This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 9, 2004
Canadians Unsupportive of US President
MAYBE IT'S THAT SMUG LITTLE SMILE. His penchant for fantastically expensive military photo-ops. Or the swaggering, belt-hitching walk that cries out for a pair of swinging saloon doors. And though, God knows, we have too many of our own syntactically challenged politicians to be casting stones, shouldn't the leader of the free world know that "misunderestimate" isn't a word? Yes, we're cavilling, but clearly there is something about George W. Bush that gets under the skin of Canadians. After all, vehemently disagreeing with the policies of American presidents is almost a national pastime. There has to be another explanation for our extreme reaction, the desire afoot in the land to see him turfed from office. That and the unprintable sentiment about him and the horse he rode in on. Even before we know whom he will be running against this fall, Canadians have made their decision. Only 15 per cent, according to an exclusive new Maclean's poll, would definitely cast a ballot for Bush if they had the opportunity. And if Americans remain almost evenly divided - some 50 per cent approve of his performance in the White House and he's running neck and neck with his likely Democratic challengers - there is no such dithering on this side of the border. Just 12 per cent of us feel Canada is better off since he took office, and only a third of respondents will admit to liking the world's most powerful man, even just a little bit.
It's an antipathy that appears to extend far beyond our traditional coolness towards Republicans, says Michael Marzolini, chairman of Pollara Inc., the Toronto-based opinion research firm that conducted the national survey. With a political spectrum that skews to the left of America's - legalized same-sex marriage and the promise of looser marijuana laws being the most recent, and in some quarters, celebrated examples - we've generally perceived Democratic presidents as being more in tune with our values. But where Ronald Reagan and Bush the elder were at least grudgingly respected, Dubya is decidedly not. Despite a spate of polls showing a broad desire for improved relations with the United States after the often rocky Chrétien years, there is a sense that this administration isn't one we want to do business with. "These numbers really show the difficulty for Paul Martin," says Marzolini, the long-time pollster for the federal Liberal party. "He has to get closer to the Americans, but he can't get too close to George Bush. It's a fine balance." The intense sympathy Canadians felt following the attacks of 9/11 - something that manifested itself not just in acts of mourning and charity, but in a willingness to support whatever actions the U.S. deemed necessary - has dissipated. In its place is a deep dislike of the bellicose new global reality, and a lingering distrust of Bush's motives.
It's evident even within sight of the frontier. Stopping to take a picture of icy Niagara Falls on a recent frigid day, Mike Mitreveski tried to explain why he's uneasy about Bush. "I get a sense that he's in it for himself first and then the country," said the Windsor, Ont., graduate student. "And I worry that he's doing all of this stuff in Iraq for the oil industry. He used to be part of it and has lots of high-ranking friends." David Kowalewski, an engineering consultant from Niagara Falls, Ont., says he initially supported Bush's foreign policy, but now has grave doubts. "I thought it was noble at first, but now they've gone security crazy." Life has changed for the worse in his community, said Kowalewski, citing long delays at the border, and the fallout for local businesses that depend on tourism.
A trio of physicians taking in the sights on a day off were no kinder to Bush. On sober reflection, all asked that their names not be used. "Please, someone, teach him how to pronounce nuclear," said one, a Toronto pediatrician. Another, an American who has lived on this side of the border for the past 14 years, said she understands why Canadians dislike so many of Bush's stances, even though she is troubled by the tone of the debate. A doctor friend from the Netherlands provided a reminder that opinions of the President are often even harsher abroad. "In Amsterdam," she said, "we think he is kind of stupid."
ON THE HUMID night in August 2000 when George W. Bush officially became the Republican nominee for president, the thousands of delegates and reporters packed into a Philadelphia arena were given a peek at what party strategists planned to sell to the American people. The beautifully realized infomercial was mostly shots of Bush at his Crawford, Tex., ranch, tending stock, mending fences, driving a vintage pickup truck with his spaniel perched on his lap, all the while talking about his vision of a big country with small-town values. It was a persona lifted straight from a Hollywood Western. The likeable, soft-talking cowpoke who knows the value of an honest day's work and isn't afraid to take on the guys in the black hats when the town's in trouble. Reagan successfully mined the same vein for eight years. And it's an image that continues to pay dividends for Bush, playing off his folksy, good-natured strengths, and positioning him as someone who might reasonably be excused for not reading newspapers or knowing the names of his foreign counterparts. Clearing brush on the back forty is a lot more man-of-the-people than weekending at the palatial family compound in Kennebunkport, Me.
But Canadians have never been that comfortable with the type of cowboys who take the law into their own hands. Our frontier heroes were the scarlet-clad North West Mounted Police, not lone gunslingers. In a pre-9/11 world, when Bush was vowing to be a domestic-policy president, it didn't seem to matter that much. But over the past 2 ½ years, his muscular commitment to protecting and advancing U.S. interests abroad - unilaterally if allies and international bodies such as the UN fail to sign on - has unsettled many around the world. There is a burgeoning cottage industry of writers and analysts exploring the underpinnings and fallout of this new American "imperialism." In Canada, a country that has always fretted about being swallowed up, either territorially or culturally, by the behemoth to the south, the spectre of an expanding American Empire feeds a deep-seated paranoia. At least for some.
David Frum, the Canadian author and pundit who spent 13 months working as a speech writer for Bush - he is credited with co-authorship of the infamous "axis of evil" line - says he doesn't believe polls that suggest a yawning chasm between American and Canadian perceptions of the President. "My contention is that the differences are much less dramatic than they are usually made out to be," he says. And if Bush is held in less esteem north of the border, adds Frum, it is largely because of the distorted lens the public sees him through. "The Canadian media have generally taken a very belittling approach to him. By and large, they do not take the terror problem very seriously, and they communicate that to public opinion." Canadians might understandably prefer presidents who are reluctant to flex their global political power, either economically or militarily, says Frum, but when it comes to things that really matter, we should have the good grace to at least not stand in the way. "There's no expectation in Washington that Canada and the U.S. should agree on every issue. But they do, as a friend, expect to be given the benefit of the doubt on issues that they regard as essential to their security."
It's a point of view that many Canadians find difficult to swallow, given the dubious claims of weapons of mass destruction and hostile intentions that fuelled America's foray into Iraq. (The Maclean's annual year-end poll found that 75 per cent of Canadians believe Ottawa was right to refuse to commit troops to Iraq, even if it annoyed our closest trading partner.) Yes, we're friends and neighbours, but with feelings running so high, there is a danger that our distaste for the leader will spill over to the people he represents. Clifford Krauss, Canadian correspondent for the New York Times, recently encountered two young boys on the street outside his Toronto home, holding a sign that read Honk if you hate President Bush! (This is a school project.) "I was shocked because of the word hate," says Krauss. "You'd never see a sign like that about Saddam Hussein, or Slobodan Milosevic." It's a virulent strain of anti-Americanism that the Times reporter says he encounters more and more frequently. "I've experienced rude and prejudiced behaviour, just because I'm an American," says Krauss. "I've lived in countries in Latin America that have tricky relationships with the U.S., but I didn't expect that sort of thing here."
Truth is, we might well be the ones in need of a dose of perspective. With the Canadian political landscape now virtually emptied of leaders we feel passionately about - either negatively or positively - we might be guilty of transference. Our growing distaste for Bush is smug and more than a bit juvenile, argues Reginald Stuart, a Mount Saint Vincent University expert on U.S.-Canada relations, now in residence at Washington's Woodrow Wilson International Center. "When the Communists were in power, we dealt with Russian leaders that we disagreed vehemently with on some very fundamental issues," he notes. Our worries that the Bush administration, viewed by the bulk of the Canadian public as overly religious and conservative, will somehow interfere with progressive social policies in this country (the Maclean's year-end poll identified same-sex marriage and proposals to relax marijuana laws as new "wellsprings of national pride") are overblown, says Stuart. In Canada, there is still no surer kiss of death for a politician than caving into American pressure.
For decades now, we have alternately railed against, and revelled in, the generalized American ignorance of Canada. At the same time, we have prided ourselves on being one of our neighbour's harshest critics. At the centre of our relationship is the conceit that so much of what we produce - resources, goods, culture, people - flows south, that America must really need us. Now, with the U.S. showing a willingness to stand alone and demand the obeisance due to the last remaining superpower, Canada, like the rest of the world, is caught up in an uncomfortable new reality. Bush's repeated "with us or against us" declarations have made it clear that there are new, tougher requirements for being America's ally. And as long as he remains well-positioned for another four years in the White House, we may have to do our share of puckering up. Canadians know that. We just don't have to like it.
By the Numbers
In a national survey, Maclean's asked Canadians for their opinions of the President. The respondents' reactions:
How would you describe your personal feelings toward President George W. Bush?
EXTREMELY LIKE HIM 5%
SOMEWHAT LIKE HIM 27%
SOMEWHAT DISLIKE HIM 28%
EXTREMELY DISLIKE HIM 22%
DON'T KNOW / REFUSED 17%
Do you feel that Canada is better off, worse off or no different with George W. Bush as president of the United States than during the terms of previous presidents?
BETTER OFF 12%
WORSE OFF 43%
NO DIFFERENT 33%
DON'T KNOW / REFUSED 13%
If you had the opportunity to vote in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, how would you cast your ballot?
DEFINITELY VOTE FOR GEORGE W. BUSH 15%
CONSIDER VOTING FOR SOMEONE ELSE 28%
DEFINITELY VOTE FOR SOMEONE ELSE 40%
DON'T KNOW / REFUSED 17%
HOW THE POLL WAS DONE
This nationwide survey of 1,367 Canadians, aged 18 and over, was conducted by Toronto-based Pollara Inc. between Jan. 20 and Jan. 25. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
Maclean's February 9, 2004