Remembering our man in Washington

Allan Gotlieb, who died last month at the age of 92, was Canada’s longest-serving ambassador to the U.S. He left behind a rich legacy — and an example to follow
By Steve Paikin - Published on May 20, 2020
Allan Gotlieb served as Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1981 to ’89. (Deborah Baic/CP)

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COVID-19 has deprived the world of a great many things. One of them was an appropriate send-off for one of this country’s greatest-ever ambassadors. 

Had we been living in normal times, there’s no question that some funeral home or house of worship would have been packed to the rafters to celebrate the life of Allan Gotlieb, who died last month at the age of 92. 

Gotlieb was Canada’s longest-serving ambassador to the United States. What’s particularly fascinating about his time in that post, which stretched from 1981 to ’89, is that he served both Liberal (Pierre Trudeau) and Progressive Conservative (Brian Mulroney) prime ministers — a highly unusual distinction. I don’t say this as a criticism — it’s simply a statement of fact — but, over the past four decades, this post has been filled by everyone from one prime minister’s former chief of staff, to another prime minister’s nephew, to former premiers, and a finance minister, as well. Justin Trudeau gave the job to the man who had chaired his successful 2015 election campaign. (Currently, the role is held by Kirsten Hillman, a career public servant.)

But passing partisan loyalty tests was never part of Gotlieb’s Washington street cred. In their day, he and his wife Sondra made their home the place to be in the most important capital city in the world. It was diplomacy by dinner party, and no one did it better than the Gotliebs. 

In the absence of the appropriate recognition that a funeral would have provided, the couple’s contribution to Canada was recently marked through a Zoom conference hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Canada Institute, in Washington, D.C. 

All the Washington heavy hitters would “go to Allan and Sondra’s home so they could get access to the people they’d otherwise never get to meet,” recalled Janice Stein, founding director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. “It’s never quite been replicated since, because there’s been no Sondra since Sondra. That’s also part of the story that doesn’t get told enough.” 

“We did all our entertaining at home,” added Sondra, who was also in on the Zoom call. “It was Allan’s vision to get it started.” 

“Allan seized the moment,” recalled U of T international-relations professor Robert Bothwell. “I’ve seen ambassadors who could have been mistaken for trees in the park. Allan was outstanding. He made an impact. He was the right man for the times. They were nicely matched.” 

“To Washington, Canada sends its very best,” said Charles Doran, director of the Canadian Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s Washington campus, referencing an old expression. “That was totally appropriate for Allan.” 

Allan Ezra Gotlieb was born in Winnipeg in 1928 and was so sharp, he joined the Canadian Department of External Affairs before he’d turned 30. He’d already attended four universities (including Oxford and Harvard) before being sent to Canada’s permanent United Nations mission in Geneva in the 1960s. 

But he truly made his mark in Washington, befriending many of the major players in that town during the Reagan-Bush years, to the benefit of both the Trudeau and Mulroney governments — and, of course, of Canada. Gotlieb may have been the first Canadian ambassador to the U.S. who had a close personal relationship with the prime minister he served. Even though he was a career diplomat, he also had that personal bond. 

“If you didn’t have that, it was impossible to do the job,” said Stein. “Allan had that close relationship and would have had a role in shaping government policy.” 

After Trudeau stepped down and Mulroney became prime minister in 1984, the assumption was that Gotlieb would be replaced as ambassador, given his closeness to Trudeau. 

“He wasn’t sure he’d be continued,” said Bothwell. “But he so won the confidence of Brian Mulroney that he stayed on for the longest time of any Canadian ambassador. Mulroney, unlike Trudeau, was deeply interested in the U.S., and Allan was very much a presence.” 

Doran said that being kept on by a new prime minister of a different party was “unheard of,” adding, “It reflects his ability to put the interests of his country ahead of his own persona.”

“Yeah, and you don’t know how hard it was,” Gotlieb once jokingly told Doran. 

Stein pointed out that Gotlieb was the first ambassador to change the focus of the Canadian embassy’s efforts. Before him, establishing good relations with the president was the lion’s share of the job. Gotlieb understood that making friends in Congress was just as important. “No ambassador had done that before,” she said. 

That approach was particularly important when the Justin Trudeau government and the Donald Trump administration were renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. In fact, after the current prime minister sought advice from Mulroney, Gotlieb, then in his nineties, briefed the former prime minister on how to handle Trump. 

Stein says that the Munk School developed an app for those negotiations that listed every congressional district and how many jobs in each one depended on trade with Canada. 

“I’d have loved something like that when I was in Washington!” Gotlieb told Stein. In fact, Canada is the number-one trading partner for 35 American states: having that information helped Canada with its negotiations. 

On other occasions, the close relationship between the president and the prime minister paid dividends for Canada. When the rust-belt states fought efforts to reduce the pollution that caused acid rain, it was Mulroney’s friendship with Reagan — nurtured by Gotlieb — that ultimately carried the day and resulted in a historic agreement.  

“Reagan would contradict his own advisers,” Sondra recalled. “Reagan changed his instructions on acid rain because of his affection for Mulroney and Canada.” 

After his time as ambassador came to a close, Gotlieb shared some of his best stories in his sixth book, a 656-page tome called The Washington Diaries. What made the book a great read was the former diplomat’s willingness to be undiplomatic. For example: “Crises in our relationship weren’t because of high level problems. They were caused by the actions of assholes in high positions in obscure agencies.” 

The guy could write. 

Gotlieb’s favourite American politician was former U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of New York, who once famously said: “You’re entitled to your own opinion. But you’re not entitled to your own facts.” 

“God knows Moynihan obstructed Canada,” Bothwell said. “But Allan never came away resenting him — not a man with an intellect that excellent.” 

And who was his least favourite American politician? 

“I saw him a lot in Toronto,” Stein said. “And I can tell you he was not an admirer in any sense of the current occupant of the White House. And he made his views about that known.” 

Toward the end of their 64 years of marriage, the Gotliebs enjoyed an annual vacation at the Black Point Inn in Portland, Maine. One year, they bumped into Peter Raymont, one of Canada’s most prolific documentary filmmakers, and struck up a friendship. “He didn’t have a clue who I was,” Raymont recalls. And, yet, the two couples began a daily tradition of Scotch on the balcony, “followed by two hours of stories over dinner,” Raymont said. 

The couples eventually met in Maine every year for five years and watched the second Obama election victory together. 

“Every evening, they were so entertaining, delightful, and fun,” Raymont said. 

Gotlieb died on April 18 from cancer and Parkinson’s disease. He received the Order of Canada and the Order of Manitoba. He was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto. One hopes that the public celebration of his life that he so richly deserved will happen after COVID-19 is under better control. 

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