Skip to main content

Paul Cellucci: A Forthright Friend of Canada

Christopher Sands

News that former Massachusetts Governor and U.S. Ambassador to Canada Argeo Paul Cellucci has died on Saturday following a brief and courageously public battle with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, called to mind the legacy of a man I came to know through his passion for Canada.

Cellucci was one of a handful of talented Republicans to rise from an unusual spot, the traditionally Democratic state of Massachusetts. The group included Andrew Card, U.S. Secretary of Transportation under the George H.W. Bush administration who later became President George W. Bush’s chief of staff, and Andrew Natsios who served as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development under George W. Bush and is currently a colleague of mine at the Hudson Institute. While Card and Natsios built careers in the more Republican-friendly Washington DC, Cellucci chose to tough it out in Bay State politics. The three were close friends.

Toughing it out meant a career in the state legislature (for eight years in the state House, and eight as a state senator) before Cellucci was elected Lieutenant Governor alongside Governor William Weld. When Weld was nominated to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico by President Bill Clinton, and resigned the governorship in 1997, Cellucci became governor.

Weld and Cellucci were a very American pair: Weld could trace his family lineage back to the Mayflower, while Cellucci could trace his through Ellis Island back to Italy. When Weld spoke, he sounded as though he might have been at home in the Boston of John Adams; when Cellucci spoke, he sounded as though he might have been an extra on the television show Cheers—with his strong Boston accent and working class lack of pretension.

As governor, Cellucci was passionate about Canada and in particular the tremendous opportunity that Canadian energy resources posed for both Canadians and for Americans. He worked diligently to bring natural gas from Sable Island ashore in Nova Scotia and into Massachusetts. He also hoped that hydroelectricity from Quebec would help Massachusetts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—all too aware that in New England many homes still relied on fuel oil for heat.

An early supporter of George H.W. Bush and a fellow Republican governor from Texas, George W, Bush, Cellucci worked hard to elect both, and in 2000 and wanted one job in return when the younger Bush was elected: to become U.S. Ambassador in Ottawa. Like my former boss former Michigan Governor James Blanchard (who worked hard to elect his former peer as Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton president and was sent to Ottawa as a reward) Cellucci’s state experience had made him a believer in the importance of strong U.S.-Canadian relations.

In Ottawa, Cellucci represented a U.S. president who was personally less popular with Canadians than Clinton to a government—led by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien—that had maintained a warm relationship with Clinton. This was enough to make Cellucci’s task in Canada difficult.

Yet the job of an ambassador of the United States is to be the personal representative of the U.S. president that he or she serves, and to reflect the views of the U.S. administration accurately and effectively to his hosts, as well as to be able to communicate the concerns of his host government effectively in Washington, and—when urgently needed, directly to the president himself. It is a delicate job, but one for which popularity in the host country is not paramount.

By this standard, Cellucci was one of the United States’ most impressive ambassadors to Canada. Even when he challenged Canadians, most notably when he said that after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, “security trumps trade” he spoke forthrightly—and more sympathetically to Canadians than he was generally given credit for. It was a pithy statement that reflected the convictions of George W. Bush and top figures in his administration, and while it frustrated many Canadians as it translated into security-first border policies, it was honest and a reliable guide to Washington’s thinking in those days.

Cellucci had a direct line to the White House through his friend Andy Card, and also had a close working relationship with former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, who served as a White House advisor on homeland security before becoming the first U.S. Secretary of the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Cellucci played an important role in fostering the partnership between John Manley, Canada’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, and Ridge—a duo that produced the Ridge-Manley process that helped to stabilize and normalize U.S.-Canadian border and security relations in the difficult post-9/11 years.

On another subject, Cellucci was passionate, forthright, and at odds with a segment of Canadian opinion: he believed that Mexico was an important partner for the United States and Canada, and that a trilateral approach to economic and security relations made sense — not only for the United States but for Canada, too. He was unable to persuade many in Ottawa to share this view, but once again he reflected the view that held sway in Washington then accurately. In my judgment, he was right about this, too.

After returning to private life and his family—including his son who married a Canadian—Cellucci remained an active and respected voice on U.S.-Canadian relations in the United States. His memoir of his time in Ottawa, Unquiet Diplomacy is a candid and insightful assessment of the challenges of this unique bilateral relationship. As recently as 2012, he co-authored an article calling for a “NAFTA approach to immigration reform” for the Wall Street Journal with Stephen Kelly, now a professor at Duke University but once Cellucci’s Deputy Chief of Mission in Ottawa.

When diagnosed with ALS, Cellucci had already begun to suffer its debilitating symptoms. He chose, again forthrightly, to share his condition with the public to raise awareness of the disease which affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement and is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was typical of a man who put honesty and the public interest before any other considerations. These qualities made him a true friend to Canadians and a great ambassador for the United States, and a great friend to all who knew him, including me. He will be keenly missed by many in the United States and in Canada.

Related Articles

John Kerry Has Hamas’ Back: So, Who Has Israel’s?

Lee Smith

You know there’s something going on when Haaretz, the flagship of the Israeli left, reads like it’s being edited by Dick Cheney. Last Friday Secre...

Continue Reading

How to Play a Weak Hand in Iraq

Abram N. Shulsky , Eric B. Brown & Hillel Fradkin

Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki knows what he wants: a third term in office for himself and U.S. military help in defeating ISIS (now the Islamic ...

Continue Reading

The Collective Security Treaty Organization: Past Struggles and Future Prospects

Richard Weitz

The CSTO has been expanding its defense capabilities, legal mandate, and range of missions in recent years, and has emerged as the main regional defen...

Continue Reading