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.

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