Timothy Porteous is by no means ugly. Woolly might be a more apt description for Pierre Trudeau's former executive assistant, who arrives for lunch at Vancouver's Salmon House on the Hill still sporting the tall shock of bushy hair that Richard Nixon once privately scorned.
Until this week, Porteous was perhaps best known for his 12-year tenure as associate director and director of the Canada Council. But now that the U.S. National Archives has released the latest batch of secretly recorded Oval Office audio tapes, the retired career bureaucrat has gained new fame as that "ugly bastard" who made the soon-to-be disgraced president boil with rage during a state visit in 1972.
"Was the prime minister's executive assistant that bushy-haired fellow?" Nixon can be heard on the tapes, after returning from a two-day trip to Ottawa, when his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, complains about Porteous.
"Ugly bastard," he sneers. "Probably very left-wing. Why don't we do something about it?"
Still sputtering, Nixon orders Haldeman to plant a negative story about Porteous with then-Washington columnist Jack Anderson. "Play it hard. Find a way, goddammit. You've got to put it to these people for kicking the US around after what we did for that lousy son of a bitch," he says, referring to Trudeau. "Wasting three days up there. That trip we needed like a hole in the head."
So how does it feel to be slagged by the most disreputable president in the history of the United States?
"Who cares," Porteous says, shrugging with the same indifference Trudeau expressed when previously released recordings revealed Nixon calling the former prime minister an "asshole."
Porteous orders a Cinzano and chuckles quietly. "If you're going to be insulted by someone, he's a good one to be insulted by because you're in awfully good company."
A native of Montreal, Porteous first met Trudeau in 1957 when the two were students traveling in West Africa for a World University Service of Canada seminar. They remained friends and became even closer when Porteous took a two-year leave of absence from his law practice in 1966 and went to Ottawa to work as an executive assistant to Treasury Board president C. M Drury, before volunteering as a speechwriter on Trudeau's leadership campaign.
It was Porteous, in fact, who was responsible for Trudeau's fatal first meeting with Margaret during a vacation at Club Med in Tahiti. "Yes, I take full blame," he laughs.
Did Porteous warn Trudeau that Margaret might, perhaps, be a bit young?
"Oh, no. He wasn't capable of accepting advice on that subject." Years later, when Trudeau sneaked away to Vancouver to get married, he told Porteous that he was going on a ski vacation to Mount Tremblant. "To put me off the scent, he asked me to check on the weather conditions. They were excellent."
When Trudeau won the leadership campaign, he offered Porteous a job as his executive assistant, a position he held for five years, until Trudeau appointed him associate director of the Canada Council.
Now 68, Porteous lives only a few minutes away from the Salmon House, in this tony West Vancouver neighborhood overlooking the city, with his second wife, Beatrice Donald, a psychologist with a practice in the field of Sandplay therapy, an offshoot of Jungian analysis. (We can only imagine what Nixon would have done with that.)
Although still active in the arts community as a member of the Vancouver Art Gallery board of trustees "and a few other things," Porteous clearly never expected to be dragged out of his political retirement to discuss Nixon's assessment of his hair, now streaked with silver.
Still, he is delighted to spend the next two hours remembering that bizarre state visit, which, as he later told Henry Kissinger, "did not contribute to Canadian-American relations."
The massive preparations for the visit began with a 50-person advance team. "Really," Porteous says, blinking incredulously. "It was sort of the Imperial Presidency. But the crazy thing was, they actually expected all these rules to prevail in Ottawa."
First there were the phone lines that had to be installed because, according to Haldeman, there always had to be a telephone with a direct line to the White House switchboard within reach of the president.
Then Porteous had to be prepped on the food etiquette. "I was showing the advance men the salon where we were going to have a buffet. 'This is where the food is going to be,' I explained. And they said, 'Well, it will have to be covered up.' " (The president didn't deign to be in a room where there was food if he wasn't eating it.) The buffet was to follow a performance at the National Arts Center. But until the day Nixon arrived, Porteous couldn't get anyone from the 50-member team to confirm whether Nixon was actually going to attend. Exasperated, he turned to Trudeau: "Just ask him if he's coming."
Nixon told Trudeau that he hadn't heard anything about the buffet. "Which of course, was a fib," Porteous says. And although Nixon graciously agreed to stay for dinner, he omitted to tell Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, who had scheduled every minute of the trip into an incredibly elaborate itinerary, replete with drawings of the furniture arrangements.
"Yes," Porteous says. "When I came into my office the first morning of the visit, one of the American team members was rearranging the furniture. 'What the hell are you doing?' I asked. Well, he had this drawing. And the furniture was not in accordance with the drawing, so he was moving it around."
Haldeman tried to pull a similar stunt during the gala. Towards the end of the performance, Porteous went out to the salon to ensure that everything had been set properly. The elaborately sculptured side doors to the room had been deliberately closed.
"They were quite magnificent," Porteous says, referring to the doors, which had been carved by the Quebec artist Jordi Bonet. "It was not just like opening and closing your office doors."
But sure enough, when Porteous walked out, there was Haldeman straining to swing them open so the president could skip the buffet and make a fast exit.
"It is not your job to open and close the doors in the National Arts Gallery," Porteous told Haldeman. "That's when he got really mad and the veins on his forehead began popping. What could he do? I shut the doors and when the president came out, he shared the buffet."
Kissinger, in the meantime, was enjoying the performance with his date, local broadcaster Charlotte Gobeil. "Kissinger had the right attitude. He was appalled by the way these guys were behaving. He was relaxing and having a good time while Haldeman and Ehrlichman were kind of jumping around going, 'We've got to get the boss out of here.' Kissinger said, 'The president's a grownup. If he wants to leave, he'll leave.' He was all apologies. The tension between them was quite funny."
And what did Trudeau have to say about the shenanigans going on? "I'm not sure Trudeau was even aware of that."
Was he aware, then, of Nixon's antipathy? "It wasn't the kind of thing that really concerned Pierre. I don't think he had any aspirations to be a friend of Nixon's."
As for the smear campaign, Porteous has no idea if Haldeman and Nixon ever planted a negative story about him. "I probably would have heard about it. But their theory, that an item in Jack Anderson's column would have any impact whatsoever," Porteous says, and shakes his head in amazement. "It's weird. It certainly speaks to Nixon's paranoia. That was their way of thinking. . . .
"They were control freaks. And this visit was very temporarily slipping out of their control. They reacted with anger and hostility. It was a contrast, in so many ways, to Pierre Trudeau. And, I would hope, in contrast with Pierre Trudeau's staff."
© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc