Chretien Rejects Aide Resignation on 'Moron' Quip

Alan Crosby

Nov. 22, 2002 21:06 EDT

PRAGUE - Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said Friday he had rejected an offer by his chief spokeswoman to resign after she was quoted as calling President Bush a moron.

The reported remarks by Francoise Ducros, made during a NATO summit in Prague, made headlines in Canada and the United States and prompted demands from Canadian opposition politicians that she be fired.

Chretien told journalists that no one in the U.S. delegation had referred to the comments during several meetings this week at the summit and he joked that Ducros uses the word ``moron'' regularly.

``She said to me she had a private conversation and she was defending in the discussion somewhat the president of the United States. She doesn't remember having used these words,'' said Chretien.

``She said to me that if it's causing too much of a problem, she offered her resignation, and I did not accept that because it was a private conversation.''

The White House too has brushed off the remarks but the incident is unlikely to improve the already rocky relationship between Bush and Chretien, who is clearly uncomfortable with the U.S. president's threats of war against Iraq and stance on other issues.

The Canadian opposition howled even louder when it became clear that Ducros was source of the remarks but would stay on.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, leader of the minority Conservatives, told Parliament that Ducros's only role is as chief spokeswoman for Chretien, and the bilateral relationship was too important to play around with at a time of conflict with Iraq and trade clashes with the United States.

``We're trying to protect Canadian farmers against U.S. subsidies, we're trying to resolve the softwood lumber dispute. We need the co-operation of the elected -- the elected -- president whom the prime minister's spokesperson calls a moron,'' he said.

``Why is protecting Francie Ducros more important than protecting Canadian farmers or protecting Canadian softwood lumber?'' Clark demanded.

``The real reason the government is defending this disgraced communications director is because her sentiments precisely reflect the anti-Americanism of the Liberal Party of Canada,'' charged Jason Kenney of the Canadian Alliance party.

Ducros issued a statement apologizing for the remarks but saying she had not criticized Bush in her official capacity.

``The comments attributed to me in no way reflect my personal view of the president of the United States,'' she said in a written statement.

``I have never, in any of the many briefings I have given reporters as the prime minister's chief spokesperson, ever expressed, on the record or off the record, any negative opinion concerning President George Bush.

``If I made comments in the context of what I understood to be a private conversation, I regret that they have attracted so much media attention. I accept full responsibility for them and I sincerely apologize.''

The offending quote, run in the National Post and the Sun Media chain of newspapers, was: ``What a moron.''

Chretien said that Ducros has probably ``used that word against me a few times, and I am sure she used it against many of you plenty of times. It's a word she uses regularly.''

Foreign Minister Bill Graham told reporters in Prague that he saw no change in relations with Washington and has had a long conversation with his U.S. counterpart, Colin Powell, where the topic never came up.

``We have the firmest relations. ... These are relations which are extremely close, extremely profound and will continue to be so,'' he said.

``We have a lot of concern over U.S. trade policy ... but while we may disagree with one another's trade policy, or on various fronts, we resolve these issues as friends do. ... Our relations go far beyond anyone's one comment.''

It was the second day running that Chretien had had to do damage control. Thursday he said Bush ``is a friend of mine, he is not a moron at all.''

Chretien -- who in 1997 remarked in front of an open microphone that he liked to stand up to the Americans because it was popular -- comes from the left wing of Canada's ruling Liberal Party, which has often looked upon U.S. Republican administrations with suspicion.

According to Canadian media reports, White House officials privately refer to the 68-year-old Chretien as ``dino,'' short for dinosaur.

(Additional reporting by Randall Palmer and Gilbert Le Gras in Ottawa)

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