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Really, Really Important Canadian Initiative

As you know by now, The Plank is back from a two-year hiatus. To mark the occasion, I’d like to set the record straight about some ancient New Republic history. The infamous “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative,” a headline TNR brought to prominence, is not getting its fair shake.

First, some background. Every so often, a savvy journalist introduces an item about Canada with the headline ‘Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” The joke dates back to 1986, when then-TNR editor Mike Kinsley spotted the headline in the New York Times and defied readers to find one that was more boring. No one remembers it now, but “Debate Goes on Over the Nature of Reality” took the honors. A year ago, Jonathan Chait revived the contest; the winning entry, “Chemist Doubts Hair-Straightener With Formaldehyde-Free Formula,” was also quickly forgotten. “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative” is implacable.

There’s an irony in its endurance, however. The headline may be dreary, but the initiative in question became one of the most hotly debated policies of the era. From the original piece, an April 10 Op-Ed by Times foreign affairs columnist Flora Lewis:

Canada is asking for negotiations on a free-trade zone with the United States. Few in the U.S. have paid attention, but it is an enormous issue here…A free exchange in practically all goods and services would be an important shift in international affairs, a reflection of the way economics is leaping frontiers and tying countries together willy-nilly, despite their myriad arguments.

“Worthwhile Canadian Initiative” conjures images of a summit on responsible Elk hunting, or a parliamentary motion to honor the fallen Quebecois of the War of 1812. But, no! It was NAFTA! The giant sucking sound! By 1994, when Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico had earned a spot on the roster, and many Americans felt it was anything but worthwhile.

In fact, Kinsley himself wrote a pro-NAFTA screed aimed at such dissent in September 1993. The column’s title: “Anti-Trade Republicans? What A Farce; Their Opposition to NAFTA, A Net Bargain For US, Is A Political Paradox—Or Just Plain Devious.” Seems there’s something to be said for boring headlines after all.