The Player: The Life and Times of Dalton Camp

by Geoffrey Stevens
ISBN: 155263213X

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A Review of: The Player: The Life and Times of Dalton Camp
by Clara Thomas

When Peter Gzowski's Tuesday morning panel, Eric Kierans, Dalton Camp and Stephen Lewis, finally went off the air in 1993, tens of thousands of Canadians lost their weekly exposure to superb political commentary enthusiastically argued and well spiced with wit. The "Three Wise Men", as they had long since been known, were well matched in decades of front-line experience; in Gzowski's genial orbit they shone individually and together. Of the three, Camp was the one who had never sat in Parliament, but he had been in the midst of every election since 1949.
Geoffrey Stevens has been for years a first class political analyst, a veteran of Ottawa's Parliamentary Press Gallery, The Globe and Maclean's. There is no one in the country more fitted to write a biography of Camp, a complex, creative, brilliant, and often difficult man. With affection and candour he has given us a meticulously researched biography in three parts, "The Early Years", "The Player", and "The Writer".
Though Camp had spent years of his youth in California, he was a Maritimer through and through, on his father's side from Loyalists who had migrated to New Brunswick from Connecticut in 1783, and on his mother's from a successful businessman in Woodstock, New Brunswick. His father, Harold, began as the projectionist of the Woodstock movie house but he had an overwhelming conversion experience and was convinced that God meant him to be a preacher. Thanks to his father-in-law, he studied theology at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., and later in a graduate school of divinity in Massachusetts. He became famous for his pulpit oratory, and in 1929 when Dalton was nine, moved to California to the First Baptist Church in Oakland. From a very young age, Dalton gave notice of a precocious talent in writing and speaking, always with a large measure of wit. After his father's sudden death at 43, his mother moved the family back to Woodstock and Camp abruptly lost his status as a clever, highly popular and privileged minister's son. He spent a few years in determined rebellion against all forms of adult authority, which included skipping 67 classes in one term at Acadia university, and then dropped out in his third year because, like young men all over Canada, his future was in military service. Because of bad eyesight he had great trouble getting onto the army and though he finally was accepted he never got overseas, to his lifelong chagrin.
When motivated, Camp performed brilliantly in whatever he set out to do, with a gloss of self-confidence that belied any inner uncertainty, and a wit that disarmed friends and foes alike. He was also markedly lucky. He and Linda Atkins, the daughter of another Maritimer whose business success was in the States but whose family roots were in New Brunswick, had met at Acadia and were married in 1943. Throughout The Player Geoffrey Stevens's portrait of Linda Camp is one of the book's great strengths-its keynote her admission to her son, David: "I guess you could say that I loved him for the rest of his life." His luck was with him again when, fresh out of the army in 1946, he was admitted to third year at the University of New Brunswick. President Gregg was more impressed with his potential than affected by his miserable record at Acadia. His opinion was justified-Camp distinguished himself at U.N.B., ending up in 1947 as class valedictorian. His valedictory address so impressed Lord Beaverbrook, who was being installed as Chancellor, "that he issued an order on the spot that he[Camp] be awarded a Beaverbrook Overseas Scholarship, good for a year at the London School of Economics; no need to apply, to write a test or to submit letters of reference." First, however, he, Linda and baby Gail spent a year in New York at Columbia's School of Journalism, an intense training in the basic skills necessary for his future career combination of journalism, politics and advertising and his lifelong spectator enthusiasm for baseball and football. The following year at the London School of Economics gave him an enormous respect for the lectures of Harold Laski and a valuable life-lesson as well. After a lunch with Beaverbrook himself, he said: "No one ever scared me after that. I didn't give a damn who it was, I'd seen the worst." In that year abroad he also developed a lifelong hero-worship of Churchill, in his eyes the greatest man of the 20th century.
Even before he went off to London, Camp had worked for and become disillusioned with the Liberal party. On his return, looking for a job, he was offered the position of executive secretary of the New Brunswick Tory party and against the advice of friends, relatives and Linda herself, he accepted. The election was a disaster for the Tories, and Camp, his job over, decided to take a position with the Thompson advertising company in Toronto. It was the New Brunswick election of 1952 that determined Camp's future in politics and the outstanding success of his advertising agency as well. He was asked to run the advertising campaign that resulted in a sweeping victory for the Tories and that established many of his trademark techniques: "his genius lay in his ability to see into his opponents' campaign, to anticipate their actions." He was a brilliant strategist, now confirmed as a consummate political "Player". His brother-in-law, Norm Atkins, was then and always his chief assistant and his campaign was innovative in many ways-relying on commercial radio spots, cartoons by a young Duncan Macpherson, his own editorials and opinion columns in all the province's newspapers. Again and again he caught the Liberals off guard and made the most of it, a counter-puncher, as Stevens delights in calling him.
Part II, "The Player", follows Camp through signal successes in Nova Scotia (Robert Stanfield), Manitoba (Duff Roblin) and Prince Edward Island (Walter Shaw) to a total of 28 campaigns over the next several years. It centres and climaxes with the notorious ousting of John Diefenbaker. The long build-up to that crisis, during which Camp's own political ambitions awakened, could have and would have become tedious reading in less skilful hands than Stevens's. His eye for a telling anecdote never falters, nor does his pace: the reader is caught up in the suspense of the process even though its outcome is perfectly well known from the start. In 1965 Camp ran unsuccessfully against Mitchell Sharp in Toronto's Eglinton riding, and then, backed by a powerful and fanatically loyal group of men who called themselves the "Spades" his ambition gradually extended to the leadership of the Party and the Prime Ministership. There are always large elements of Boy's Own Annual adventure stories in the traditional male practice of politics, never more so than in this saga of men, each carrying a playing card in his wallet, his badge of membership in a secret society dedicated solely to Camp's political interests. Of course Camp was the Ace of Spades. The final choice of Stanfield for party leader finished that long involved adventure, leaving Camp exhausted and not a little bitter, crucially needing rest, recuperation and a rebuilding of his personal life.
In Part III, "The Writer", Stevens returns to the private man. Camp had made a fortune from his advertising business, and his name was paramount across Canada as the Tory party's best and brightest organizer. But the cost had been great. In the process he had become an absentee husband and father and a noticeably detached one when he was at home. Linda managed everything, shouldered all the responsibilities and brought up their five children. When his son David matured, Camp did develop a warm relationship with him, but typical of his loner temperament, he instituted the writing of journals which they exchanged-an arms length intimacy. After his abortive campaign for party leadership he reassembled his talents and embarked on another career in journalism-as newspaper columnist, author and radio and television commentator. Again he was brilliantly successful, his name known across Canada, his advice sought by politicians and his columns read in newspapers from coast to coast.
In 1968/9 he wrote Gentlemen, Players and Politicians, a book about the realities of the political game that he knew so well. Later, in another career climax, he became a part of Gzowski's Tuesday "Morningside". Thousands would agree with Stevens's verdict: "Kierans, Camp and Lewis was radio at its best and politics at its most engrossing."
In his fifties, he left his family for Wendy Cameron, a new young partner. They had fallen in love while working on the Stanfield campaigns of 1972 and 1974. For a few years he enjoyed an idyllic happiness in a luxurious house they called Northwood close to Robertson's Point, the old family compound. Their son, Christopher, was born in 1978. But their partnership gradually soured: Wendy was not satisfied to be shut away in the country and Camp's health was steadily deteriorating. The crisis came in 1992: they were estranged, but Wendy returned to Northwood, found Camp desperately ill and virtually given up as a hopeless case by Fredericton cardiologists. Once again Camp's lucky star was with him. Wendy refused to accept their opinion and enlisted the help of Dr. Keon, the famous Ottawa heart surgeon. After perilous weeks of waiting he underwent a successful transplant that gave him almost nine years of life. He resumed all his activities-journalism, radio, the encouraging and mentoring of numbers of young friends who sought him out and the convivial sessions with the cronies he loved.
Camp died in 2002 and though he didn't succeed in his attempt to write his own life story, his final stroke of luck lies in his biographer. Stevens is meticulous in recording bad times and good, both the great gifts and the weaknesses of Dalton Camp, always with the underlying affection that makes this biography outstanding. The "Introduction" outlines his own extensive experience as colleague, observer and friend and declares his loyalty: "He truly was THE PLAYER."

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