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The view from over Blair’s shoulder

Special to The Times

YOU may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but sometimes what is pictured there can give you a definite hint. The sight of a bemused Tony Blair looking up at his stern-visaged press secretary suggests pupil and teacher, and after reading these 700-plus pages of the diaries Alastair Campbell kept of his nine years as spin doctor extraordinaire, you might well decide that a better title would have been “His Master’s Voice” -- thus raising the question as to just who the master was.

Indeed, Blair is reported to have remarked, after reading “The Blair Years,” that it was the story of a great figure called Alastair Campbell with a bloke called Tony Blair appearing from time to time. There is a germ of truth in Blair’s jest. Prime ministers have had press secretaries before -- Winston Churchill’s grandson Tory M.P. Nicholas Soames tells Campbell that, of course, his grandfather had a spin doctor -- but Campbell’s role seems to be unprecedented. From the time he became spokesman for Blair (then still leader of the opposition) until he stepped down in 2003, six years into the premiership, Campbell appears to have been deeply involved in New Labor’s politics and governance. Then again, it is important to remember that he is writing this history, and so it is possible that he looms larger here than he will in Blair’s memoirs -- to say nothing of the tomes to be written by more disinterested analysts.

What’s indisputable is Campbell’s closeness to Blair. Cherie Blair has been heard to say that Campbell spent more waking hours with her husband than she did, and by his own account he was no respecter of protocol and no more given to deference than she. “Between us we gave TB a bit of a hard time,” he notes on Nov. 8, 2000, “said he was becoming a bit out of touch,

that he didn’t get the empathy stuff. But as he said himself, he was about as normal as any politician could be given the weird circumstances of his existence. ‘There aren’t many prime ministers who could sit and listen to their missus, their spin doctor and their spin doctor’s missus all telling him how useless and out of touch he is, and still keep smiling.’ He then pretended to call through for executioners to come and take us out and hang us on Horseguards for rank insubordination.”

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Humor often cools the heated exchanges between the two men, but each exhibits real passion in argument, with Campbell (at least by his own account) often gaining the upper hand. From his unique vantage point, he observes that the unwillingness or inability of people on Bill Clinton’s staff to speak to their president with such frankness may well have contributed to the problems besetting that administration.

Being at Blair’s side -- “Do you always travel with the Prime Minister?” asks Queen Elizabeth; “Yes,” he replies -- gives Campbell a priceless opportunity to see in action the great political figures of his time. Boris Yeltsin was apparently as beguiling as Vladimir Putin is icy, wily and determined. Clinton was as knowledgeable a policy wonk on British politics as he is on his home turf and opened up to Campbell on all manner of subjects, including his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Nelson Mandela is not only charming and punctilious, but his office and desk have the special neatness that only more than a quarter century in prison could have produced. Having spent some time one on one with George W. Bush and having seen him in action at bilateral and multilateral meetings, Campbell draws a portrait of the current president as more engaged than the stereotypical view has it. If there is a villain in these pages, it is certainly not Bush but boorish French President Jacques Chirac, whose pomposity and rudeness, as reported here, are mind-boggling.

The diaries are not exclusively concerned with personalities; they also provide a behind-the-scenes look at dramatic junctures in recent history, including the decisions to fight in Kosovo and Iraq, the notorious dossier on Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, and Blair’s trips to New York and Washington in the aftermath of Sept. 11. But inevitably personal relationships -- the chemistry between Blair and other world leaders, the constant unease between him and his heir apparent, Gordon Brown -- dominate these pages. Campbell states that he has omitted anything detrimental to Brown; given some of what is left in, one can only wonder what he thought necessary to cut out.

One of Campbell’s most startling revelations concerns the secret meetings held in a private house in London between the Blairs and the late princess of Wales in the years before Labor came to power. Campbell’s portrait of this enigmatic, tragic figure -- of course he was present at the encounters -- is a fascinating one and captures Diana with more nuance than do the recent lengthy biographies.

“The Blair Years: The Alastair Campbell Diaries” is a classic text of the you-are-there school of politics at work. Surely a valuable source for scholars to scour for many years to come, it is available here and now as one of the most compelling reads of history in the raw.

Martin Rubin is a critic and the author of “Sarah Gertrude Millin: A South African Life.”


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