WASHINGTON — The noisiest moments of Justin Trudeau’s visit to Washington were hard to miss: the screams from photo-snapping World Bank employees, blasts from cannon salutes, cheers from progressive audiences, and the brump-bump-bump of the brass band at the White House.
But one quiet family moment stands out for Bruce Heyman — three generations of Trudeaus and Obamas spending a private half-hour in the upstairs residential part of the White House.
Margaret Trudeau and the Obama daughters joined the first couple on the Truman balcony, which offers a resplendent view of iconic sights arrayed in a symmetrical line: the Jefferson monument, the Washington monument, the National Mall, blossoming cherry trees, and the South Lawn fountain.
“It was a bit of a family gathering,” the U.S. ambassador to Canada said in an interview.
“It was almost as if they were all long friends as opposed to having (just) met.”
The families then went downstairs for the first state dinner for a Canadian in 19 years. It was also the first attended by the Obama daughters. The president prompted a standing ovation for the prime minister’s mom when he alluded to Margaret Trudeau’s work on mental health, after struggling with bipolar disorder.
Heyman said those kinds of personal connections will be what people most remember about the three-day visit. He said it went far beyond the leaders’ families, and included the hundreds of officials who got to know each other while working on policy announcements to cut methane emissions, protect the Arctic, and experiment with a new system for border screening.
He demonstrated that enthusiasm by interjecting when asked how that moment ranked for an ambassador to Canada: “Ambassador to anywhere,” he cut in.
“If you have an experience like the last few ways you have to step back, pause a minute, and say this is one of the best experiences an ambassador can have…
“It’s a pinnacle.”
He made the remarks as the Canadian delegation prepared to leave for the airport.
The prime minister’s final event was like much of the trip. Hundreds of people crowded around to snap pictures, many of them cheering. These were employees of the World Bank, Canadians and others who lined the entrance when he arrived.
World Bank President Jim Kim saluted his work on climate change and Syrian refugees: “We’ve been watching with admiration,” he said, as they sat down to meet with officials and ministers at a boardroom table.
Trudeau had just arrived from a town hall co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress, the unofficial think tank of the Democratic party. Organizers said the BBC, CBS, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal and Time were among the outlets there.
Trudeau’s photo was also on the front of the New York Times and Washington Post. The actual substance of the meetings received less coverage. Much of it had a celebrity flavour — and not just in GQ, Vanity Fair, Vogue, the Today Show and Entertainment Weekly, which all ran items.
Before the trip, a White House diplomacy veteran urged the PM to work the celebrity angle. Brett Bruen, who was the White House director of global engagement until last year, said the prime minister should try reaching Americans who don’t follow the news, to build a bigger audience for when he wants to promote specific causes.
The main message this time: globalization is an opportunity, not just a threat.
This was delivered in a country where fear — of refugees, of job-killing trade deals, and of Mexican migrants — has dominated the early election discussion.
Audiences repeatedly tried drawing him into discussing Donald Trump. He demurred, except to state his own views and share some stories from Canadian politics to suggest campaigning against Muslims can backfire.
He alluded in passing once to the 2014 Quebec election. He was more explicit in describing last fall’s federal election — with the calls for an extremism snitch line one of several proposals from the Harper government.
Trudeau told one friendly audience at American University that Canada already had a 911 line, just like the U.S. He also told the students about his decision to oppose stripping terrorists of citizenship.
“I found myself in a situation on stage against the former prime minister, arguing (against this),” Trudeau said.
“And yet I stand here as Canadian prime minister.”
The crowd clapped. He got similar cheers at the think tank event, where he suggested all men should be feminists. His description of Canada’s refugee intake was another applause line among the groups to which he spoke.
But such sympatico audiences barely control this town. Obama’s Democrats still hold the White House. But they’ve lost both houses of Congress, and the White House is up for grabs in a few months.
Trudeau did meet with a few Republican lawmakers, including former presidential candidates John McCain and Lindsey Graham. But the top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, pulled out of a meeting over a scheduling conflict.
Not every outlet covered him the same way.
The Washington Post put his photo on the front page. The more conservative Washington Times did not.
He made a lighthearted reference to the political divisions in the country, when a student asked whether he’d build a border wall to keep out American refugees after the November election.
“Every election.. there are people who swear that if the candidate they don’t like gets elected, they’re moving to Canada,” Trudeau chuckled.
“If over the past decades that had been the case, we’d have more people in Canada than the United States right now, instead of being one-tenth your size.”