Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

New Zealand Prime Ministers-At the White House: Ken Ross Outlines the Course of Top-Level Contact between Washington and Wellington in the Last 75 Years

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

New Zealand Prime Ministers-At the White House: Ken Ross Outlines the Course of Top-Level Contact between Washington and Wellington in the Last 75 Years

Article excerpt

New Zealand prime ministers have visited the White House 25 times. The first occasion was when Peter Fraser was there on 26 August 1941. Keith Holyoake went six times, meeting three presidents--Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Norman Kirk's September 1973 meeting with Nixon is the Everest moment of the encounters--the only time a prime minister has contributed his 'new ideas'. Otherwise, our prime ministers have seen their being there in itself as the reason for the visit, and, hopefully, a high point of their prime ministership.


'Chet Cooper, head of the US delegation, who had been in the Johnson White House, said, revealingly, that Australia and New Zealand had had priority tickets to the high table in Washington because of their Vietnam support. "And what did you come and tell us? That we were doing the right thing, when what we needed was new ideas.'" (W. David McIntyre, 2009) (1)

'Appointed ex-Senator Robert Hendrickson as ambassador to New Zealand. Adequate--but no more!' (President Eisenhower, 1955). (2)

Ironically Eisenhower's 'adequate--but no more' describes what, since the end of the Second World War, has been the enduring theme of the Washington-Wellington connection. Cooper's rueful observation hits New Zealand's 'best and brightest' hard--too often when prime ministers have gone to the White House they had nothing new to put forward. Norman Kirk stands alone in offering 'new ideas' when visiting the Oval Office.

The diplomatic chemistry that each New Zealand prime minister has had with the United States president has most driven the bilateral relationship. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush marked Wellington's card downwards. George H W. Bush's goodwill expeditiously lightened Reagan's previous heavy-handedness. The present tepid atmosphere between Barack Obama and John Key has seen missed opportunities for Wellington.

Kirk's capable global diplomacy impressed Richard Nixon (and Henry Kissinger). Kirk and Keith Holyoake are the only New Zealand prime ministers since 1945 to have been guests of honour at a presidential black-tie dinner at the White House. Kirk's encounter comes closest to the diplomatic Everest moment that New Zealand prime ministers climb for. Holyoake's two dinner dates were more convivial occasions, yet lacking the rapport in global diplomacy matters which Kirk and Nixon shared.

Kirk's and the other couple of best prime ministerial ascents to the White House since 1945 occurred irrespective of whether Wellington was in or out of good standing as a loyal ally--the status that the Second World War generation of New Zealanders so wanted to go on forever. Holyoake's considerable rapport with Lyndon Baynes Johnson (LBJ) percolated through their relationship despite Holyoake's clear unwillingness to go 'all the way with LBJ'--theirs seems to be the deepest friendship of all the pairings of prime ministers and presidents after 1945. In the final weeks of his presidency Johnson gave Holyoake a state dinner on the prime minister's third visit to the White House. (Holyoake had hosted Johnson two years earlier.) Jim Bolger's walking and talking with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were not diminished by his firm backing of New Zealand's non-nuclear standing.

The pinnacle of the bilateral connection is actually outside the time frame of my forthcoming book. But Peter Fraser's friendship with Franklin Roosevelt during the Second World War is well covered in Gerald Hensley's Beyond the Battlefield (2009) and Fred Wood's The New Zealand People at War (1958). They establish that those war years were the setting for the closest relationship which a New Zealand prime minister has had with an American president. Fraser had three bilateral encounters with Roosevelt (distinct from when they met at multilateral meetings). The first was a lunch-time meeting at the White House on 26 August 1941. Fraser returned a year later, spending from 26 August to 4 September in Washington: the first night the Frasers stayed at the White House. …

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