Andrew Cohen, a former Globe and Mail correspondent in Washington, is a journalist, professor and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
When Brian Mulroney delivered a eulogy to George H.W. Bush at his funeral in Washington Wednesday, it was the last, lyrical act of a unique friendship between a prime minister of Canada and a president of the United States.
The death of Mr. Bush dissolves a fraternity like no other in our history – warm, deep and enduring – despite differences in character and country. Mr. Bush once called Mr. Mulroney, 15 years his junior, his “younger brother,” but he did not treat Canada as a junior partner.
It was natural, then, for Mr. Mulroney to lionize him as he did at the Washington National Cathedral, declaring no president of the great republic “more courageous, more principled, more honourable.” For Mr. Mulroney, paying this kind of tribute has become an avocation. He spoke at the funeral of Ronald Reagan in 2004 and that of Mr. Reagan’s wife, Nancy, in 2016.
Mr. Mulroney’s relationship with Mr. Bush began when Mr. Bush was vice-president. It strengthened when Mr. Bush became president in 1989. They collaborated on fighting acid rain and forging the landmark agreement on free trade.
In June, 1999, they met in Montreal to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the agreement. They needed no reason to see each other then; they forgathered every Labour Day weekend at Mr. Bush’s seaside retreat in Kennebunkport, Me.
William Thorsell, who was then editor of The Globe and Mail, asked me to come from Washington to join him and a colleague in conversation with the two former leaders. I thought we would focus on free trade; William suggested exploring the personal, such as friendship, public service and life after politics.
Today, in Donald Trump’s America, the conversation that day is a hymn to civility, loyalty and humanity. There were differences in temperament. Mr. Bush was detached and modest. Mr. Mulroney was self-conscious, restless and in search of vindication.
Mr. Bush cared little about his legacy; he refused most interviews and declined to write a memoir. “Let the historians figure it out,” he told us. Mr. Mulroney promised a memoir, published in 2007; its 1,152 pages sometimes read like score settling and plea bargaining before history. Back in 1999, he felt his major achievements, such as free trade, were unappreciated.
Mr. Bush recalled the anguish of losing the presidency to Bill Clinton in 1992 (“I got clobbered”), which branded him “a one-term president.” On the last weekend of his presidency, shaken by losing office, he had invited Mr. Mulroney to join him at Camp David.
“I wanted to have a good friend around,” Mr. Bush recalled in his distinctive nasal tone. “It wasn’t too happy a time.”
Returning to private life was hard: “We moved out of the White House, moved down to a little house in Houston. Woke up president one day, unemployed the next. There is my wife and two dogs. That’s it.”
Five months later, in 1993, Mr. Mulroney would make a similar transition. He had retired as the most unpopular politician in Canada, and his Progressive Conservatives were decimated in the election that October. Mr. Mulroney had to make money. Mr. Bush did not.
In the years since, Mr. Mulroney has become an elder statesman in Canada, an éminence grise who robustly supported the Liberal government in renegotiating NAFTA. It was a display of patriotism that Mr. Bush surely applauded.
Both reflected their political cultures. Mr. Bush was welcomed into the circle of former presidents, which would allow him to call Mr. Clinton “a son.” In Canada, where prime ministers face each other as gladiators in Parliament, there is less of this kindness and gentility. It explains why former prime ministers dislike each other.
But presidents and prime ministers generally do play well, particularly Republicans and Conservatives, Democrats and Liberals. John F. Kennedy and Lester Pearson got along famously, as did Pierre Trudeau and Gerald Ford, as well as Mr. Clinton and Jean Chrétien. Some have no chemistry at all: Mr. Kennedy and John Diefenbaker; Richard Nixon and Mr. Trudeau; Barack Obama and Stephen Harper.
There were prime ministers and presidents who held office longer than Brian and George. But none maintained a friendship longer, out of power, with the depth of affection that Mr. Bush and Mr. Mulroney did.
And so that’s why Brian Mulroney stood in the well of the Washington National Cathedral Wednesday. He was saying farewell, amid laughter and tears, to a friend.