Bernier-Couillard: A little southern sympathy

By David T. Jones on June 12, 2008

WASHINGTON - Sex sells. And a good sex scandal generates 360 degree, "24/7" attention.

Thus Canadians (and Canada watchers around the world) have found the Bernier-Couillard saga a perfect foil for all sorts of analysis both light and ostensibly deep—certainly more than that accorded whatever serious issue a serious commentator would select for public attention. 

But for both the former foreign minister and the young lady one can have a degree of sympathyæalthough perhaps more for Ms Couillard than Mr Bernier.

Essentially, Mr Bernier had to know what (so to speak) he was getting into. He is a mature adult with the personal relationships that a handsome, well-to-do, socially (and then politically) prominent male can anticipate and has enjoyed. If you chose a public "glitteratti" life (rather than the "married with 2.5 children" paradigm), you are high wire performing without a net. At least Mr Bernier was not a hypocrite since Ms Couillard was hardly hidden away.

So Mr Bernier can feel more sinned against than sinning. After all French President Sarkozy had a globally flamboyant relationship with his now wife. In Canada, Pierre Trudeau was hardly a secret swordsman prior to his Margaret marriage. And in the United States, JFK famously (albeit secretly) shared Judith Campbell Exner with Mafia figures. Prior to his predictable victory in the 1996 election, wags said that President Clinton was so confident of re-election that, "he had started dating again." And during his tenure as Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger was the subject of endless salacious gossip linking him with a variety of the sex symbols of the era; prior to marriage (his second) to Nancy Maginnes, their relationship was not assessed as platonic.

Regarding the security violation of leaving his NATO summit briefing book in Ms Couillard's home, this is more of a stupidity than a crime (regardless of the regulations for handling classified material and the sanctions for mishandling). It epitomizes the rarely mentioned bureaucratic reality that senior officials' responsibilities fill so much time that unless one spends 20 hours a day behind the desk, these officials—against regulation—will take classified material with them upon departing work. To attempt to cope with the material, they will carry such material home, and they will study it on the plane while traveling to their meetings and conferences; it is simply a reality that there is too much to do/learn in too little time. Moreover, the briefing books are daunting in dimension--for a senior U.S. official at such a meeting, there could be multiple books, each hundreds of pages long. Thus tearing pages out of these books—as Bernier is accused of doing—is a self-defense mechanism: you've made a judgment that this is material to which you want to give further attention.

 As to what was actually in Bernier's briefers, the answer is "the kitchen sink and stove."

A long, long list of possible issues and topics would have been circulated and vetted within the foreign ministry and related ministries as well as by the PMO/PCO; there would have been "information memos" on topics and situation reports from Canadian embassies. If the book paralleled material historically prepared for senior U.S. officials, there would be schedules for events; reviews of recent NATO history and organizational background; basic NATO documents and the "draft" communiqué to be released at the meeting; media guidance; capsule political/economic analyses of the individual NATO countries; brief bio sketches of attending foreign ministers and the NATO Secretary General with whom Bernier was scheduled meet formally or in "pull aside" encounters.

More importantly, there would have been basic "talking points" on Canadian positions for topics such as Afghanistan and NATO expansion with specific points tailored for individual encounters. So extensive can these preparations become for U.S. principals that the detailed memos have "cover memos" condensing the topics—and then end with a 3" by 5" card making further refinements. Often the minister is so overwhelmed with information that an action officer/ambassador spends the last couple of minutes prior to a meeting providing the essential "need to know" information.

So it is certainly possible that the famous left behind briefing book was totally superfluous—that Bernier had torn out the most pertinent material, folded it up, put it in his suit jacket, before turning to more engaging activity.


And the Woman?

Commentary on Ms Couillard, notably from female journalists, reflects more than a bit of "meow-meow" along the lines of "the only real estate she was selling was…"  There is a sense that these commentators, who have intellectual and professional skills in their fields akin to Ms Couillard's physical attributes at least mildly envy her, perhaps mentally speculating what they would have been able to accomplish with their minds in her body.

Men simply appreciate that she was an alpha male trophy.

But Ms Couillard is no international femme fatale and certainly not qualified as one of the grande horizontals of say the Pamela Harriman ilk. Indeed, she was a local girl trying to make good into better.


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