Brian Mulroney has always been a foremost admirer of American presidents. Flatters them, cultivates them. Ingratiates himself. And to beneficent effect. For himself and, many would say, for his country.
But Donald Trump? Him, too! "The Donald Trump I have always known," Mr. Mulroney observed last week without gulping, is "a gentleman." Has five wonderful kids, he pointed out, who don't drink, smoke or do crack. "For me, if someone is able to make $10-billion and raise five children like that, it speaks well of him."
Gentleman Trump shouldn't be a problem for Canada, added the former Tory prime minister who's known him for decades. No matter if he's protectionist, jingoistic, boorish, heapingly erratic – and many other things un-Canadian. "My impression is that he views Canada with favour."
With the exception of Conrad Black, precious few other Canadians speak highly of Mr. Trump, and many are irked that Mr. Mulroney would do so. It's typical Mulroney, they say. Currying favour with big-shot Americans.
But more important now is the possibility that, given the potential Trumpian dangers to Canadian interests, Mr. Mulroney can use his persuasive powers to drive some sense into this man's head and rein him in. Who better to defend free trade, for example, than free trade's architect?
No prime minister has dealt more closely with more presidents than Brian Mulroney. He is the most impactful prime minister on the bilateral front we have ever had. He reshaped the relationship with the seminal trade accord, ended this country's long run of anti-Americanism and fundamentally altered our economic creed. Down went economic nationalism. Opened up was the road to globalization.
That legacy could come under threat now with the nativist, anti-globalization lean of Mr. Trump. Stakes are high. The new administration's Neanderthal choice for environmental czar can hardly be pleasing to Mr. Mulroney, who was a green PM. Nor can be the Trumpian xenophobic strains for a PM who was noted for tolerance. The president-elect has stacked his cabinet full of generals and corporate zillionaires. Isn't corporate-military statism, asks Michael Moore, a fascist brew?
Instead of being affronted, Mr. Mulroney sees opportunity. It's his customary way with presidents. The views of Mr. Trump are quixotic, shiftable. If there is anyone who can shift them to the benefit of Canada, it is our multi-decade Oval Office frequenter.
No doubt Justin Trudeau realizes this. Old schmoozer Mulroney, despite loathing his father for his campaigns against the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, has carved out a warm relationship with the son. It would be a nice bipartisan touch on the part of the PM to have him play an intermediary role with the new White House.
Another former prime minister, Jean Chrétien, could be of much help on the Russian file, given his rapport with Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Mulroney played an important role on bilateral relations when his friend George W. Bush dealt with the Chrétien Liberals. He is still friends with W. and very close to George H.W. Bush and he's the only Canadian to give a eulogy at the funeral of a president, it being Ronald Reagan's.
The Gipper thought Mr. Mulroney was terrific. The State Department's top man on the Canada file told me of the time he had prepared a briefing book for Mr. Reagan strongly arguing he should press Mr. Mulroney on defence spending. Next day, when the president entered the cabinet meeting room, his normal big-sky smile was absent. He slapped the briefing book on the table, saying, "I want you to understand one thing. I don't talk to Brian Mulroney this way."
Mr. Mulroney gets presidents to know Canadian files. It's a far cry from the time Lester Pearson emerged from a meeting with Dwight Eisenhower, the golfing president. Appalled that Ike had never even heard of a pressing Canadian issue, Mr. Pearson grumbled to an aide, "You'd think his caddie would have mentioned it to him."