WASHINGTON – The most famous street in Washington is lined with Canadian flags. People are trying to finagle invitations to witness a Haley’s Comet-type rarity in international relations: a political celebrity from Canada.
And somehow, in the midst of all this, amid the pomp and preparation for the first U.S. state dinner for a Canadian in 19 years, and the even rarer show of interest in Justin Trudeau, and the decorations along Pennsylvania Avenue, one unavoidable, inescapable name looms behind the fluttering red-and-white flags.
That name stands out, in all-caps of course, on billboards at the new hotel project being developed on Pennsylvania Avenue by the ubiquitous real-estate titan who happens to be the Republican presidential front-runner.
Trudeau was asked about him this week and tried avoiding the subject. It’s fair to assume he’ll be asked again during his three-day visit starting Wednesday.
He won’t have the same luxury of anonymity as some past prime ministerial visitors whose travels might have landed closer to the crossword puzzle than the front page of major American newspapers. This Vogue-magazine-appearing, refugee-hugging, proclaimed progressive-rock-star has already been dubbed the “anti-Trump” in one Washington Post headline.
Canadian officials can’t help but notice – they’re being hammered with ticket requests for Thursday’s state dinner. One joked there’s probably a book to be written about these last few weeks.
“I never realized how popular I am,” one official deadpanned, without discussing secret trip details on the record.
Canadians don’t actually control the guest list. They only have a token few tickets to hand out, and there’s already some grumbling and rumours about who got one and who didn’t.
A few famous names will be in attendance. For the 1997 dinner involving Jean Chretien, guests included Howie Mandel, Diana Krall, Dan Aykroyd and a newlywed couple, Alan Greenspan and Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.
They feasted on maple-cured salmon and herb-crusted lamb before heading to the East Room where guests sipped champagne and then-first-lady Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore bopped to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”
One irony is that the rare wonks in this town who actually spend their working lives thinking about Canada aren’t the target audience for the big party.
“Nobody I know is going to the state dinner,” said the head of the local Canada Institute at the Wilson Center, Laura Dawson, when asked about the guest list.
“I think the idea is to keep the bureaucrats and the wonks to a minimum and really focus on high-level people who exemplify important attributes of the relationship – whether they’re from culture, entertainment…
“I know people who are incredibly well-connected to the White House and they are just getting rebuffed… Trudeau’s got a lot of star power in Washington – people want to get up close and see if this guy’s for real.”
A larger crowd will see him arrive at the White House.
Hundreds are expected on the South Lawn. Unseasonably warm 26C weather is forecast for the main day of the visit Thursday – which begins with a meeting in the Oval Office, followed by a press conference with Barack Obama, lunch at the State Department, then the black-tie dinner at the White House.
The trip starts Wednesday with an evening reception. It ends Friday with Trudeau speaking to a university, attending a gathering of think-tanks, and laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery.
The actual substance of the meetings, sources say, likely includes announcements on intelligence-sharing at the border; climate-change co-operation; and possibly on a path forward to avoid another softwood lumber war.
But some skeptics – including Trudeau’s political opponents at home – note that some of these things sound suspiciously similar to files already in the works under the previous government.
They’ve also questioned how much might get done given that the president has 10 months left, and no hope of getting the Republican Congress to approve a Supreme Court justice let alone a substantive climate plan.
The advice from the Canadian ambassador for the 1997 dinner? Trudeau should start making connections that’ll be useful when Obama’s gone, and rub elbows with other influential actors.
Raymond Chretien has another suggestion for the prime minister. It involves Trump. And it’s based on personal experience.
Chretien says some media exaggerated simple observations he made about the two presidential candidates in 2000 – some apparently even interpreted his non-verbal communication as favouring Al Gore over George W. Bush.
His advice now:
“Don’t get involved in American politics. Don’t take sides in your words, don’t take sides in your moves, don’t takes sides with your smile. Don’t take sides – period… My advice would be to be very careful – it’s not just words, but everything. The whole demeanour…
“We have to live with the Americans, whoever’s in power.”