JFK and Why Camelot Was a Living Nightmare for Canada
By Mitch Potter
On May 16, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, along with his glamorous wife, Jacqueline, arrived in Ottawa for a fateful meeting with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. With 50,000 people lining the streets to get a glimpse of the inspirational Kennedys, the acrimony to come was almost unimaginable. This fall, amid renewed scrutiny of JFK’s life and legacy upon the 50th anniversary of his assassination, Star Washington bureau chief Mitch Potter explores the president’s toxic relationship with the PM. In JFK and Why Camelot Was a Living Nightmare for Canada, Potter details the escalating enmity between them, a feud that included distinctively undiplomatic behaviour, outright nastiness and allegations of hysteria.

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JFK and Why Camelot Was a Living Nightmare for Canada

JFK had been “impatient” before the departure from Washing- ton, complaining as porters loaded up on “far too many suitcases and hair dryers and whatnot,” said Hollensteiner.
“But then he realized it was all a very important part of her image of impeccable beauty and grooming and style and he was proud of her. So his criticism of all those suitcases and the confu- sion of the hair being washed was greatly reduced after that.” Jackie arrived with eight carefully co-ordinated outfits, each designed especially for the Canada trip by French-born American Oleg Cassini. For Diefenbaker’s luncheon on May 17, she chose, according to an archival White House document, a “beige ribbed silk ottoman two-piece dress, with bateau-necked sleeveless over- blouse” and “a slightly flared skirt with deep pleats on each side.”

Jackie’s breathtaking sophistication was matched by two days of soaring — and at times, cheeky — oratory from JFK. The two-term senator from Massachusetts loved to laugh, and the first ad-libbed joke came at Diefenbaker’s expense. The PM was first to the podium at the welcoming reception, offering a few words of mangled French as part of his introduction. Kennedy re- marked wryly that he suddenly felt better about his own grasp of French, having listened to the prime minister. The crowd loved it, exploding in laughter. Diefenbaker, perhaps the most thin-skinned leader Canada had ever known, felt humiliated, falling into a black mood (aided and abetted by earlier moments in which Kennedy twice mispronounced his name).
But the shoe was most painfully on the other foot a short while later, when Kennedy was led to the grounds of Rideau Hall for the ceremonial planting of a red oak.

JFK, playing up his image of vigour for the cameras, seized the shovel and dug heartily into a mound of dirt — instantly reawaken- ing an old back injury that would haunt him for his remaining days.

The president somehow masked his agony until he was out of public view. Three weeks later, White House press secretary Pierre Salinger disclosed the first early details of the back injury, describ- ing a regimen of crutches, a corset-like restraint and steady doses of pain relievers to counter “constant discomfort, something like a steady toothache.”

It wasn’t until 2002 that the deeper truth emerged with the first- ever independent examination of Kennedy’s medical records. JFK was in far greater pain, and taking many more medications, than the public ever knew. His doctors alternately administered the painkillers codeine, Demerol and methadone. An especially severe incident occurred three months after the tree-planting episode in Ottawa. Kennedy’s medical records show Jackie rushing in from another room when the president screamed in pain as White House physician Dr. Janet G Travell injected pro- caine deep into his back muscles to numb them, the New York Times reported.

That was the brittle context — Kennedy in sustained agony from his tree outing, Diefenbaker in high dudgeon over perceived disrespect — when the two met the morning after the president’s arrival to attend to the hard business of the Ottawa trip. Kennedy was the friendly aggressor on continental defence while Diefenbaker was the coy deflector, pleading for time so that he could better prepare Canadians for the unpopular idea of nu- clear weapons north of the border. JFK also encouraged Diefenbaker to pivot his attention to the Americas, north and south, by joining the Organization of Ameri- can States (OAS). Here again, Diefenbaker demurred, according to diplomats’ accounts of the meeting. A staunch nationalist and a true believer in the fading Com- monwealth, Dief saw advantage in continued close trade with the U.K. as a bulwark against Canadian domination by the rising U.S. superpower.

Yet the world was changing. Britain was actively looking to enter the European Common Market, a move that would almost certainly strip Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth of trade preferences.

They had issues. But the issues were exacerbated by personal dissonance. Dief, the wily if mercurial prairie populist, was Old School: a devout Baptist, a Freemason, a teller of tales about Churchill and Eisenhower. JFK, a rich man’s son, was New Frontier: the first Catholic president, a war vet and the youngest-ever American chief of state.

They were 22 years apart — Dief, 65; Kennedy 43 — yet more than a generation separated them. One looked at the other and saw brassy impetuousness; the other looked back and saw a musty bore.

Kennedy left the meeting and went on to address a joint session of Parliament, where he couldn’t resist breaking the ice with a jab at the unelected nature of the Canadian Senate. The most striking difference between his system and Canada’s, said JFK, “is the lofty appearance of statesmanship which is on the faces of the members of the Senate, who realize they will never have to place their case before the people again.” Kennedy’s snark met with hearty laughter from those in Parlia- ment, including nearly 100 senators. But then Kennedy got lofty, laying out the same challenge he set for Diefenbaker, including the entreaty to join the OAS, much to Diefenbaker’s distress, but not including any specific talk of nukes. JFK ended with what every contemporary press account seized upon as the great aspirational message of the trip.

“Geography has made us neighbours,” he said. “History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder.”