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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Canadian Visits to the White House

Canada’s Governor General Freeman Freeman-Thomas, 1st Marquess of Willingdon, and Viscountess Willingdon of Canada arrive in Union Station, Washington, D.C, for a State Visit, December 6, 1927.

Library of Congress

“Geography has made us neighbors,” President John F. Kennedy told the Canadian Parliament in May 1961, “History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies.”

After Canada became a nation in 1867, ties between it and the United States grew closer. In 1927, the two countries received ambassadors. On December 6, Canadian Governor General Freeman Freeman-Thomas, 1st Marquess of Willingdon, became the highest-ranking state official to visit the White House. As governor general, he performed constitutional and ceremonial duties on behalf of King George V of Great Britain -- this included meeting with other heads of state. About 4 p.m., a squadron of motorcycle police escorted them from the Canadian legation to the White House for a state dinner with President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge.1

A decade later, on March 30, 1937, Canada’s Governor General John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, and his wife Susan were guests of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at a White House State Dinner. Following the dinner the Howard University Glee Club presented a performance of songs and hymns.2

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt greet Canada’s Governor General, John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, at the White House on March 30, 1937.

Library of Congress

Vincent Massey, who had served as Canada’s first ambassador to the United States during 1926-1930, returned to Washington in May 1954 for a State Visit as Governor General. During an arrival ceremony for Massey on the steps of the District Building where he was presented with a key to the city, an enormous rainstorm quickly soaked the participants and brought the ceremony to a halt. When Massey arrived at the White House he apologized to President Eisenhower, saying “I must look like a drowned rat.” The president replied, “Oh no—I though you would look even wetter.” Eisenhower then told Massey he had had a poor golf outing the previous Saturday. “If I don’t do better than I did Saturday, I don’t care if I ever play again,” he said, flashing the famous Eisenhower smile.3

On June 3, 1960—the day of the State Dinner for Prime Minister John Diefenbaker—President Eisenhower was concerned about First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, laid low in Walter Reed Army Hospital with acute asthmatic bronchitis. The president ordered the White House florist to send his entire stock of pink and green carnations to the first lady.4

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau attracted widespread interest on his first State Visit to the United States in March 1969. For President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon, Trudeau’s visit marked their first opportunity to host a White House State Dinner. Mrs. Nixon and White House Social Secretary Lucy Winchester designed a new seating plan of eleven round tables and a rectangular table to accommodate the 121 guests.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau of Canada, President Jimmy Carter, Margaret Trudeau and First Lady Rosalynn Carter on the Truman Balcony at State Visit arrival ceremony on February 21, 1977.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

While waiting for the singer Robert Goulet to entertain following dinner, Nixon and Trudeau talked casually with guests and reporters about Trudeau’s passion for skiing and skin-diving. Asked if he had ever skin-dived, Nixon replied, “Oh my, no, I can swim, but I don’t like the feeling of a mask around my face. I feel like I am suffocating.”

Trudeau, who kept to an exercise and physical fitness schedule of someone far younger than his 49 years, expressed a wish to take a dip in the White House swimming pool, and his request was granted. On the evening of March 24 Trudeau’s official limousine dodged in and out of rush-hour traffic before arriving at the Southwest Gate, where he was taken to the pool for a 20-minute swim with football coach Bud Wilkinson, a special White House consultant on physical fitness and sports programs for young people.5

In February 1977, Trudeau was the second head of state visitor of the Carter presidency, following that of Mexican President José López Portillo. Some U.S. fashion critics panned Canadian First Lady Margaret Trudeau’s choice of a non-floor-length dress to wear to the State Dinner; Mrs. Trudeau replied: “Look, I just don’t care what the American designers thought. What I wear is nobody’s business but my own.”6

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan greeting Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Mila Mulroney of Canada for the State Dinner at the North Portico of the White House, March 18, 1986.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was the guest of and President Ronald Reagan for two State Visits—in 1986 and 1988. The toasts for both visits were witty and sentimental. In 1988 Mulroney joking: “I want to just say, parenthetically, something that happened to me in August of 1987. It was a Sunday, and I was reading the New York Sunday Times. And I was struck by this headline. And here’s, I think, a direct quote, though I’m speaking from memory. The quote is, ‘Reagan's Popularity Plummets To 59 Percent’ . . . Now, what I did that day after I finished reading the Times was, I called the President up. He was at Camp David, and I said, ‘Did you read the Times?’ He said, ‘Yes, I did.’ And he didn't sound so enthusiastic. I said, ‘I don't know how to break this to you, but on a good day, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and I together would be happy with 59 percent.’ Look, I'll settle for 39 percent.”7

Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s April 1997 State Visit took place a little than three weeks after President Clinton had to undergo surgery after he tore a tendon in his right knee at the Florida home of professional golfer Greg Norman. At the State Dinner for Chretien, Clinton made light of his injury and joked when the after-dinner dancing began: “There will be music and dancing in the hall for those of you who are capable. The rest of us will creep off into the sunset.”8

President William J. Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister and Mrs. Chretien stand in the Grand Foyer for a formal photo before they receive guests for the State Dinner.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum/NARA