It was July 26, 1923. The occasion was the first address ever given by an American president on Canadian soil. Warren Harding arrived in Vancouver a broken man that day. In a week, he would be dead, age 57, of causes undetermined. But not before making the speech that would do much to define, all the way to this day, the Canada-U.S. relationship.
In Ottawa last week, U.S. President Barack Obama would echo many of his sentiments. For Mr. Obama, vice-like security kept crowds low. For Harding, throngs estimated at 250,000 gathered on the Vancouver streets. They treated the Ohio Republican, whose presidency would come to be ranked as dreadful, as a near demi-god.
Harding had first voyaged to Alaska. At the time he was being drawn into a kickback scandal – Teapot Dome – brought on by some of his White House buddies who were swindlers and cheats. "I can take care of my enemies all right," Harding confided. "But my damn friends. My goddamn friends."
He suffered from high blood pressure, a torn family life, a sinking White House life. He spent his sleepless nights playing cards. He was a corpse, a journalist wrote, "essaying a pre-mortem tour."
The people were none the wiser. In Stanley Park, about 50,000 heard him speak of two countries engaged in a "mutual striving for common good." A former newspaper publisher, Harding favoured high-sounding perorations. "Let us go our own gaits along parallel roads, you helping us and we helping you," he told Canadians. "So long as each country maintains its independence and both recognize their interdependence, those paths cannot fail to be highways of progress and prosperity."
That script – independence while recognizing interdependence – was one the two countries would closely follow.
"What an object lesson of peace is shown today by our two countries to all the world," he said. "No grim-faced fortifications mark our frontiers … no stealthy spies lurk in our tranquil border hamlets." Rather, "Our protection is in our fraternity." The "tie that binds" is "our growing mutuality."
Harding was known for advocating a "return to normalcy," something much of the world would readily embrace today. He called on European countries that day to heed the Canada-U.S. example. "It is public will, not public force that makes for enduring peace."
Owing to terrorism, the Canada-U.S. border is not the undefended frontier today that it was in Harding's time. But his words and thoughts have highlighted many speeches by the presidents and the prime ministers.
Mr. Obama, who is admired by Canadians more for what he has done multilaterally than bilaterally, was received glowingly by all parties in his speech to the Commons. He spoke of the continent's common creed, of the importance, which Harding had emphasized, of an open and tolerant society, of the same ties that bind today as they did back then.
Values of openness and tolerance are under threat in Great Britain. And on this continent, Donald Trump, the Republicans' presumptive presidential nominee, has threatened to tear up the North American free-trade agreement, which he hilariously labels "the worst trade deal in the history … of this country."
Not to worry. In the 93 years since Harding became the first president to visit Canada, there have been many dire threats and near upheavals on the bilateral front. But the relationship always gets around to returning to the tenets that have kept it stable.
Following his speech, he cut short a round of golf after six holes, his wife later suspecting he'd suffered a minor heart attack, others thinking it was food poisoning. A few days later he passed away en route to Washington. Ten thousand people showed up at a memorial service for him in Vancouver. A memorial was erected to him in Stanley Park.
Harding is rated the worst president of the last century by many historians.
And he may, indeed, have been that. But on bilateral relations, the worst president gave the best speech – one that set the template for a relationship that will endure whatever is thrown at it.