March 25, 2016 2:20 pm
Updated: March 25, 2016 2:23 pm

Canada’s ambassador in Washington talks about his first month on the job

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WASHINGTON – One of the more memorable moments of David MacNaughton’s first month as ambassador to the United States included a car ride with the big boss.

As their motorcade zipped through Washington, D.C., he, Justin Trudeau, and the prime minister’s wife Sophie chatted about their first trips to the American capital.

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The prime minister’s was a couple of years ago, as an opposition leader. Sophie Gregoire’s was unfolding right there. She’s a rare first-time visitor to Washington greeted with a state dinner and military ceremony on the White House lawn.

“So (the prime minister) said to me: ‘When did you first come to Washington?”‘ MacNaughton said.

“And I said: ‘With your dad.”‘

READ MORE: New ambassador to US announced amid shifting perception of Canada

McNaughton shared stories about his first month as ambassador, in an interview from his office overlooking the U.S. Capitol. It’s been busy since he arrived Feb. 29. The prime minister has had three trips scheduled to the U.S. – the White House visit, a stop at the United Nations, and he’s in Washington again next week for a nuclear summit and a business forum.

MacNaughton first visited Washington four decades ago. He was a young political staffer and got to sleep in the President’s Guest House across from the White House – where numerous prime ministers have stayed, including both Trudeaus.

An enduring memory from that old trip occurred in Pierre Trudeau’s absence. The prime minister peeled away from the delegation for lunch with then-president Gerald Ford.

So the young aide wound up at the State Department with another dining companion – one of the more legendary if polarizing figures in the recent history of international affairs.

“I’m sitting there – a 25-year-old kid – listening to (then-secretary of state) Henry Kissinger go through a tour d’horizon of the world. I just thought, ‘Pretty outstanding.’

“That was a pinch-yourself moment. Which I didn’t really expect that I would have again.”

But that old feeling’s back.

His career path has taken him to the U.S., yet again. MacNaughton founded a public-relations-and-consulting business that bought a number of U.S. properties in 1984. They included one of the best-known journals of American politics, the Cook Political Report; the president of his U.S. division was an ex-political staffer who’s since become a famous NBC journalist, Chris Matthews.

MacNaughton got to know the two top figures in the current Prime Minister’s Office through provincial politics.

He co-chaired David Peterson’s successful Ontario campaign in 1987, then worked for Dalton McGuinty. That’s how he met Katie Telford and Gerald Butts – now Trudeau’s chief of staff and principal secretary, and they worked together again last fall when he co-chaired the Liberal campaign in Ontario. News of his ambassadorial appointment prompted opposition accusations of patronage.

But Trudeau’s entourage says it did its homework.

Butts said the new government consulted many people about what would make a good ambassador. Aside from obvious qualities – competence and political savvy – he said one criterion kept coming up: proximity to power. Apparently, this status-conscious capital is more responsive to people perceived to have the prime minister’s ear.

“We spoke to a lot of people about (the qualities needed),” Butts said.

“The coin of the realm in Washington is perceived closeness to the prime minister…. We’ve all worked with David for years. He’s one of the best people we’ve worked with. The prime minister trusts him…

“He’s lived and worked in the United States, in addition to spending many years in the business community. He was perfect for it.”

The ambassador’s now drawing up a to-do list after being briefed on the staggering number of files that have a Canada-U.S. component. During Trudeau’s visit, there were announcements on climate change, Arctic co-operation, and pilot projects aimed at overhauling how people cross the border.

One early impression is how much of his job involves security – working on it, explaining how seriously Canada takes it, and promising that Canada will remain a committed military partner beyond its current defence review.

The longtime public-relations professional says the idea’s to communicate early and often about things like the defence review, to prevent misconceptions like the old canard about 9-11 attackers sneaking across the border: “How do you make sure that before a perception sets in that you can control the message?”

Another highlight this month came when MacNaughton visited the Oval Office with his family, as he presented his diplomatic credentials there on March 3.

And that’s how he wound up discussing parenting strategy with President Barack Obama.

READ MORE: Obama, Trudeau off to good start – U.S. ambassador

“(Obama) asked (my children) what they did. He was very friendly. The one question he asked me was, ‘You’ve got four daughters. I’ve got two. Have you got any advice?”‘ MacNaughton said.

“I told him the story about my one daughter coming home one night. I guess she was about 15. And she said, ‘Dad, I don’t get it – but all my guy friends are afraid of you.”‘

McNaughton laughed, and added: “I said, ‘Perfect.’

“So we chatted about that. (Obama’s) really warm and engaging. He talked to each of them individually. It was really quite a thrill.”

© 2016 The Canadian Press

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