President Obama, can you hear me—I’m in town

Fun fact: there are also reporters in Ottawa, but they’re the wrong kind of reporters


President Obama, can you hear me—I’m in townNOTE: this column is an excellent example of how funny I can be when I have my facts wrong. See the top third of the column? Where I make fun of the Prime Minister for calling Barack Obama from a hotel room two blocks away? Hilarious! And mistaken! Turns out the photo was taken, and the Prime Minister’s half of the conversation took place, in the Intercontinental in New York City, the day after he was in Washington. So I feel dumb. Sorry. Enjoy the rest, if you can. – pw

The Willard InterContinental Washington hotel, at 14th and E, is the place to stay if you hope some of the capital’s glamour and history will rub off on you. The White House is two blocks away. Abraham Lincoln stayed here for weeks before his inauguration in 1861. After the ceremony the new President went back to the Willard for lunch: mock turtle soup, corned beef and cabbage, blackberry pie.

Stephen Harper was there the other day to do some interviews. Later the Prime Minister’s Office sent out a photo of the Prime Minister talking on the phone to Barack Obama, who was almost literally a stone’s throw distance at the time. Depending on the location of Harper’s suite, the angle of the windows, and other variables, they could almost have waved at each other while talking. In the photo there is a Canadian flag behind Harper. Did the PMO staff bring it from Ottawa? Does the Willard keep an assortment of national flags in its basement, in case world leaders want to fly to Washington to telephone the President?

One hardly dares credit the latter theory. As a general rule, when world leaders want to telephone a U.S. president, they don’t normally go to the trouble of getting as close as possible to him before picking up the phone. They’ve got this telephone technology working really well these days. The wires really do stretch all the way to Ottawa. You don’t even have to shout to be heard at the other end.

This business of proper distance from the leader of the free world is an eternal torment to Canadian prime ministers. How close is too close? Brian Mulroney used to fish with a Bush. Jean Chrétien swore he would do no such thing, so instead he golfed with Bill Clinton. Harper is the first to prank-call.

But of course he was not in Washington (and New York, on this two-day swing) only to speak to the President. He was also in Washington and New York to speak to reporters. Fun fact: there are reporters in Ottawa. Ah, but they’re the wrong kind of reporters.

Harper’s quarrels with the parliamentary press gallery are legendary and they just keep going. Last year he did an interview with Global TV anchor Kevin Newman in Quebec City on the occasion of its 400th anniversary. Newman asked about this business of incentives the Conservatives may once have dangled in front of Independent MP Chuck Cadman to influence his vote. Well, that’s Kevin Newman’s ass: the PMO has made no secret of its determination never to submit their man to the indignity of a grilling at Newman’s hands again.

Everyone knows only three questions are legitimate on the occasion of a major municipal anniversary. Anything else is proof of bias. Here’s the approved list.

(1) Gee, Prime Minister, isn’t it great that Quebec City turns 400 this year?

(2) I understand the federal government has been a fantastic partner for these celebrations. Please tell us how, that we may marvel.

(3) I don’t want to put you on the spot, sir, but you’re basically the best prime minister Quebec is ever going to get. Don’t you agree, and when you think of second-rate alternatives Quebecers will regret voting for, do any examples come to mind?

Kevin Newman didn’t get the memo, so he goes onto the Bad List. It is a very long list, and when the Prime Minister turns around, he sees it chasing him. So he . . . flees. When he was elected in 2006 he announced he wouldn’t take questions in the National Press Theatre, so he went across the street to the Centre Block foyer. But that venue lacked a special something, so he went down the hall to a little antechamber off the Reading Room. No good. He could change the surroundings all he liked, he couldn’t change our sullen faces.

So he went on the road, seeking positive coverage from local reporters coast-to-coast. Apparently this is problematic too. For one thing, it’s not exactly raining local reporters these days. Something about the economy. Second, the ones who are left sometimes display a shocking lack of noblesse oblige. So the road show has been extended still further, to the studios of mighty Fox and the guest suites of the storied Willard.

Yet even here there are signs of trouble. First, Fox’s Chris Wallace hectored Harper with the kind of tough questions about the public record that reliably put the big guy in a foul mood. Second, the PM’s visit didn’t get a lot of coverage from third parties like the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Financial Times gave him his proper due, but it’s a funny thing: the Financial Times is just about the only paper in the world that would have sent somebody to interview Harper in Ottawa if he’d asked.

There was grumbling among Canadian reporters that Harper was talking to fancy foreigners instead of to us. The grumbling was misplaced. Harper retorted, properly, that he gave some interviews to Canadians too. For instance, he spoke to Canwest’s man in Washington. But this only deepens the mystery. Canwest’s man in Washington used to be one of their men in Ottawa. So he was unacceptable in Ottawa and fine in Washington?

Something about my lot torments the Prime Minister. He has moved across the street, down the hall, out into the land, across international borders in search of a kindly ear. But I remember Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien taking questions they hated at the same Ottawa press theatre Harper so disdains. They won five majorities between them. I guess nobody likes a chicken.


President Obama, can you hear me—I’m in town

  1. “(1) Gee, Prime Minister, isn’t it great that Quebec City turns 400 this year?”

    He won’t touch this with a 10 foot pole Colleague Wells.
    Federal government involved in festivals in Quebec – much too close to Adscam – IMO!

  2. Without sounding like a horrible tory-bot, is anyone else tired of hearing about how the PM doesn’t speak to Canadian media? Or that when he does speak to American media, our media seem to get really jealous?

    I get that reporters first rule is to get their back up and say “but we’re hard on every prime minister, regardless of stripe”. And yeah, I’m glad that is true, and I am not disputing the need to be hard on PM’s.

    But attacking a PM for not speaking enough to the Canadian media is not “being hard” on him. It’s being petty. If I actually believed that Harper somehow does not ever speak to the media, I’d be on their side. But seriously, this is just a little wonky. The impetus for this latest bit of anger is that he spoke to Chris Wallace…. crike.

    How many stories have we seen this week theorizing about Harper resigning or leaving politics? Don Martin even wrote that maybe Harper was speaking to American media as part of his own future job interviews?

    Is this not a silly season? Is this type of journalism not petty? Are we expected to believe journalists are really trying to preserve our democratic rights by writing about how the PM doesn’t talk to them every single minute of the day? Yesterday alone we had several cabinet ministers interviewed on television. Is there some iron curtain I am not aware of?

    So good for Wells to say when he was wrong in the top third of this article, I still think he’s the best journalist in Canada. But enough of this talk about the silly stuff that has no real relevance outside of the Ottawa bubble.

  3. Actually the “facts” you got wrong don’t really change the story at all! Which goes to show something or another.

    What I find interesting is that Harper’s refusal to face the press has so far not cost him anything politically. He generally communicates what he wants to communicate and that is about that. I am fairly ambivalent about whether this is a bad or good thing. Obviously it is frustrating for the press, but there is more than enough information going around to mount effective coverage.

    if you got hired as the PR man, what would you advise him? Steady as it goes? have a scrum a day?

    • What is this myth about refusing to face the press? Am I the only person in Canada who has seen Harper at press conferences and interviews?

  4. “I guess nobody likes a chicken.”

    Actually, I do, as long as it has a moral compass.

    Is it possible that Harper’s office may have misunderstood a “sure, come over” message from the Obama White House as a formal invitation?

    And, has Harper ever been inside the White House?

    • As I recall, he visited Bush, possibly as opposition leader.

  5. We’re all waiting with bated breath.

  6. Um…not the post I meant to comment on.

    I meant the promised update of the Montreal symphony at Carnegie thing.

    • There may be no update until 2011. Apparently most orchestras are keeping their programs under wraps until shortly before the festival. Curses.

  7. Chris Selley sums it up well.

  8. In my opinion, the Prime Minister speaks quite a bit to the press. When he takes questions, he displays a respectful attitude to the questionner, answering fully. I’m surprised he does this, as the press seems willing to twist his words, and leave out important things for the sensational. A case in point is what happened yesterday when Mr. Harper made an announcement in N.B. It seemed to be a happy, relaxed occasion. Good things were being announced for N.B. The Premier of N.B. (a Liberal) and his Minister of Tourism praised Mr. Harper, the Premier calling him his good friend a couple of times. This easy-going feeling extended into the time of press questions… little jokes here and there, etc. None of this has been shown or commented on by the media… only the last bit where he is answering a CBC (now that’s a shock!!) question about Mulroney. That is all over the place… and the only thing we hear about, not the announcement or the other questions asked in N.B.

    Now, do you not think, Paul Wells, that this is disportionate and basically unfair?

    I feel the Canadian press is not looking for answers by the Prime Minister to good questions, but rather hoping for gottcha moments… something they can screwer him with later. Compare his interview in the U.S. with that of Peter Mansbridge. Peter kept interrupting him, cutting him off, wouldn’t let him finish his sentences… The U.S. interviewers by contrast had good, hard questions, but had the courtesy to allow Mr. Harper to finish his replies.

    I’m not a CPC member, but when the Prime Minister speaks, it gives me confidence that he knows what he is doing, and working toward a goal for the good of Canada. Why are we do darn side-tracked by these juicy tid-bits? Could it be because that’s mostly all we get from the media? I think there is a correlation.

    That is why I like to see the complete announcements or press conferences. That way I can form my own conclusion and not have it filtered through someone else’s biases. The media generally does not give us the whole story.

    • Well said Betty and perfectly to the point as well as patently obvious … but be careful posting such on web forums as before you know it the frustrated left wing nut crowd will be flaming you without mercy! It used to be people would hang out at the water cooler and each crowd would insult another somehow but in the modern world working on the web .. well enough said .. persoanlly I love the ranters as at least they show some energy albeit missplaced for the most part and sometimes downright entertaining.

      • Where do you work that people insult each other at the water cooler? You’re supposed to talk about the weather, hockey, and the latest Office episode.

  9. ”But I remember Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien taking questions they hated at the same Ottawa press theatre Harper so disdains. They won five majorities between them. I guess nobody likes a chicken.”

    Oh, there’s the
    ”we can make you or break you” line from the media…how’s that working for yah, msm?

    Funny how Bob Fife whined and whined and whined at the G20 that Harper wouldn’t take questions from the Cdn media, he was scared.
    Next day, the Cdn media get’s a chance to ask the really tough questions they said PMSH was avoiding, too scared to answer,
    and Fife asks PMSH why he missed the photo op………the world is in a global economic crisis, PMSH and Ministers had meetings with all the world leaders and ministerial counterparts,
    and Fife wants to know if it is true that PMSH was on the can when all were called for a photo.
    So funny, it’s sad.

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