by Tim Harper
We want to be liked; we want to be appreciated, but most of all we want to be noticed.
Sometimes we crave it so much we appear a little bit needy. In reality, though, it is not needy, it is necessary.
Without being noticed in the United States – politically or culturally – little of substance or positive value for this country will flow and that is the biggest takeaway from this week’s Washington invasion by the Canadian army headed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Canadians instinctively know of this need to be noticed, but Canadians who live there (as many as a million) live it every day.
They know that Americans will let you know they “get” you by throwing an “eh” at the end of a sentence. They will throw in a mention of hockey and shake their head over that terrible weather you must have escaped.
After a drink, they might tell you how great the fishing is “up there” and on the second drink they may lament our “leaky border.” They’ll tell you they’re going to move there if (fill-in-the-blank) becomes president. They don’t.
Except for the fishing and the leaky border, Barack Obama hit all those notes with Trudeau on Thursday, so Canadian clichÈs are safe for now. The Stanley Cup was at the state department luncheon.
But Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry did much more.
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The president lavished praise on Trudeau, saying he’s never seen “so many Americans so excited about the visit of a Canadian prime minister.”
Kerry joked he and Trudeau had a lot in common: “He is young, hip, good-looking, popular . . . and a hockey fan. I, too, am a big hockey fan.”
Sophie GrÈgoire-Trudeau and Michelle Obama greeted each other like “soulmates,” in the first lady’s words and the three Trudeau children frolicked on the north lawn.
Americans have taken notice of Trudeau since his October election, but Thursday’s images are those that will really get Canada noticed in Washington because the city hasn’t seen images like this since the
Obamas moved into the White House. Then, they were the celebrity family. Now, the Trudeaus are visiting celebrities in a celebrity-obsessed culture.
Canadians who battle for attention in official Washington know that many of the cocktail party views of Canada have seeped into their politics.
I lived there under two terms of George W. Bush and it was clear the Texan had no interest in Canada other than bringing us under a missile shield or dragging us into a war in Iraq.
When Obama was elected, Canadians adored him – and continued to adore him long after his message of hope looked like a message of hype to many Americans – but it became apparent shortly after his visit to Ottawa a month after his inauguration that he also had scant interest in Canada.
It is now obvious Obama really had no interest in Stephen Harper and the steady legion of gloomy Keystone-whiners landing at Reagan Airport, injecting themselves into what was considered a domestic
He made sure he noted the “new energy and dynamism” Trudeau had brought to the Ottawa-Washington relationship and despite a relatively small age gap of 10 years, the outgoing Obama has eased into a mentoring role for the incoming Trudeau.
He sees in Trudeau, Gregoire-Trudeau and the children, the young, progressive clan that they embodied in 2009 and for the first time in memory, a U.S. president can use the image of a Canadian leader to burnish his own credentials, in this case on the environment.
But Trudeau knows how fleeting this attention can be. A Republican debate in Florida Thursday night eclipsed any U.S. coverage of a White House state dinner and you could almost see the visitor spiralling
out of the U.S. news cycle as Obama took a question on the presidential race and delivered a treatise on the Republican “circus.”
This will be a tough couple of days for the Canadian cynics who deride Trudeau as all style, but they will be missing the value of style in politics.
Often in Washington it appeared the Canada-U.S. relationship was frozen in time. Pierre Trudeau achieved U.S. celebrity status, but Margaret Trudeau, she of the short skirt at a state dinner or the dalliance with the Rolling Stones, was the bigger celebrity. People would ask what she was doing these days.
Almost 40 years later, her son has brought celebrity back to Washington. It is what the U.S. understands.
Dismiss showmanship at your peril because without it, we are nothing more than squabbles over softwood lumber and country-of-origin labelling.
It may not last. But right now it is a win for Canada.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services