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Lawrence Martin

Camelot on the Rideau? Don’t wait for it Add to ...

These are touchy times on the bilateral front. Canada is looking to diversify its foreign markets. The thorny issue of the Keystone XL pipeline is on the table. With his re-election victory, President Barack Obama is emboldened, pushing his liberal agenda, one that clashes with the governing philosophy in Ottawa. Last week, Washington got meddlesome, playing the linkage card, suggesting that co-operation on energy issues might be tied to better performance by the Harper Conservatives on the environment.

Now there is talk of Washington sending an iconic liberal, a Kennedy, to Ottawa as the next U.S. ambassador. Caroline Kennedy, the rumour mill has it, is being considered for the post. What a splash that would make. Camelot on the Rideau. The American media would start paying attention to us. Ottawa’s reputation as one of the world’s most boring capitals would be refurbished.

Good grief. Throw in the likely selection of Justin Trudeau as Liberal Party leader and, with the daughter of John F. Kennedy as ambassador, it would be like the sixties all over again. Liberal legends at large.

But how would Stephen Harper’s Conservatives view a Kennedy appointment? One can bet they’d hardly be overjoyed. It would be seen as provocative. It would tend to widen the ideological gulf and put an added strain on relations.

It’s not only the iconic liberal name that would grate on the Tories. There’s some history to be recalled here. And from a Conservative perspective, what an ugly stretch of history it is.

President John F. Kennedy was Tory enemy No. 1. The Kennedy relationship with John Diefenbaker was the worst in the history of the presidents and prime ministers. The Kennedy administration precipitated Dief’s downfall on a no-confidence vote in 1963. In the election campaign, the Cameloters worked against the Tories, giving Lester Pearson every lift they could.

The two governments clashed over a myriad of defence co-operation issues, including the Cuban missile crisis. The differences came to head when the White House issued a press release that categorically contradicted Diefenbaker on the question of nuclear weapons for NATO allies. It led to the no-confidence motion.

Anyone doubting the seriousness of the American role only had to read a memorandum written some years later by McGeorge Bundy, who served as Kennedy’s national security adviser. “I might add,” Bundy wrote to Lyndon Johnson, “that I myself have been sensitive to the need for being extra polite to Canadians ever since George Ball and I knocked over the Diefenbaker government by one incautious press release.”

The Kennedy gang loved Pearson and had him as a guest at the White House. One day, Diefenbaker glared at Pearson across the Commons aisle. “When,” he demanded, “are you going back for further instructions?”

As for ambassadors, Kennedy’s man in Ottawa, a pushy American named Walton Butterworth, was hated by Dief. He referred to him as “Butterballs.”

Like the Obama White House, the Kennedy crew were more hip and progressive compared to their Canadian counterparts. The Kennedyites couldn’t believe the naïveté of Dief’s foreign minister, Howard Green. Dean Rusk, Kennedy’s secretary of state, once told me of how the story made the White House rounds of a visit to Ottawa by Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. The African leader had the reputation of a notorious fornicator. In a meeting with Green, he asked that a girl be sent over to his Chateau Laurier suite. The churchgoing Green thought he meant a typist. When the unsuspecting stenographer entered Lumumba’s room all hell broke loose.

The raucous history was a long time ago but would hardly serve as a comfortable backdrop for Kennedy’s daughter in dealing with a Conservative government. Mr. Harper, who has managed the Obama relationship well considering their differences, would probably prefer the appointment of another rumoured candidate, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. She is articulate, charismatic and has the hands-on political experience that Caroline Kennedy lacks.

The idea of JFK’s daughter serving as ambassador to Canada is appealing in many ways. But not now. The timing isn’t right.

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