Are Harper and Obama going to be buddies?
Josh Visser, CTV.ca News Staff
Published Sunday, February 15, 2009 11:45AM EST
U.S. presidents have visited Canada numerous times but few will arrive with the excitement stirred up by the 44th commander-in-chief, Barack Obama, when he visits Ottawa and Prime Minister Stephen Harper this Thursday.
But the irony is that Obama's first foreign trip as president is being billed as the political equivalent of a business lunch at Tim Hortons, with nary a bit of the pomp and circumstance that other foreign leaders have been treated with in Ottawa.
Unlike former presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower, Obama will not be putting his rhetorical skills to use in front of a joint session of Parliament.
Instead, the visit will be an overwhelmingly private affair as Harper and Obama are expected to speak on a few specific issues behind closed doors, notably the economy and Afghanistan.
"I wouldn't expect anything dramatic out of this," CTV's chief political correspondent Craig Oliver says.
The trip is planned to be only about five hours in length.
There will be a brief press conference but Canadian reporters are expected to only be allowed two questions, one in English, the other in French, for the U.S. president.
U.S. Secret Service have relented on their request to have Parliament Hill completely cleared and are now allowing some Canadians to gather on the hill (after an extensive search, of course) to get a brief glimpse of the president. Despite Obama's massive fan base in Canada, there won't be a quarter million people showing up, like there was in Berlin last summer.
Not quite a true tradition
After George W. Bush decided to make Mexico his first foreign trip as president, many Canadians felt that he broke with the tradition of visiting America's northern neighbour first.
But there is not quite as much tradition there as many Canadians believe. The first presidential visit to Canada wasn't until 1923 and the next wasn't until 1933.
Before Obama, only three of the last seven presidents made their first foreign trip to Canada. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford never even visited Canada during their time in office.
But will they be buddies?
On a personal and political level, it's hard to see Obama and Harper getting chummy on the golf course like Jean Chr�tien and Bill Clinton.
Obama is charismatic and charming, whereas Harper has made a career on his lack of personality. Obama reaches across party lines, where Harper had to cause a constitutional crisis before deciding to play nice with the opposition. Obama is a basketball guy -- Harper is a hockey fan.
But there are some characteristics the two men share. They are both relatively young for their positions, Obama is 47, Harper, 49, and both have two school-aged children.
And although each man comes from a very different political position, there is little doubt that both leaders want the same thing -- to get their country's economy back on track.
Kory Teneycke, Harper's director of communications, predicts the two leaders will get along well.
But he told The Canadian Press the visit "is not primarily to have a social relationship, it's to work together in the interests of both of their individual countries."
But having a close, or at least quite cordial, relationship with the U.S. president is certainly not without benefit.
Franklin Roosevelt and MacKenzie King, both the longest-serving leaders in the history of their respective countries, were close friends. The pair governed during the two most trying periods of the 20th century and set much of the foundation for Canadian-American relations as it is today.
They were also good enough friends that after Roosevelt died, King claimed he continued to communicate with FDR's spirit from beyond the grave.
Roosevelt visited Canada a record eight times while in office and even had a summer home on Campobello Island off New Brunswick.
"When I have been in Canada, I have never heard a Canadian refer to an American as a 'foreigner.' He is just an 'American.' And, in the same way, in the United States, Canadians are not 'foreigners,' they are 'Canadians.' That simple little distinction illustrates to me better than anything else the relationship between our two countries," Roosevelt said in a visit to Quebec in 1936.
But other relationships between Canadian prime ministers and U.S. presidents have hardly been friendly, let alone professional.
Richard Nixon was caught calling Pierre Trudeau an "asshole" on tape. Trudeau responded that he had been called "worse by better people."
John Kennedy and John Diefenbaker detested one another, with the Canadian quoted as calling the charismatic president, "that young fool."
U.S.-Canadian relations suffered so greatly during that period that Diefenbaker's cabinet actually revolted against him.
But name calling has nothing on an incident between then-president Lyndon Johnson and Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson in 1965. After Pearson called for a pause in the bombing of Vietnam while speaking in Philadelphia, Johnson was reportedly furious at the Canadian's criticism of U.S. policy.
When Pearson visited Johnson the next day at Camp David, the 6'3" president grabbed Pearson by the collar and lifted him into the air (or pinned him against a wall, depending on which historian you read) and yelled, "You pissed on my rug!"
If you set the prime minister-president relationship bar there, it's hard to imagine any scenario where Harper and Obama could possibly lower it.
With files from The Canadian Press