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What Do Bill Clinton and Jessica Simpson Have in Common?

Let me explain. First, here are the top ten Yahoo! search queries last year in Canada and in the U.S.:

Yahoo! Canada

1. NHL
2. FIFA World Cup
3. American Idol
4. Rock Star Supernova
5. WWE
6. Neopets
7. Revenue Canada
8. Days of Our Lives
9. Environment Canada
10. Jessica Simpson

Yahoo! U.S.

1. Britney Spears
2. WWE
3. Shakira
4. Jessica Simpson
5. Paris Hilton
6. American Idol
7. Beyoncé Knowles
8. Chris Brown
9. Pamela Anderson
10. Lindsay Lohan

You will note that Jessica Simpson is the only individual who makes both lists. The only other items on both lists are American Idol and WWE, which are (for lack of a better word) institutions.

Now, about Bill Clinton. Several months ago, I was one of the speakers at a day-long lecture event in Vancouver. It was held at the Canucks’ hockey rink, and there were about 7,000 people in attendance. I had the good fortune of speaking immediately before Clinton, who was the headline act. It was a bit unnerving but mostly fun to speak before so many people who were so eager to get to the next guy. When I finished my talk, I went backstage and there was Clinton. We shook hands and chatted for a minute — I’d never met him before — and then he stiffened up, mentally preparing to go on stage. I sat down to watch his speech on a big TV monitor backstage. The first surprise was that he began his talk with some nice words about Freakonomics and the talk I’d just given. The second surprise was that, instead of giving a breezy talk about his personal life, he launched into an hour-long lecture that he seemingly wrote just for this occasion, on U.S.-Canadian relations.

He began by highlighting the significant issues that divide the two countries: timber, oil exploration, and the war in Iraq. He talked about these issues for a few minutes and then he asked, rhetorically, If these are the things that we disagree about, then what do we agree about? His answer: Everything else. He then proceeded to talk about a variety of political and social and environmental issues about which the U.S. and Canada are largely on the same page.

This struck me as a quite brilliant rhetorical strategy: start off by accentuating the negative in order to show how prominent the positive really is. It reminds me of how some wise people discuss the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The differences, if you dwell on them, seem vast and unbridgeable — until you begin to focus on the commonalities, which are far more numerous.

And so that is what Bill Clinton and Jessica Simpson have in common: they both seem to unite Americans and Canadians — even if the overall Yahoo search results suggest that the two nations aren’t quite so close after all.

(Hat tip on Yahoo data: Garry Sears)