TORONTO -- A private comment that became public was the talk of Canada on Friday, with newspaper and broadcast reports detailing how an aide to Prime Minister Jean Chretien called President Bush a moron.
Political foes demanded the ouster of Francoise Ducros for what she said Wednesday at the NATO summit in Prague. Ducros offered her resignation Friday, but Chretien refused to accept it.
"What a moron," is the quote attributed to Ducros, Chretien's communications director, during what she called a private conversation with a reporter that was overhead by other reporters who wrote about it.
"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," Ducros said in a statement. "I accept full responsibility for them and I sincerely apologize."
Chretien, at his closing news conference Friday in Prague, said he turned down Ducros' offer to resign. Ducros told him she was unsure if she made the remark but acknowledged she uses the word "moron" frequently, Chretien said.
"She may have used that word against me a few times and I am sure she used it against you many times," he told journalists, adding that "we don't live in as civilized a world as we used to, where private conversations are private."
Back in Canada, the opposition Canadian Alliance hammered the issue in Parliament, saying the comment showed the anti-American bent of Chretien's governing Liberal Party.
"Isn't it a fact that this anti-American attitude hurts our relationship with the United States, our biggest trade partner?" Grant Hill of the Alliance asked during daily question period.
Not so, said Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham, who described relations between the North American neighbors who share the world's largest trade relationship as sound, despite occasional problems.
Chretien also denied the incident harmed relations with Washington, saying he received no official complaints from U.S. officials at the summit. On Thursday, when first asked about the reported comment, he said Bush was "not a moron at all, he's a friend. My personal relations with the president are extremely good."
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told American reporters Thursday: "I just dismiss it as something from someone who doesn't speak for the Canadian government."
Despite their military ties and common democratic values, Canada has traditionally adopted more liberal social policies. Examples include diplomatic ties with Cuba, a ban on capital punishment and more lenient immigration policies.
Increased disputes between Ottawa and Washington were expected when the conservative Bush was elected in 2000 to succeed Bill Clinton, whose administration had closer ideological ties with Chretien's Liberal Party.
Since Bush's election, the United States has imposed punitive duties on softwood lumber imported from Canada and is investigating possible penalties on Canadian wheat.
Nevertheless, Canada took in flights diverted from U.S. air space after the Sept. 11 attacks and contributed troops, ships and reconnaissance planes to the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. Chretien said Canada also would take part in a U.N.-authorized attack on Iraq.