I, like millions, watched Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify yesterday. Books could (and likely will) be written about that hearing. It contained so many different layers, and so many threads and back-stories and debates that well illustrated this moment in American history.
But, last night, when it was all over and after I had grown exhausted of the roundtable shouting matches on CNN, I lay in bed thinking about the spectacle and my mind kept coming back to one particular part of it all. The women in that hearing, Ford, the female Senators, and the female prosecutor brought in by the Republicans to cross-examine Ford behaved entirely different than the men.
The women were soft-spoken, calm, unfailingly polite, deferential and apologetic even. In one incredible moment, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar asked Kavanaugh if he had ever been black out drunk. The nominee angrily turned the tables and demanded if the Senator had ever blacked out. Instead of sharply and justifiably telling Kavanaugh to watch his mouth while speaking to a duly-elected representative of the American people who is constitutionally obliged to ask these questions, Klobuchar actually demurred and responded.
By contrast, the men in the hearing, notably Kavanaugh and the Republic Senators, were loud, aggressive, emotional, outraged and aggrieved. They came to the hearing looking for a fight, and tried to push and push until they got one. The women refused to take their bait, even though they had every right to do so, which seemed to wind up the men even more. This stark contrast between the sexes was impossible not to notice, and for me, impossible to forget.
Also yesterday, the press was chewing over President Donald Trump’s extraordinary press conference at the United Nations. In particular, they focused on his attacks on Canada, and his unprecedented jabs at Canada’s Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland.
The NAFTA negotiations are dragging on, and face another deadline next week. Optimism for a deal is fading. By all accounts, the American negotiators dislike the Canadian team’s demeanor and demands. (Ironically, the concessions being sought by the U.S. on dairy, inter-provincial trade, and de minimis rates, would all benefit Canadian consumers, but that is topic for another column.)
Given the very high stakes, there are growing fears NAFTA will die, and that Trump will attack with damaging auto tariffs. Unsurprisingly, commentators are seizing on the president’s dislike of Freeland, and are accusing her of being needlessly provocative and aggressive, of not being accommodating enough to the Americans.
There is some merit to these accusations. The Liberal government has a habit of morally preening abroad for its base, at home. Freeland’s decision to sit on a panel entitled “Taking on the Tyrant” that discussed Trump, is an example of this, as was her provocative sermon at the Diplomat of the Year awards.
But, as one of my former ambassadors once reminded me when he grew concerned about the questionable company I kept, diplomacy is not about making friends. It’s about defending interests. Trump does not need to like Freeland, and as many of his colleagues have learned, his friendship is at best fleeting if not outright dangerous.
And, the idea that Canada is a supplicant nation that must concede to American demands is overly simplistic. Yes, walking away from the table will inflict a disproportionate amount of pain on us. But it would likely only last until the end of this presidency. By comparison, agreeing to a bad deal will hurt us for a generation.
READ MORE: Who likes Chrystia Freeland? Most people.
I am not surprised that these negotiations have turned hostile. Canada has fielded an exceptionally strong team. The foreign minister is one of our most experienced in recent memory. Our ambassador is by all accounts proving to be a force in D.C. Canadian diplomats have spent the last decade negotiating trade deals all around the world and are more than battle-tested. And the wide number of helpful former prime ministers, opposition MPs, CEOs, labour leaders and provincial and municipal politicians have collectively executed Canada’s strongest diplomatic campaign since the land mines treaty.
The White House, in contrast, has not deployed America’s diplomatic A team, or even it’s B team. Almost every single trade and foreign policy expert spoke out against the Trump nomination, and then either refused to join his administration, or were blackballed. As a result, the president’s advisors are aggressive cranks, has-beens, conspiracy theorists and odd balls. This is the F team, at best. As they sit across the table from serious, well briefed, experienced and pragmatic negotiators, friction was inevitable.
I raise these two seemingly unconnected items—Kavanaugh vs Ford, Trump vs Freeland—because there are some interesting parallels. In both cases, the women are expected to be polite and accommodating. In both cases, the men are allowed to be aggrieved, aggressive. In both cases, injured egos are crashing against perhaps naïve expectations for fair hearings.
As I write this, it seems unlikely that the women will prevail in either case. But, I am taking a small measure of comfort in thinking that 15 or 20 years ago, Ford would not have been able to point her finger so effectively at Kavanaugh on live TV, and Freeland would not have been able to poke her finger into the president quite so well. This time, it may all come to naught. But this won’t always be the case. And these men know it.
Scott Gilmore is editor-at-large at Maclean’s. He is married to a Liberal cabinet minister.