As a political correspondent-turned-Tony Blair’s spokesman, Alastair Campbell can clearly play the media like no other. Yet, when the former political aide published his diaries, “The Blair Years,” last month in the U.K., he threw the launch party in Dublin.
Campbell said he didn’t want to deal with the inevitable “Why wasn’t I invited?” that would have accompanied a British launch, during an interview Monday at New York’s Jumeirah Essex House. Some might argue, especially members of the British media, that his real rationale was to avoid his more critical foes, but he demurred.
In fact, looking over a dummy copy of a forthcoming ad touting book reviews, Campbell says he was surprised half of those featured had anything good to say about him. As Blair’s former Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, told him, “Nobody can accuse you of being self-serving. You come across as a complete nutter.”
Called by many the “real deputy prime minister,” Campbell played an integral and controversial role in Blair’s administration. As the former prime minister’s wingman, Campbell had an eagle-eyed view of the challenges he faced in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death (displayed on film in “The Queen,” a portrayal Campbell says he wasn’t consulted about); Northern Ireland; Kosovo; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the Iraq war, among others. But he didn’t just watch, and sometimes help shape, historical events — he recorded them in a daily diary. As for his own role in the events, Campbell says simply: “I was a particular person for a particular person at a particular time.”
The tough-talking Campbell was known for giving as good as he got from the British press, and for being rabid in protecting and promoting his boss. And the Yorkshireman never made any apologies for it. As he says now, “The people I really admire in this whole media age are the ones who know who they are, they know what they are about and they do what they do. This may sound corny, but David Beckham, I like him. He’s a very good soccer player. He’s not the best in the world and he never has been. But he wanted to be more than that. He’s taken a lot of knocks along the way, but he’s right up there where he wants to be. And he puts a lot back in.”
This story first appeared in the July 31, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
While out for a run in Scotland, Campbell says he decided not to postpone publishing the diaries in order to be part of the inevitable discussion about Blair’s legacy and premiership. As to why he expects Blair’s legacy will be “mixed and big,” Campbell cites the prime minister’s stances on the Northern Ireland Good Friday peace accord, Kosovo, childhood poverty, pensioners’ poverty, the modernization of city centers, London’s 2012 Olympics, gay rights and trade unions. “Britain became a better, more modern, more dynamic country down to him,” he contends.
The 794-page Knopf tome covers a mere one-eighth of Campbell’s diaries, and other editions will follow, including perhaps a less-edited version of his Blair run, he says. The bulk of Blair’s Labour speeches, some dealings with current Prime Minister Gordon Brown and ministerial reshuffles, fell by the wayside in what the writer says was his intent to keep the focus on Blair, who stepped down last month. Informed of Campbell’s plan to publish the diaries, Blair, one of the few who paged through the unedited version, said at the time, “I hope it will show we had quite a good laugh and it wasn’t all misery, gloom and doom and trouble.”
As for how Brown will fare with President George W. Bush, Campbell says: “Of course personal chemistry and relationships are important, but what really drives this is the national interest of two countries who matter to each other. I was there with Tony when people were saying there was no way he would get along with Bush. Now they say he got along too well. I thought Gordon did well [in Washington Monday], showed his commitment to the U.S.-U.K. relationship, but also the breadth of issues he wants to work with him on. They will make sure they get along. It’s part of the job.”
After exiting Downing Street in 2003, the 50-year-old Campbell admits it “was very hard adapting” without a definite purpose. “You find yourself having projects rather than a purpose.” That said, he still isn’t jumping into anything permanent. “I have always been a bit of a workaholic and I’ve always felt that I need a job, but right now I don’t. That may change,” he says.
Despite sounding “really, really corny,” he is content for now to spend more time with his three teenagers — and continue fund-raising for leukemia and his political party, as well as handling the occasional side project. And there isn’t much introspection about his potential place in shaping history.
“Maybe more than a footnote, but not much more,” Campbell says.