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What a former U.S. envoy can teach Heyman about how to make friends and influence people

As U.S. ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins – shown in 2007 – endeared himself to Canadians with his sense of humour.

DAVE CHIDLEY/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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If Bruce Heyman – the big-league finance guy and tapped by President Barack Obama to be his next envoy to Ottawa – is looking for a meaningful endorsement as to why he can be an effective U.S. ambassador and make a big difference in the sometimes rocky Canada-U.S. relationship, he need look no further the David Wilkins.

At first the two – one a southern Republican, the other a Chicago Democrat – might seem unlikely fellow travellers.

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But both share a powerful, invaluable, capacity.

They could reach into the Oval Office; they knew their presidents personally.

Mr. Wilkins, was both popular and effective during his four-year stint as U.S. ambassador to Canada. The veteran South Carolinian politician who had only once ventured north of the 49th decades earlier as a young military reservist freely admitted he knew next to nothing about Canada when he was named by president George. W. Bush. Within a year he had visited every corner of the country and knew it far better than many Canadians.

Even before he arrived, Mr. Wilkins was wielding the sense a humour that would endear him to many Canadians. He joked that he would introduce Ottawa's social set to the pleasures of a Peanut Boil.

"Bee-Oh-Eye-El," Mr. Wilkins explained to an uncomprehending bunch of Yankees and Canadians soon after his appointment. "Y'all boil 'em instead of roast 'em," he joked. "Then you eat 'em." But Mr. Wilkins was no rube; rather a sophisticated veteran politician who had mastered bipartisan compromise had played a key role in delivering South Carolina – a key state – to Mr. Bush in 2000 and again in 2004.

His appointment to a senior ambassadorial post was – without question – a reward for his role in Mr. Bush's victories, just as Mr. Heyman is being rewarded for his fundraising for Mr. Obama. The Goldman Sachs executive is considered "part of Obama's Chicago political family," according to someone who knows the relationship.

This week, Mr. Wilkins, 66, who was in Disneyland with his grandchildren, offered some candid insights into the incalculable value of being able to reach into the Oval Office and why it makes the Heyman appointment far more important that it might seem at first blush.

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What matters, he said, is to "have an ambassador who can pick up the phone and call the White House." Mr. Wilkins said he didn't call too often – perhaps a "couple of times a month" – but that access to the Oval Office, either speaking to the president directly or getting the message put to him, could, and did, have a big impact.

Only a few weeks after arriving in Ottawa but after doing a lot of listening to Canadians, "I told president Bush, it had to be settled," Mr. Wilkins recalled. He was referring to the long-running, bitter, softwood lumber dispute that, for years bedevilled relations between the two countries. I told the president that "if we wanted Canadians to be our best friend we needed to solve it," he said, adding: that he had quickly assessed there was a widespread "feeling by Canadians that we weren't treating them fairly" on softwood.

Mr. Wilkins is quick to disclaim any credit for the actual deal hammered out by senior officials on both sides of the border. Rather, his point was to underscore the value of direct access.

"Not many people have that," he said, adding there is "no substitute for that hand-picked personal relationship."

It is what will give Mr. Heyman his clout.

So, Mr. Wilkins, who now heads public policy and international law practice department at a large South Carolina law firm and retains an evident affection for Canada, hopes that Mr. Heyman's nomination is quickly approved by the Senate "so he can get on the ground as soon as possible."

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Not least because of the long-running, still unresolved, hotly controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Like softwood, "if not more so," Mr. Wilkins believes that Americans (he didn't specifically point to the president) may underestimate the importance of Keystone to Canada and thus the danger posed to the relationship if the project is nixed.

Mr. Heyman may be in Ottawa in time for the first snow. Mr. Obama is expected to make a decision on Keystone before spring. There may be a few calls this winter.

Paul Koring reports from The Globe's Washington bureau.

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