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Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan stands with former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and an officer from the RCMP as he arrives at the annual G7 Summit in Toronto in this June 19, 1988 file photo.Reuters Photographer/Reuters

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 University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.

Brian Mulroney was reading the Sunday New York Times in the summer of 1987 when he noticed a headline reporting that Ronald Reagan’s public approval rating had plummeted to 59 per cent. The Canadian prime minister immediately dialled Camp David and told the American president that he had discovered the fundamental difference between their two countries: the definition of the word “plummet.” Mr. Mulroney at the time had approval ratings in the mid-20s.

The story speaks to Mr. Mulroney’s attention to American affairs, his close relationship with American presidents and his understanding that while the differences between the two giant North American countries went beyond the definition of a word, the similarities that drew them together were far stronger. Mr. Mulroney, who died Thursday, spent a lifetime in admiration of, and in negotiation with, the United States.

Both William Lyon Mackenzie King (who had a strong relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt) and Lester B. Pearson (who had a tumultuous relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson) lived in the United States before becoming prime minister. But neither had the easy affinity with Americans – the intuitive understanding of the country, its customs and outlooks, its totems and taboos – that Mr. Mulroney possessed.

As much a businessman as a political figure, Mr. Mulroney was drawn into American commercial circles through friendships with Paul Desmarais Sr., the chair and chief executive of Power Corporation of Canada, and Peter Munk, the investor and philanthropist, and links with their contacts in New York. He admired American prosperity and strength, luxuriated in American culture, envied the country’s spark of innovation and – though meticulous in haberdashery and fussy in personal habits – appreciated its casual openness.

“He loved the American way of life but was Canadian, and Québécois, to the core,” recalled Marc Lortie, his press secretary as prime minister. “The pillar of his foreign policy was always the United States.”

Pierre Elliott Trudeau was warned before his first meeting with Mr. Reagan that he was “limited, uninformed, and probably irritating in his assertions.” Though they differed on apartheid, acid rain and the Strategic Defense Initiative (also known by its derisive “Star Wars” nickname), Mr. Mulroney found Mr. Reagan charming and open to Canada’s interests.

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Reagan and Mulroney visit the Citadelle in Quebec City during an official visit to Canada in this March 18, 1985 file photo.Reuters Photographer/Reuters

It helped that both had family roots in Ireland, which led Mr. Reagan, in Mr. Mulroney’s first visit to the White House as prime minister, to speak of himself as “the other North American Irishman.” Their Quebec City meeting the next year inevitably came to be called the Shamrock Summit. The two – one a showman by profession, the other by inclination – and their wives joined in a chorus of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. Both animated by a strong streak of optimism, they seemed eager to prove that, as the ballad says, “You can hear the angels sing / When Irish hearts are happy.”

That happy summit stands as a pivot in the two countries’ ties. During the Vietnam years – when Canada was a haven for those fleeing American conscription and Mr. Pearson prompted a crude physical assault from Mr. Johnson by criticizing the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam – Ottawa engaged in a search for trade and diplomatic dependency beyond North America, much as it did during the Donald Trump era. Mr. Mulroney redirected Canada’s attention and affinity southward. One result: the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement.

“You have taught all of us about Canada’s point of view on issues important to Canada,” Mr. Reagan toasted Mr. Mulroney at their last White House state dinner together, “while at the same time being a good neighbour and a firm friend.”

Mr. Mulroney delivered eulogies for both Mr. Reagan and president George H.W. Bush, but, both by temperament and political calculation, he enjoyed a relationship with Mr. Bush that has few precedents in American history – surpassed only by the wartime ties between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (an association Mackenzie King envied enormously).

“Every time I think of a line to say about George Bush, I realize I have more to say,” Mr. Mulroney told me as he was tinkering with his Bush eulogy the night before the funeral. “George Bush was such a big part of my life and an important player in Canada’s life and a model for anyone who wants to serve in public life.”

In the end, Mr. Mulroney spoke both about the United States and Mr. Bush by describing the United States as “the greatest democratic republic that God has ever placed on the face of this Earth.” He added: “No occupant of the Oval Office was more courageous, more principled and more honourable than George Herbert Walker Bush.”

Mr. Mulroney may be remembered best in the United States for the informal moments he spent cackling with Mr. Bush as the two displayed the bluefish they caught during a 1989 stay at latter’s family compound in Kennebunkport, Me., where Mr. Mulroney also spent time relaxing in a big, colourful sweater. He was, in American eyes, perhaps seen as a northern Mr. Rogers – a friendly face in the neighbourhood.

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