Editor’s Note: Mark D. Weinberg is the author of “Movie Nights with the Reagans” (Simon & Schuster). He served as Special Assistant to the President and Assistant Press Secretary in the Reagan White House, and as Director of Public Affairs in former President Reagan’s office. Weinberg is currently a communications consultant. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Justin Trudeau is not the first Canadian Prime Minister by that last name to annoy a US president. It was no secret that Ronald Reagan had a sometimes strained relationship with Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father.
Reagan was initially leery of the left-leaning Trudeau, but wrote in his diary that, at their first meeting in March, 1981, “I discovered I liked him.”
Subsequent meetings, of which there were many, did not always go well, with things getting quite testy at the 1983 Williamsburg Economic Summit when Trudeau and French President François Mitterrand joined forces to oppose a joint statement that supported deploying a class of nuclear weapons while holding out hope that they could be eliminated as the result of negotiations with the Soviet Union.
Perhaps the lowest point in the Reagan-Trudeau relationship came at the 1984 London Economic Summit. While there were the predictable policy differences, what bothered Reagan most about Trudeau was his condescending and lecturing style. At one summit session, Trudeau was so rude to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the official host of the summit, that an appalled Reagan approached her afterward and said: “Margaret, he had no right to speak to you like that,” to which Mrs. Thatcher calmly replied: “Women know when men are being childish.”
Ronald Reagan had the common sense and respect for diplomatic norms not to air his displeasure in public. He wrote about his feelings in his private diary, but even those words were devoid of any malice or petty personal insults.
Some misguided Trump supporters have applauded his and his aides’ critical comments about the present Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, but as William Shakespeare said, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” In other words – as everyone’s parents have told them – “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.”
A war of words, or policies, with Canada is unseemly at best and dangerous at worst. For goodness’ sake, it’s Canada! Is there anyone who really views Canada as a “national security threat” to us? Canada has been a loyal and reliable ally of ours for decades. Their soldiers have fought and died alongside ours.
Canada has a special place in the heart of Americans, especially our kids. Canada is the first other country many visit. Even if it’s just crossing over to Niagara Falls, hundreds of thousands will always fondly remember the novelty of being “out of the country” and collecting Canadian stamps and money as souvenirs.
We share a border with Canada. It is more than our neighbor; it is part of our community. The United States is not an independent island. We, Canada, Mexico and many other nations make up this continent called North America, and it makes no sense to publicly speak ill of the Canadian Prime Minister – and certainly not in such mean-spirited terms.
It was no accident that Reagan’s first and second foreign trips as president were to Canada. Good relations with Canada were important to him. Canada was also the last foreign nation Reagan visited as president. He felt it was an appropriate bookend to begin and end his foreign travels as president by visiting our neighbor to the north.
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Interestingly, while the senior Trudeau might not have always been Reagan’s cup of tea, a succeeding Canadian Prime Minister – Brian Mulroney – and Reagan hit it off so well that they became close friends. When they were together it was obvious that they respected and liked each other very much. Simply put, they clicked, so much so that Reagan chose Mulroney to deliver a eulogy at his funeral.
President Trump may very well have a valid point about inequities in our trade relationship with Canada, and he is right to want to fix those. But publicly bad-mouthing the Prime Minister of Canada will not get us there. Rather, it will create an even wider schism between the United States and our long-standing allies, which does not serve our interests well at all.
As he seeks in Singapore to make the world safer, President Trump would do well to remember that as exciting, shiny and historic a new relationship with North Korea may be, old, reliable and proven friends like Canada should never be taken for granted.