The undefinable Dalton Camp
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 18 October 2003)

In the season of sudden conservative unity, the life of Dalton Camp should command exceptional interest. More than anyone else, he embodied the contradictions that still torment conservatives in Canadian politics.

He was never what most people call a conservative, except in nominal party terms, and his peculiar success lay in imposing liberal policies on the politicians with whom he spent most of his life. He started out in the Liberal party, disliked its authoritarian leadership, and soon switched to the Conservatives. Then he began his lifelong task of persuading Tories to act as much like Liberals as possible. In his last years as a newspaper columnist (he died in 2002), he seemed to appeal most to New Democrats, with his support for endangered Liberal programs and his criticism of the deficit-cutting Chretien-Martin Liberals -- who were, of course, far too conservative for his taste.

Camp was hardly to blame for this ideological mishmash. When he joined the Progressive Conservatives half a century ago, they had nothing that could be called a coherent philosophy, as their name demonstrated. The party traditionalists therefore lacked arguments to oppose any rebel appearing among them. In those circumstances, who could blame Camp for methodically draining the conservatism out of the Conservatives? He simply pushed his colleagues in the direction he himself wanted to go, by convincing them it was the route to victory. In provincial politics he proved correct, more often than not, and thus earned the gratitude of various premiers, which they expressed by placing tourism advertising contracts with Camp's agency in Toronto.

Other contradictions were uniquely Camp's. Those who didn't start reading his column until the 1990s probably considered him reflexively anti-American; they might even have guessed that he was a descendant of United Empire Loyalists, yearning for the lost British connection. But in fact, Camp was among the most Americanized of Canadians. He grew up in California as the son of a Billy-Graham-like Canadian preacher, and in adolescence returned to New Brunswick only because of his father's early death. Studying journalism at Columbia University, he formed a deep interest in U.S. politics; later, he was largely responsible for importing U.S. media and polling techniques into Canadian politics. All his life he followed American sports with passion and ignored Canadian sports, including hockey. He was, in fact, an Amero-Canadian, and neatly illustrated his binational status by acknowledging that his favourite song was My Way, the anthem of defiant (and extremely American) individualism that a Canadian, Paul Anka, wrote for Frank Sinatra.

Geoffrey Stevens, an expert journalist, has recently given us a deft and highly readable book about this remarkable man, The Player: The Life & Times of Dalton Camp. At its core, Stevens places the event that defined Camp's reputation, his campaign to dislodge John Diefenbaker from the federal leadership. Diefenbaker refused to retire even after losing elections in 1963 and 1965, so Camp promoted the concept of "leadership review," forced a leadership convention and helped Robert Stanfield win it.

Amazingly, he didn't even begin to understand what furies he had aroused; for a brief period in 1967, he even planned to lead the party himself and become prime minister. But by dislodging and humiliating Diefenbaker, Camp had created a sea-to-sea army of personal enemies and a fissure in the party that lasted for decades. His friends and proteges always thought that his failure to seek the leadership was the great regret of his life and the cause of his enduring bitterness. In this, he was strangely obtuse. The most literate of politicians, he somehow missed the central message of Shakespeare's history plays: He who kills the king will be forever punished. At best, regicide is an act of self-sacrifice. It's not a proud item on anyone's c.v.

Certainly it made Camp a pariah. Stanfield, who owed him everything, edged away from him, and so, later, did Joe Clark. Against his better judgment Camp agreed in 1986 to become an advisor to Brian Mulroney; his reason may have been that he hoped to wipe out all those humiliations. Instead, he found himself isolated and ignored by Mulroney, who seems to have regarded him as an annoyance.

Even Geoffrey Stevens, who has tracked Camp's life with great care, sometimes stumbles over the complexities of his subject's personality. On page five, Stevens says: "Unlike some of his detractors, Dalton Camp was never a hater." Really? On page 154, discussing the period when Lester B. Pearson was prime minister, Stevens says: "Camp hated the Liberals more than the average Tory ... He really despised the Liberals of Pearson, Walter Gordon and Keith Davey."

Camp disliked anything he considered ideological. Instead, he grounded his politics in friendships, animosity and tribal ritual. In a political world still largely male, he and his colleagues were a merry band of brothers who plotted electoral strategy over whisky and martinis in great quantity. Ideas, conservative or otherwise, played at most a minor role in their deliberations. Unknowingly, they illustrated a variation on a feminist slogan that was popular in the 1980s. For Camp and all those who lovingly followed him, the political was personal.

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