Blame Canada? Reagan surely didn't.
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
As President Donald Trump groused about having to visit Canada and looked for new ways to punish the United States' neighbor to the north, it is instructive to recall an earlier presidential trip.
President Ronald Reagan traveled to Ottawa in March 1981, shortly after taking office. The two nations were at odds over acid rain, fishing, automobile trade, a gas pipeline, Central America policy and more.
But in an address to Parliament, Reagan said, "A final word to the people of Canada: We're happy to be your neighbor. We want to remain your friend. We're determined to be your partner."
The abject willingness of Republican politicians to discard their supposed fidelity to Reaganite principles has become so familiar in the Trump era that we hardly notice any longer. But a visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum here nonetheless is a shocking reminder of the vast gulf between the two Republican presidents - not only on issues but also in philosophy, outlook and character.
Reagan's expression of good neighborliness is one of the first exhibits you encounter in the museum. But earlier in the timeline you come across this, about the release of U.S. hostages held by Iran for 444 days: "President Reagan sends former President Jimmy Carter to meet the hostages in Germany and escort them home to freedom."
Can anyone imagine that kind of gracious gesture from Trump toward his predecessor?
Even earlier, there is this childhood memory: "There was no more grievous sin at our household than a racial slur or other evidence of racial intolerance." As a college football player, the museum recalls, Reagan brought two African American teammates home to spend the night when a local hotel turned them away.
The museum, not surprisingly, emphasizes Reagan's commitment to democracy and free markets. "Can you think of a time when any family, thirsting for opportunity, left a democracy to live in a country that was not free?" he asked in Alabama on July 4, 1984.
And more simply, this, from December 1986: "A violation of human rights anywhere is the business of free people everywhere."
Letters from fighters for freedom in the Soviet Union, Cuba and elsewhere testify to how important such words were - and serve as a reminder of how such leadership today has gone missing.
Then there is this: "Whatever else history may say about me ... I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts."
Yes, presidential libraries, by their nature, highlight strengths and skate over weaknesses. Reagan in his time also could be a divisive figure, often mocked and reviled by the left.
But it matters that Ronald and Nancy Reagan wanted values such as racial inclusiveness reflected in their library, even if he was not always a perfect messenger of them.
It is also true that the fundamental optimism and faith in human freedom that shine through in this museum, in such contrast to today, could not be faked. Nor could the commitment to get along with other leaders, especially allies, even when Reagan disagreed with them in fundamental ways.
The prime minister of Canada when Reagan made that first trip was Pierre Elliott Trudeau - father of current prime minister Justin Trudeau. Reagan was very much a conservative, and Trudeau was very much a liberal, mirroring the difference between Washington and Ottawa today.
But after their first get-together, Reagan wrote this in his diary:
"Went to Parliament hill to meet P.M. Trudeau. Discovered I liked him. We have some problems to be worked out having to do with fishing, energy & environment but I believe we've convinced them we really want to find answers."
And not a word blaming Canada for burning down the White House.
Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post. Previously he was a local reporter in Virginia, a national reporter covering national security and a foreign correspondent based in Tokyo and Moscow.