Capitals Thoughts From Someone Who Has Lived And Worked In Both

One big difference between Ottawa and Washington DC is that the wicked House of Cards fourth season is the stuff of binge watching in the capital of the most powerful nation on earth — to the point where the plot’s twists are fully outlined in advance in The Washingtonian — the city’s premium monthly magazine.

What a contrast to the last time national TV in Canada paid dramatic attention to Ottawa politics in the late sixties with Gordon Pinsent playing an upright, idealistic M.P. in the CBC drama Quentin Durgens, M.P.

Whatever the dramatic exaggerations of House of Cards, it does demonstrate what my old boss Allan Gotlieb, perhaps our most effective US Ambassador ever, pointed out in his autobiography – that Washington is all about negotiating and making deals.

This is due to the separation of powers and the enormous influence of the Congress and Senate, their weighty committee leaders, and what Gotlieb called the Third House of Congress, the armies of highly paid lobbyists. Add to these often warring players, the fourth estate more entrenched in Washington than our press gallery is here and the plot potential is endless. This provides perfect material for intrigue, blackmail, conspiracy and deception which fuels House of Cards. Running the country from the PMO when you have a majority only occasionally requires making deals with caucus.

Contrast the high power Washington energy with the one work of Canadian fiction that has put Ottawa politics on the map – I am referring to The Best Laid Plans, Terry Fallis’s humorous adventure about electing an unlikely candidate to the current House of Commons. It’s light, nobody gets killed, and justice and love prevail. Not intriguing Washington indeed!

The focus of both capitals is of course on their respective leaders. Until the arrival of Justin and Sophie we somewhat lacked a high profile first couple. We had one with the Mulroneys and for a while enjoyed one with Justin’s father and mother. This time around, and after the triumphant Washington visit and the celebrity status accorded the Trudeau couple, we can expect much enhanced non-political attention to our first couple to continue. We now have an international power couple with some of the media clout of the Obamas.

Whether Sophie, like her new friend Michelle Obama, will show up unexpected with hordes of cameras and aides at an award-winning local resident’s garden – they thought it was for an HGTV show, Michelle used it to kick off a nationwide gardening tour(!) – remains to be seen. But she will have her own causes, starting obviously with promoting Canadian fashion, and her activities will be very well-covered for sure.

For entertaining, Washington has the White House advantage. We have the decrepit, empty 24 Sussex. Never, even in my time with his father, was the venue used for much more than a dinner for 20 or so. The current Trudeau home is small if well-appointed.

We do have the National Arts Centre, being buffed up for perhaps another gala performance. It was with such an event that we welcomed President Reagan during his 1981 State Visit, and even produced Anne Murray, his favourite Canadian singer. Pretty calm, however, compared to state dinners offered to Chrétien and now Justin Trudeau.

There are other contrasts between the two capitals, and similarities. Obviously we don’t have the Smithsonian, needless to say “the world’s largest museum complex, with 19 museums…” – and admission is free! But we have a very respectable and beautifully situated National Gallery with world class international art, and the most comprehensive collection of Canadian art in the country. In our cold capital, only children under 11 are free.

Having lived and worked in both capitals, I have to say Washington is far more social. Black Tie dinners are not unusual, and you’ll find galas galore, many put on by lobbyists. These events have a strict protocol. We learnt early on that people arrive at six when they are invited and leave at eight if that’s what it says on the invitation.

Then there are each capital’s “in” restaurants, where the powerful can be viewed peddling and proffering influence. When I was in Washington, it was la Maison Blanche. I was assigned to take Mme Chrétien there when I was at the embassy, and of course told her in French where we were going and she thought we were going to the real White House. She was surprised, and I was embarrassed when we were dropped off at this lush restaurant. It has been long surpassed by watering holes like Cafe Milano in Georgetown where Bill and Hillary Clinton might be seen munching on one of the best pizzas or high-end fish dishes in town. Or Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill, favourite haunt of Senators and Congressmen.

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In my Ottawa days, Mama Teresa’s was the place to go and be seen and it may become so again with the Liberals back. It was Hy’s under the Harperites, a steak house that is now gone if not forgotten. As is Nate’s, a favourite for long after the first Trudeau years. Now today’s “movers, shakers and foodies,” says none other than Rick Mercer “follow one guy—Steve Beckta.” The owner of Beckta Dining & Wine recently reopened in a heritage building on Elgin.

Canada – US relations are overseen by the US Embassy in Ottawa, and the Canadian Embassy in Washington. They are both now in relatively new elegant buildings in prime locations. The Canadian building has a prow like a ship jutting into Pennsylvania Avenue and is the closest foreign embassy to the Capitol. The US Embassy gave up its prime site across from Parliament and now overlooks the ByWard Market. It is equally formidable but less dramatic. Both were controversial, the US building because it overshadows the market, our Washington structure because the design was given to Trudeau’s friend Arthur Erickson.

Canada is still a relatively minor player in Washington, despite our striking physical presence there and despite  March’s over the top welcome to our PM and his delegation. It’s hard work to be noticed, and thanks to House of Cards we know far more about what might go on in Washington than the US knows or cares about what goes on in Ottawa.

When I was with Ambassador Gotlieb we put on the best parties. Our new Ambassador will soon learn that influence relates to the quality of guests you can attract to your receptions and dinners as much as to the ongoing lobbying he does for our “interests”.