WHEN THE Kim Campbell phenomenon was brand new, just before Brian Mulroney resigned, few experts could explain Campbell's sudden arrival as the inevitable successor. No one actually cited Seinfeld ("It's about nothing!"), but it seemed then that Campbell's inexplicable, random emergence, like the Charlottetown Accord, say, just typified the mindlessness of what passes for political activity in Canada.
Those first couple of months of 1993 marked the peak of what even then was only half-seriously called Campbellmania. The more Canadians saw of her, the less they cheered, until by the voting in June the convention seemed more resigned than enthusiastic. Only the impossibility of turning around the herd of delegates, most of whose votes had been ordered and delivered months earlier, carried Campbell into the PM's office.
Now that Prime Minister Campbell is the focus of the election campaign, the urge to make sense of her is once again acute, and writers and publishers have been quick to respond. None of these books can really explain why on earth she is prime minister, but each has useful and interesting things to say about who Campbell is and how we perceive her.
Robert Fife's Kim Campbell is the most conventional, a standard political "life of" by a press-gallery journalist. Fife follows Campbell's changes of name, career, spouse, party, and portfolio from childhood through the leadership race. He suggests that she is a quick study and a: capable manager, always with an eye for her own advantage. Seeking balance, he's mildly favourable while at least taking note of her critics, but he's more inclined to inform than to analyse. This is the best source for the fundamentals on Campbell. If it is sometimes superficial, so is its subject, and even our interest in her.
Fife knows his way around Canadian politics (or at least English-Canadian politics; the other books are much more attentive to French-language commentary). The surprising section is his survey of Campbell's origins: three generations of desertion, disruption, divorce, and untimely death. Far from being a throwaway, this is an outline for a kind of novel Canadians don't seem to write, a family saga of hard times in the early 20th century.
That the family endured so much is doubtless one of the wellsprings of Campbell's commitment to individual self-reliance. Yet (as Fife might have noted) she is very much the beneficiary of an activist state. It was a government program that enabled her father to get an education and pull the family into middle-class security. Campbell's whole life as a child, student, teacher, and politician has been built on the public sector she seeks to slash.
Where Fife's book is mostly biography, Murray Dobbin's The Politics of Kim Campbell is almost entirely analysis. This is the Campbell book for people who take policy seriously. As he strives to lay bare not her shoulders but her political commitments, Dobbin lays on far more political detail than Fife. He is much tougher in dissecting Campbell's performance in office and the political debts she has incurred on the way up.
Dobbin is consistently and openly hostile to the Tory party and all its works, and his partisan rigour occasionally leads him astray. Instead of laughing, he takes seriously Campbell's claim to be inspired by the complex l8th-century thinker Edmund Burke. Mostly, however, Dobbin makes a strong case that, beneath all her twists and turns, Campbell's enduring commitment is to a narrow, hardcore fiscal conservatism -Mulroney with a mean streak, one might say.
The problem for Dobbin is that he writes about politics as if issues mattered, when the whole Campbell phenomenon seems to stress the irrelevance of issues. Frank Davey happily accepts image as a congenial subject. Davey is a CanLit Prof, and at first his entertaining little essay Reading "Kim" Right seems to skip political issues in order to "read the signs" of Campbell's image. When Davey starts by finding echoes of Anne of Green Gables and Morag Gunn in Kim's appeal, the book seems like a jokey subliminal selling of literary theory's "analysis of discourse" games.
But Davey gradually shows that he is both a keen-eyed reader and a tough critic. In fact, he is working where image and issue intersect. Reading "Kim" Right is easily the funniest take on Kim Campbell, but that only adds force to its very harsh conclusion. Davey makes a persuasive case that
the "Kim Campbell" signs often suggest things much different from well-meaningness -violence, intolerance, political polarization, anti-democratic manipulation, aggression, contempt - barely concealed beneath the seductive persona of a witty, entertaining, and even, it is reported, privately personable and charming politician.
Apart from their big bankroll and their high-tech campaign machine, the Progressive Conservatives have one big advantage in the federal election. Like it or not, they have a policy on the deficit, and while the other parties have been wishing it would go away, the Tories seem to have made the deficit the central election issue. All leadership conventions are idiotic, and this one certainly made its choice in fear, ignorance, and confusion. But these books suggest that Kim Campbell, the shapeshifter who came through the wormhole near Deep Space Ottawa, may yet seem a natural prime minister. Sure she is shallow and probably mean, too. When was that ever a disqualification?