That perception helped to finish Blair. Now, as rival commentators battle to define the legacy of his decade in power, Campbell has joined the argument with characteristic force. Not for him the equivocation of a modern history, the introspection of an autobiography: this week, with a resounding thud, Campbell dropped The Blair Years, his voluminous personal diaries, into the middle of the debate.
The Labour leader never kept a diary, unintentionally casting Campbell as his acerbic Boswell, whose journals reveal their serial encounters with Presidents and Premiers, royals and rock stars, lawmen and faith leaders, press barons and members of the public. That last category, "people outside the Westminster bubble," is the one to which the author appeals, over the heads of a media that both he and Blair have come to regard as irredeemably hostile. This, says Campbell, is the message he hopes his readers will take away with them: "During that period an awful lot happened, and some of it was unexpected, and some of it you were paddling away madly under the water and some of it you were serene and strategic and doing what you set out to do, but actually this was a period of history when a huge amount got done."
If this sounds like an attempt to set the record straight, that's exactly what it is. Campbell can't stop himself from asserting an official line, just as he was employed to do from the moment he gave up his job as a journalist to join Blair's team in opposition in 1994 until his resignation four years ago. Edited down from over 2 million words to 350,000 and with passages excised that Campbell feared could breach the Official Secrets Act or undermine Gordon Brown's government (Campbell admits to pruning accounts of the TB-GBs, as the bitter spats between the former and current Premier were known), the diaries are still the most substantial inside account yet to emerge from Blair's inner circle. Some of Campbell's revelations are unexpected. Royal biographers have mined for new material on Princess Diana for years. Campbell casually reveals a trove of meetings she held with Blair when he was opposition leader, and describes the days after her death. There's a detailed narrative of the negotiations leading to the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland, and a firsthand account of Blair's response to 9/11. The former Prime Minister himself emerges from the book as a man who is often impressive but sometimes fretful and indecisive. Campbell knows with a weary certainty that his book will be seen as a whitewash of Blair's record. For while Blair's legacy is still up for grabs, Campbell is permanently lumbered with his: as the Surgeon General of Spin. His skills made Labour electable and helped to keep the party in power, yet now they are vested with so many negatives that the new government's public-relations priority is to appear spin free. Brown's very first act on becoming Prime Minister was to repeal a ruling that allowed political appointees like Campbell to give orders to neutral civil servants.
That interaction, and the politicization of the government information machine under Campbell, goes to the heart of his darkest period. Campbell's bitter dispute with the BBC after its correspondent Andrew Gilligan said in 2003 that Campbell had "sexed up" a government dossier about Saddam Hussein's weapons capability still occludes his achievements. The row claimed several scalps at the BBC, including Gilligan's and the broadcaster's top two bosses. The government scientist David Kelly, unmasked as Gilligan's source, took his own life. "Campbell won his battle with the BBC," says veteran journalist turned p.r. man Michael Prescott, "but you look round after the battle and find you’re standing in a charred field." After a judicial inquiry cleared Campbell, he quickly left Downing Street. "I knew I had to get out," he says. "I was in charge of the media operation and my relations with the media were poison."
It was all so different at the beginning, in 1983, when a political ingenue met a tall, handsome Labour-supporting journalist. "Tony was wearing this absolutely terrible beige suit," Campbell says. "I introduced myself and he was just magnetic. This will sound ridiculous, but within a minute we were talking about what Labour needed to do to win."
The answer, they agreed, was to woo over a hostile media. In the 1980s, Britain's press barons fervently backed Margaret Thatcher and they continued their support for her successor, John Major, when he moved into 10 Downing Street in 1990. Their reporters gave his Labour challenger, Neil Kinnock, short shrift. On the eve of the 1992 election, the country's biggest tabloid, the Sun, printed a stark message on its front page: IF KINNOCK WINS TODAY WILL THE LAST PERSON TO LEAVE BRITAIN PLEASE TURN OUT THE LIGHTS.
Five years later, the Sun was firmly behind Blair, and Campbell's sophisticated p.r. machine had the Tories on the run. Effective in opposition, his techniques produced what Jon Snow, the chief anchor for the prime-time Channel 4 News, describes as a virtual tabloid newspaper: "There was something for everyone glamour, sport, Blair bouncing a ball on his head or holding a guitar. It took a long time to discover that it was more about presentation than content." This discovery provoked a backlash, but Snow thinks that's unfair. "People condemn Campbell and Blair for a wasted opportunity," he says, "but they underestimate how badly Britain needed them. Britain was a gray, disappointed, depressed place. Campbell and Blair created the most incredible uplift." The press secretary's style, however viciously witty, combative and a habit of playing competing media organizations off against each other quickly earned him enemies in the press corps. He diverted bolts of anger away from an unscathed Blair, but smelled increasingly of sulfur. "It's the job of a press secretary to be a lightning conductor," says Sir Christopher Meyer, who headed Downing Street press operations under Major and later served as Britain's ambassador to Washington from 1997-2003, a time when Campbell and his boss were frequent White House visitors. Campbell is a kind of Zelig, without the character's self-effacement, present at the key events of the past decade, especially its international convulsions. That's why his diaries will be pored over on both sides of the Atlantic. His friendship with President Clinton was tested when Britain chafed at U.S. reluctance to commit ground forces to Kosovo. "There were times that Tony and Alastair forgot the relative size and importance of the two countries," says a former U.S. official. "It was all well and good for Britain to offer up ground troops, but that was only going to happen if America was going to do so, too." During one angry call to Blair, Clinton accused Campbell of briefing against him. But most of the time, says James Rubin, the chief spokesman for the State Department from 1997-2000, "American officials appreciated Alastair's bluntness. To some people the British seem to beat round the bush, and Alastair never does that." Meyer, critical of many Labour figures in his memoirs, praises Campbell's "extraordinary ability to get on top of foreign-policy issues and to anticipate problems even before they bit."
One problem might have been finding shared ground with the new Administration in Washington. Blair and the President both committed Christians, both prepared to intervene in crises overseas had some obvious things in common. More surprisingly, so did Campbell and Bush: a passion for running, and perhaps also the wordless empathy of the man's man, fueled on testosterone both were once heavy drinkers, both now abjure the bottle. Campbell regularly enters competitive races to raise money for leukemia research (his best friend and his best friend's daughter died of the disease). One check he keeps as a souvenir came from Bush. The two men were sitting in a room in Northern Ireland between set-piece public occasions when the President spotted a newspaper article Campbell had written about his next marathon. "He says, 'Should I give you a check?' and I say, 'Yeah, that would be great,' and he opens the door and shouts out, 'Get my checkbook!' I subsequently discovered this created absolute mayhem," says Campbell. "Everyone was wondering what the hell was going on. Were we playing poker in there?"
In the end, though, it will be Campbell's relationship, not with Bush, but with Blair, that will long fascinate. Who controlled whom? A colleague recalls high-level meetings in which Blair would constantly glance at Campbell for his reaction. The press chief was heard to call his Prime Minister a "prat"; he "sometimes made Blair look subservient," says Meyer. Yet Campbell was utterly devoted to Blair and even now, on a summer's day and in a new political era, springs to his master's defense on Iraq, with a trace of his old ferocity. "I don't mind people saying we made the wrong call," he says. "What I can't stand is the motive thing. 'Tony did it because Bush told him to. He did it because of oil.' All that crap. He did it because ..." Campbell pauses, then ejects the next nine words at emphatic intervals: "He ... thought ... it ... was ... the ... right ... thing ... to ... do." That's the king of spin talking, of course. It also happens to be true.