Brian Mulroney

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With Mulroney in Hollywood: A Lesson in Diplomacy from the Great Networker

Colin Robertson

POLICY  MAGAZINE March 3, 2024

The flow of tributes to Brian Mulroney from foreign leaders, past and present, highlights one of the former prime minister’s many talents — his ability to personally cultivate and sustain international relationships to the benefit of Canada.

Diplomacy relies on relationships. Watching Mulroney in action was a lesson in the art of making connections and creating networks. As my diplomatic colleagues and I can also attest, he was only too happy to share these relationships knowing that for diplomats, as in politics, it’s about who you know and can reach out to.

In March 2001, Mulroney came to Los Angeles, where I was just months into my assignment as consul general. He was to give the annual Lincoln Address at the California Club.

I’d met Prime Minister Mulroney several times: during the negotiations of the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, when I was part of the negotiating team originally assembled by Derek Burney and then led by Simon Reisman, with Derek having become Chief of Staff to Mulroney. My colleagues Michael Hart, Bill Dymond and I later wrote Decision at Midnight, about the negotiations, and Mulroney had generously endorsed it at the tenth anniversary tribute held in Montreal.

He and Mila had also come to Hong Kong during my posting to support our democracy rights initiatives after Tiananmen Square. It was tropically hot but Mulroney always looked fresh, impressing Hong Kongers. I later learned the briefcase carried by his aide contained three identical white shirts, changed strategically throughout the day-long visit.

I’d learned of his visit to Los Angeles when actor John Gavin, a fifth-generation Angeleno who had been president of the Screen Actors Guild and served as ambassador to Mexico under Ronald Reagan, invited Maureen and me to join him and his wife, Connie Towers, at the Lincoln Dinner. The Lincoln Dinner is the Republican equivalent of the Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson dinner — the party’s major annual fundraiser.

Former prime ministers are due basic courtesies and I’d sent an email to Mulroney’s Montreal law office. About an hour later (and it was late afternoon in Montreal) my phone rang and a mellifluous voice said “Hello Colin, this is Brian Mulroney.”

He asked me how I enjoyed the job, reminiscing about visiting “that splendid residence” when Joan Price-Winser, the grande dame from Montreal whom he had appointed as consul general, hosted events in Hancock Park. He invited us to come to the private reception before his speech and quizzed me on what was going on in Los Angeles and California. I reminded him we did more trade with California than the European Union and that if California were a country, it would be G5.

Mulroney’s appreciation of Hollywood and its film culture, which had informed and enhanced his famous friendship with Ronald Reagan, was on full display. He seemed in his element.

Located in downtown Los Angeles, the California Club is the premier social club for business and the dinner for four hundred was sold out. John and Connie Gavin knew who was who, and Mulroney, clad in a double-breasted tux and black tie punctuated with his Order of Canada snowflake pin, enjoyed their company. He remembered Connie from her appearances in Perry Mason and he laughed when Gavin told us his story of when you know you are past your best-before date as an actor: in the 70s the girls who came up to speak to him remarked how much their mothers had admired him, but “today it’s their grandmothers”.

Mulroney’s appreciation of Hollywood and its film culture, which had informed and enhanced his famous friendship with Ronald Reagan, was on full display. He seemed in his element.

The former prime minister had just come from meetings in Washington, where he had met President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush advisor Karl Rove and US Trade Representative Bob Zoellick. He told me that both Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, whom he’d seen recently, wanted to use the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Quebec City to push the idea of a trilateral energy accord.

We moved to the dining room, where Mulroney took his place beside the host in the receiving line. When I moved towards the cocktails, he grabbed my arm and said, “You stand beside me…these are people you want to meet…bring lots of cards?” I had, and over the next twenty minutes, I met the elite of Los Angeles.

According to Mulroney, I had been instrumental in the negotiation of the free trade agreement and had his full support as Canada’s representative in Los Angeles. I met more movers and shakers that evening — former Governor Pete Wilson and California First Lady Sharon Davis — than at any other event during my time in L.A., including at those around the Oscars and Emmys.

There were thirty of us at the head table and when the time came to sit, I’d moved from the far fringe to the seat to the left of Mulroney, at his insistence. Fittingly enough for Hollywood, it was like having my own high-powered agent.

Mulroney’s speech – which he had clearly worked on himself as I could see his long and easy-to-read handwriting on the pages of his text – was about  the Canadian-American relationship, California’s place in the equation and the benefits of free trade, as well as Lincoln and leadership. Every few pages, there were lines scrawled in the margins where he would riff from the prepared text with an anecdote.

As I wrote in my journal: “He had the speech in four sections, which he moved with ease off the podium and onto the table. He is a superb raconteur and his delivery is polished and poised and he had the audience on their feet several times in applause. Like a great actor, he can sense his audience, draw from them and to them. He uses his reading glasses and the water glass to effect – pausing, drawing emphasis, shifting between a stage whisper and the deep baritone. It is clear that he still feels un-honoured in his own land and part of the speech talked about leaders like Truman and Eisenhower, who are only now being recognized for their leadership.”

For Mulroney, the telephone was his Stradivarius. He enjoyed conversation; discussing ideas and exchanging intelligence, both high and low. Most of all, he listened and learned.

Afterwards, he suggested I might want to send those whom I’d met a copy of his speech to further cement the introductions. “And those you really want to get to know — send them a hard copy using your stationery with the gold crest.” It was good advice — statecraft combined with stagecraft — and earned me vital meetings to advance our interests.

On our way home that night, Maureen teasingly remarked that she never knew I’d played such a seminal role in the FTA negotiations. We laughed at the blarney, but appreciated that it was blarney in the service of Canada, and that Mulroney generously knew would help me.

Brian Mulroney was a powerful speaker and superb raconteur — even before an audience with no shortage of professional actors, he had no problem holding the spotlight. He revelled in meeting people and if he couldn’t meet them, he called them. For Mulroney, the telephone was his Stradivarius. He enjoyed conversation; discussing ideas and exchanging intelligence, both high and low. Most of all, he listened and learned.

Mulroney may have come to office promising ‘pink slips and running shoes’ to a foreign service that some of his partisans thought Grit-ridden. But within a couple of years, his chief of staff and many of his key aides were foreign service officers and they served him well. Mulroney used the Foreign Service with effect in his diplomatic initiatives – North/South, East/West and especially with the United States. Working with, not against, the Foreign Service, he enhanced Canada’s place and standing in the international community.

As a former international businessman and long-time student of political history, Brian Mulroney came into office with a global vision, with Canada as his nexus of interest at the very centre of it. His appreciation of the diplomatic corps became an extension of that vision. I like to think the foreign service served him well. He certainly served and advanced Canadian interests globally, both during his prime ministership and beyond.

Contributing Writer Colin Robertson, a former career diplomat, is a fellow and host of the Global Exchange podcast with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute in Ottawa.