Prime ministers and presidents

Personal chemistry is one of the few details that can't be choreographed when presidents and prime ministers meet. Will the leaders actually like one another? That's always the wild card.

From frosty to friendly, the relationships have changed with the times

Mila Mulroney, left, gets a kiss from U.S. President Ronald Reagan as his wife, Nancy, gets a kiss from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, right, at the official welcoming ceremony for a Toronto economic summit in June 1988. (Ron Poling/Canadian Press)

Personal chemistry is one of the few details that can't be choreographed when presidents and prime ministers meet.

Sure, the optics can be stage-managed — the flowery statements of mutual co-operation and friendship, the cheery smiles in the photo-ops — down to the most minute detail. But will the leaders actually like one another? That's always the wild card.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy is seen on a visit to Ottawa in 1961. (Canadian Press)

By all accounts, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had a warm personal relationship with former U.S. President George W. Bush. At their first official meeting, they toured the ancient Mayan ruins along with then Mexican President Vicente Fox. All three were in casual attire — khaki pants, white shirts, Harper in a safari-style vest — befitting the warm backdrop of Cancun, Mexico, where they attended a summit meeting to promote North American unity.

The relaxed tone of the meeting in March 2006 reflected U.S.-Canada relations for the rest of Bush's term. After that first official meeting — Harper had met Bush once before as Opposition leader — Bush described Harper as someone in many ways like himself, saying they shared "mutual values" and "respect for human life and human dignity."

Whether this warm relationship was political spin, as some political analysts have said, or a genuine shift in Canada-U.S. relations, it's clear the tone did improve from rockier times under prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. Progress was made on issues such as the softwood lumber dispute.

'Dino' and 'moron'

It's obviously too early to see whether Harper will enjoy the same relationship with new U.S. President Barack Obama as Chrétien did with golfing buddy Bill Clinton. The pair got along swimmingly — even if Chrétien had to distance himself somewhat in public to prevent the perception of becoming too cozy with the powerful Americans.

When Bush took office, the story changed dramatically. In Bush's White House, the nickname for Chrétien was "dino," as in dinosaur.

The well-publicized dust-up in Prague in 2002 when Françoise Ducros, one of Chrétien's top aides, called President Bush "a moron," is probably a better reflection of the relationships our leaders have had over the years than Harper's and Bush's cordial meeting in Mexico.

President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau talk in Trudeau's office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Apr. 14, 1972. (Chuck Mitchell/Canadian Press)

In his book The Presidents and the Prime Ministers, author Lawrence Martin mentions how John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, "would alienate all of Washington with displays of contempt for the presidents and their men." Indeed, the subtitle of Martin's book catches the true spirit of relations across the world's longest undefended border: Washington and Ottawa Face to Face: The Myth of Bilateral Bliss 1867-1982.

But it hasn't always been a litany of barbs and brickbats.

In a 1961 speech to Parliament, President John F. Kennedy characterized the relationship between the U.S. and Canada as follows: "Geography has made us neighbours, history has made us friends, economics has made us partners, necessity has made us allies."

And over the years:

1962 – Prime Minister John Diefenbaker on President John F. Kennedy: "He's a hothead. He's a fool – too young, too brash, too inexperienced and a boastful son of a bitch!"

1965 – At the height of the Vietnam War, Prime Minister Lester Pearson visited President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. Pearson gave a scathing speech one night about the war, then appeared at the White House the next day to confront a livid Johnson. As Martin describes it, LBJ grabbed Pearson by the shirt collar, lifted the prime minister off the floor and shouted, "You pissed on my rug!"

1969 – Pierre Trudeau told the National Press Club in Ottawa that living next to the U.S. "is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or temperate the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt."

1971 – When it was revealed that President Richard Nixon called Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau "an asshole" in his private tapes, Trudeau responded with, "I've been called worse things by better people."

Also that year: After Trudeau left a session with Nixon in the Oval Office, the president said to H.R. Haldeman, his chief of staff: "That Trudeau, he's a clever son of a bitch." Then he said to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: "What in the Christ is he talking about?"

Trudeau so infuriated Nixon during the visit that Nixon called him "a pompous egghead" and told Haldeman: "You've got to put it to these people for kicking the U.S. around after what we did for that lousy son of a bitch. Give it to somebody around here." This was when Nixon ordered Haldeman to plant a negative story about Trudeau with columnist Jack Anderson.

1972 – Nixon delivers a speech to the House of Commons: "While we do not have a wall between us, we have a great unguarded boundary. This does not mean that we are the same. This does not mean we do not have differences. But it does mean we have found a way to discuss differences in a friendly way without war."

1985 – Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and President Ronald Reagan sing to each other when the president visits Canada:

When Irish eyes are smiling, sure, 'tis like the morn in Spring. In the lilt of Irish laughter, you can hear the angels sing.

2000 – George H. and Barbara Bush went to the wedding of Caroline Mulroney, daughter of Brian Mulroney, in September.

2001 – President George W. Bush, in a speech to Congress, thanked countries all over the world for standing with the United States in its fight against terror after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. He did not mention Canada.

There was an uproar in Canada over the perceived snub. To put things in perspective, a top Chrétien aide was called upon to put a favourable spin on Bush's speech. The aide said: "If it is anything, it is an indication that our support goes without saying."

The aide's name was Françoise Ducros.

2004 – At the first meeting between Martin and Bush in January in Mexico, analysts carefully watched the two men, looking for the slightest indication of how they felt about each other. Both Martin's gleeful laughter and Bush's sniggering at Martin's statement to the press in French were fodder for pundits and comics alike.

Then, Bush receives a chilly reception in Ottawa when he makes his first state visit to Canada in November. Close to 5,000 protesters greet the unpopular president on Parliament Hill, and a smaller group clashes with police outside the Chateau Laurier hotel.

2006 – When Harper made his first official visit to Washington on July 6  – which happened to fall on Bush's 60th birthday – the pair seemed chummy. Harper had the rare honour of staying at Blair House, the official White House guest quarters.

The prime minister came bearing birthday gifts for Bush: a Calgary Stampede belt buckle and an RCMP Stetson hat. The two bantered while talking to reporters after their quick, all-business meeting, with Bush referring to Harper as "Steve."