BEHIND THE EMBASSY DOOR
Canada, Clinton and Quebec
James J. Blanchard
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1998, 300pp, illus., index, $29.95 Review by Robert Bothwell/University of Toronto
The post of United States ambassador in Ottawa has usually been treated as a reward for minor political figures. In Canadian diplomatic folklore, this does not matter too much because most Canadian-American business is transacted through the large Canadian embassy in Washington, to which this country's most senior diplomats are customarily sent. To this one is tempted to add that the Canadian-American relationship is too big to be made, marred, or even understood by the most assiduous ambassador.
To date, five Canadian ambassadors to the United States have written books commenting in whole or in part on their experience in Washington, as it gravitated upwards from the steaming ex-malarial swamp it once was, through the miracles of air conditioning and empire, to become the centre of power and diplomacy. The record on the American side is rather sparser: one published 'diary' from the 1940s and now the record of President Bill Clinton's first ambassador to Canada, James J. Blanchard.
Blanchard's book is a friendly gesture to a country that he evidently enjoys and, in moderation, admires. A Michigan politician (and exgovernor of the state), Blanchard did not find the size or importance of transborder trade to be news. Ontario concerns on many issues mirrored those of Michigan. A sister had moved across the border to London, Ontario, home, while Blanchard was governor of Michigan, of Liberal premier David Peterson, 'still my best friend in Canada,' as Blanchard writes. One is reminded of another Michigan politician, Gerald Ford, who also cast a familiar and friendly eye over Canadian issues as American president between 1974 and 1977.
The problem with Blanchard's book is not its motivation or its spirit, but its timing. This is not really the author's fault. The shelf life of celebrity, and the consequent salability of a book by said celebrity, is brief Perhaps, too, Blanchard had an autobiographical itch he had to scratch. And so, with the assistance of Ron Graham, Canada's deservedly reputed universal amanuensis, he set to work.
Proximity in time favours immediacy in tone. But revelation wars with discretion, just at the point where some tough analysis, livid with detail, would be useful. To take one example, Blanchard found the Canadian civil service timid, dim, and uncreative over the issue of bilateral air traffic. On occasion he also found them spiteful and obstructive. These are not unfamiliar bureaucratic traits, especially for a civil service that has been underpaid, under-recruited, and overridden for most of the past two …