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David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.

Former Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Allan Gotlieb, photographed in 1985.


Then, as now, the high councils of The Wall Street Journal were not known for outbursts of laughter. But I can almost still hear the snorts and sniggers that issued forth, 35 years ago, from the editorial summit at the tip of Manhattan. That was when I suggested a front-page 2,800-word feature – four times the length of this essay – on the wiles, ways and means of the ambassador from Canada to the United States.

Ambassadors came and went in the American capital, and no one paid much mind to them, especially if they were from the peaceable kingdom to the north. The dutiful mandarins sent from Ottawa never tired of speaking in mind-numbing monotones about softwood lumber, broadcast laws or legal barriers to the import of live Canadian hogs and pork products. No one in Ronald Reagan’s Washington cared about any of it – even the lobbyists paid to make believe they did.

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Then, Allan Gotlieb, who died last week, came to town. On the surface, he was but another of those devoutly responsible diplomats, with a Rhodes Scholarship in his back pocket, a portfolio of grievances at hand and a free-trade partnership in mind. But he had a wise-cracking wife at his side and a theory in his head: If he could understand Washington better than the Reagan rubes, and if he could create a court that would appeal both to the Californians and the lingering remnants of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, he could make a wave in Washington. As it turned out, he created a tsunami.

Though a bookish man, he was not a bore, and that helped. Though an outsider, he had an instinct for insider manoeuvres, manipulation and machination, and that was a great advantage. He was one-part cultural anthropologist (observing the totems and taboos of the bureaucratic tribes) and one-part political guerrilla (in one of our conversations he employed the phrase “hand-to-hand combat”).

Mr. Gotlieb, right, and his wife Sondra Gotlieb speak to Ronald Reagan at the White House on Dec. 8, 1981.

Barry Thumma/The Associated Press

His embassy, dropped strategically halfway between Capitol Hill and the White House, became a Washington powerhouse. His subalterns – Jeremy Kinsman, later the top Canadian diplomat in Moscow and Brussels; the power couple of Patricia Dunn and Marc Lortie, who would leave snowshoe tracks in Paris and Santiago; plus a gaggle of others – fanned out across Washington. Canada suddenly was cool and, for once, not only because of its climate.

Mr. Gotlieb was everywhere, and in an era when Nancy Reagan would order place settings of 19 pieces for gatherings of 220, people actually flocked to the parties the ambassador threw in his residence near Rock Creek Park.

One starry and star-studded evening, the Gotliebs held an outdoor dinner and dance. Dozens of Washington’s luminaries mingled around the pool in the heat of a July night. Waiters circulated with wine coolers on small round trays. Leonard Garment, once Richard Nixon’s law partner and later his special counsellor, played the saxophone. Charles Wick, the Reagan friend who headed the U.S. Information Agency, tickled the piano keys. Democratic Senator Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska sang a song he wrote about himself. Mr. Gotlieb danced with Republican Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas.

"When you have some people over regularly,” Mr. Gotlieb said, “you pile up a lot of information."

Mr. Gotlieb receives the insignia of Companion of the Order of Canada from Governor-General Jeanne Sauve in Ottawa on May 6, 1988.

Chuck Mitchell/The Canadian Press

It didn’t hurt that the wunderkind from Winnipeg lent his personal collection of the prints of the 19th-century French artist Tissot to the Federal Reserve. Nor that when the Canadian pork import crisis developed – a contretemps that didn’t rise to Cold War standards – Mr. Gotlieb called on attorney-general Edwin Meese III, agriculture secretary John Block, special trade representative Clayton Yeutter and a number of State Department officials. The man was everywhere. Canada was on the lips of everyone, and not as a modifier for the word “goose.”

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That was one reason vice-president George H.W. Bush, Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker, top Treasury aide Richard Darman and Reagan confidante Michael Deaver joined him at the Capital Centre to see the Edmonton Oilers. Later, he flew with secretary of state George Shultz to New York to watch Wayne Gretzky handle the puck the way Mr. Gotlieb handled the Department of Commerce.

Mr. Gotlieb drew the admiration, and in consequence, the attention of Washington’s grandees. He also formulated what still is regarded as one of the governing laws of political physics on the banks of the Potomac: “In the Congress of the U.S., it’s never over until it’s over. And when it’s over, it’s still not over. Nothing is over definitively. The minute you think it’s over, some lawyer or association or country is trying to open it again.”

Sadly, the 92-year-long life of Allan Gotlieb is over. The tragedy is that in the age of the coronavirus, he will have no public funeral. It would have been one of the great ones. Everyone would have come.

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