Toronto, where he is a senior adviser in the law firm Bennett Jones.
Excerpt: The Washington Diaries: 1981-1989 (by (author) Allan Gotlieb)
September 24, 1984
The new prime minister arrives in Washington on his first visit in that capacity at 10:30 tonight. I came home in the early evening, exhausted from an empty day of running around from place to place during the World Bank/imf meetings, attending a long luncheon given by Bill Mulholland in Georgetown and more than a few diplomatic receptions. I collapsed in front of the television, and both Sondra and I became very engrossed in an old movie, The Thomas Crown Affair. We got so caught up in it that we shaved our departure from the Residence a little too thinly. Jacques Helie had to drive like a bat out of hell to get us to Andrews on time. Due to unexpected traffic, he even had to put on his siren a few times, which he enjoyed quite a bit. We drove up onto the tarmac at Andrews just after the pm’s plane had touched down. I think they waited a minute before the door of the craft was opened. We arrived just at that very moment.
As we rushed up, Lucky Roosevelt, the chief of protocol, was waving frantically at us and shouting, “Hurry, hurry, we didn’t know what happened to you. You almost missed the arrival.” Indeed we did — we had only seconds to spare. What a grand start that would have made in my relations with the new government.
I drove into town with Mulroney and went up to his suite in the Madison. The prime minister was in buoyant spirits, to say the least. Before we got into any substance, he talked about Joe Clark, who had been against his coming to Washington so soon after the election. He argued against Mulroney’s accepting the president’s invitation on grounds of unseemliness. Mulroney talked scornfully of this advice. Didn’t he just win an election with a platform of “refurbishing” relations with the United States?
I have had several reports of the department advising against this visit. Sometimes I fear that the only bedrock policy of the officials of External Affairs is to differentiate ourselves from the Americans. Differentiation is all right if it results from legitimate policies but is not acceptable if it is the justification for developing our own. If we build our foreign policy on the basis of differentiation, we’re going to have a foreign policy that is sometimes perverse and sometimes immoral. Worse than that, we will have a foreign policy that runs counter to Canadian national interests. To borrow a phrase from the Russians when they attack the West in the un, these people in External behave like they are “divorced from reality.”
Bravo to Mulroney for following his own instincts. A leader in command.
September 25, 1984
I briefed the pm in his suite at the Madison this morning, and at 11 a.m. we left for the White House in a motorcade, with two big Canadian flags flying on either side of the hood. At noon we proceeded to the president’s private dining room, where an intimate lunch with four on each side took place (Mulroney, Doucet, Burney, and myself being the Canadian team). We sat below the beautiful John Singer Sargent that dominates the room. As for the conversation, well, it was jokes, jokes, and more jokes. Reagan was amiability itself. The purpose of the function was for them to get acquainted. They certainly got to know each other’s current repertoire of jokes. By 1:10 p.m. we were out of the White House and onto the helipad. Handshakes from the farewell committee, headed by acting Secretary of State Ken Dam (this time he didn’t forget) and on to Andrews for a 3 p.m. departure.
These two Irishmen are going to get along like blazes. There is a special rapport between them, the rapport of two men who are not intellectuals but who are optimistic and confident, good communicators and fine storytellers, and very pro-business. The contrast with the Trudeau visit is stunning. There was no tension whatsoever. As events go, this was a non-event. Yet it was profoundly significant. They established a very special relationship.
The prime minister was scrummed at the airport by the Canadian press. He was asked about my future. He announced that he informed the president that he has asked me to stay on in my post. He did.
September 26, 1984
I wake up at dawn, anxious to start the day. I feel like calling a press conference, inviting all my critics and detractors and those who have scored me high on the Tory hit list. I will announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, my second term begins today.”
September 27, 1984
Lunch with Jeffrey Simpson at the Metropolitan Club. We discussed the new government off the record. Simpson went on at length about how he expects Joe Clark to be a great pillar of strength and stability in cabinet, the rock on whom Mulroney will rely. It was as if the Joe Clark he was talking about was not the same Joe Clark who was prime minister from 1979 to 1980.
A Maclean’s bestseller
“The Gotliebs had a busy social life, filled with engagements with some of the most influential people in 1980s Washington. . . . This is quite likely the first book where Zbigniew Brzezinski, Edmund Muskie, and Burt Reynolds are the subject of footnotes on the same page.”
— Quill & Quire
“He is a keen observer and a sharp writer, and the combination is beguiling, amusing and revealing.”
— Canadian Jewish News
The book is so fascinating, so gracefully observed and so politically astute that once begun it is impossible to set aside. . . . A terrifically interesting, informative and rewarding read.”
— London Free Press
“The Diaries offer that rare glimpse from a Canadian senior diplomat into the real world of politics. This alone makes it a must-read for the Canadian political voyeur.”
— Winnipeg Free Press
“This is the most insightful book about how Washington works since Henry Adams's classic Democracy, which didn't skimp on the vicissitudes of Washington's social life either. These Washington diaries reveal the U.S. capital's narrowness, pettiness and self-absorption in all its raw beauty and horror.”
— Globe and Mail
“[A] compulsively readable memoir stuffed with anecdotes about the movers and shakers of the Reagan/ Mulroney era.”
— National Post
“A virtuoso performance of style and insight. Anyone who cares about Canada-U.S. relations, Canadian foreign policy and the nature of U.S. government should read it. . . . The mundane, ridiculous, significant and crucial, issues long forgotten and still around, weave their threads through the tapestry of The Washington Diaries, a riveting record of him, them and us.”
— Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail
“As gripping . . . as a John le Carré spy thriller.”
— Ottawa Citizen