He was the most important advisor to our most important ally. Held in high esteem by politicos. Reviled by angry journalists hungry for a scoop. But on this quiet Saturday morning, Alastair Campbell was an unassuming fellow in a simple suit, carrying his own Starbucks coffee and greeting me as he entered the hotel lobby.
For seven years, Campbell was political guru and spokesman for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Sort of a combination Karl Rove and Tony Snow. He was there for all the glory, like the successful Northern Ireland peace agreement. And the not-so-good times, like the firestorm of criticism for U.K. participation in the Iraq war.
During all that time Campbell kept a diary. Some 2,000 pages worth. When Blair left his job, Campbell was free to publish the lot. Or at least 750 pages of it. He dubbed the book "The Blair Years."
It actually came out in the U.K. a few weeks ago to blanket coverage and some pretty heavy jousting interviews. Campbell was described as the spin doctors’ spin doctor and reporters here were keen in getting their shots in.
Which was probably the reason why Campbell was in a good mood meeting me. Not that I was going to give him an automatic easy ride, but I had a different agenda. You see the tome is being issued in the States because it's as much about U.S. politics as it is about the British scene. The slam against Blair is that he was Bush’s "poodle," ready to jump when our president said jump.
In point of fact, Blair might have been a handy extension of our foreign policy, but he also had his own convictions and ideas. People forget, as the memoirs detail, that it was Blair who was the "hawk" on Kosovo, pressing former President Clinton on the issue of ground troops. According to Campbell, when Clinton felt that Blair was getting ahead on the issue, Clinton called Blair and read him the riot act. Blair described it as "real, red hot anger."
By the time 9/11 happened Blair was a valued, articulate and passionate supporter of our cause. Campbell described Blair watching the Twin Towers go down. He told Campbell that the U.S. would feel very isolated by the attacks, that the U.K. needed to stand by America’s side, and get other countries to do the same. How does that credit card ad go? Priceless.
The anecdotes fuel what would otherwise be a tome only fit for policy wonks or doors in need of a stopper. One of my favourites is when then-former President Clinton dropped in on a Labour party conference in Blackpool, England with his buddy actor Kevin Spacey. It seems that Clinton had brought his voracious appetite for junk food along, too. And the two, plus Campbell and others, went prowling the city for a McDonald’s, which was dutifully found … and whose products were dutifully consumed.
Then there was the time just before an important vote on Iraq in the British parliament. A vote in favor would be a big boost for a then-beleagured President Bush. Blair and Campbell were in Washington. Bush is quoted as saying to Campbell, "If you win this vote in Parliament I’ll kiss your a—." To which Campbell replied, 'No thanks President. Just sponsor me on my next charity run." They won the vote. And Bush sponsored Campbell and his run.
The memoirs have been knocked for sanitizing certain aspects of the Blair political history. Especially his run-ins with arch-rival, former Treasury Secretary and current Prime Minister Gordon Brown. I tried to eke something out of him. There is a reference to Brown in the book being "… brilliant but difficult." Campbell confirmed that to me. But then softened it by saying Campbell was too. And Blair was. And I was. Hey ... cut that out!
Still, despite the edits, it’s a good read. And meeting Campbell was worth killing my Saturday morning for. He, himself, was at one time a journalist. But now he does not conceal his dislike for the 24/7 media monster. And he doesn’t cotton to the spin doctor label either. It would be absurd, he told me, to put someone like Blair out in the global wilderness without someone to worry about feeding the beast.
He also carefully edits out his own opinions. But it's my sense that he had misgivings about the Iraq war and Tony Blair’s very firm convictions about the war. That’s because he keeps returning to the idea of the political stakes for Blair of going to war. If you’re history before your time, he asks Blair, will it be worth it? And there are a load of references to the necessity of "reining in" President Bush.
But even after admitting his left-of-center politics, and admitting he’s a huge admirer of Bill Clinton, he goes on to acknowledge he likes President Bush as well. "I found him to be much more serious, much more sympathetic, much more intelligent than the caricatures lead you to believe." And luckily he doesn’t edit out any of the Bush-linked anecdotes. Like the somewhat overweight American lady he met working out in a gym near Crawford, Texas who takes Campbell as a body guard for Blair. She tells him she prays for Blair every night. And would he like to join her online prayer group for President Bush. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her he’s an atheist!
We actually got first dibs with Mr. Campbell. Our story Monday night on Special Report is the kick-off of a week of publicity for the U.S. book release. I took special pleasure in giving communications king Campbell a few media tips of my own as he went on to face the American press corps. Like keep the answers short and punchy. Play up the anecdotes. And by all means, don’t take Jon Stewart seriously. He thanked me and was on his way, off to some football matches. That’s soccer for us Yanks.