For many who knew Dalton Camp only in passing, he was something of an enigma. As the slayer of “the Old Man”, John Diefenback, he was a backroom boy, who developed a public profile in the 1960s that was more defined that most of the politicians he worked for. He was a columnists and commentator for three decades whose byline was invariably accompanied by his past affiliation with the Progressive Conservatives, yet he railed against the interests of Corporate Canada, greed and injustice with an uncompromising passion and consistency that created “secret fans” out of the likes of Jean Chretien and former NDP Leader, Stephen Lewis.

His personal personae was every bit as confounding.

Based on my own first encounter of him, he struck me as a bitter, negative, self-possessed man who had been trapped in time. The next time I saw him he was speaking at a private dinner celebrating his 60th Birthday. There, I experienced what to this day was, for me, the most erudite, well-reasoned and inspirational exhibition of public intellectualism I had ever witnessed. His command of language, cadence and pacing and boldness of thought, literally took my breath away.

Bewildered, and in need of some reconciliation between the myth and the man I had just met, I sought the counsel of a much more seasoned and Camp-familiar colleague. He explained my conundrum with (what at the time were), two incomprehensible words …”maiestas desidero”. He went on to point out that while Dalton was a true giant of considerable accomplishment and talent, he was also extremely bitter and harboured deep personal resentments over his failures, the most lasting of which was never becoming Prime Minister of Canada. I learned afterwards that his description of Camp (loosely translated) was “greatness missed”.

Dalton Camp was a man who held court at the center stage of Canadian politics for two decades. He was an imposing and larger-than-life individual who came to believe (and many would suggest, with good reason), that he was smarter, more charismatic, more articulate – in short better suited to public leadership– than the professional politicians he advised. When he used his considerable powers to oust John Diefenbaker from the leadership of the PC Party of Canada, his celebrity eclipsed his usefulness. Virtually all of the same politicians who eagerly sought his counsel earlier, turned their collective backs on him to avoid being caught in his web of controversy. From 1966 until his death, 36 years later, he wrote lucidly and insightfully, and continued to live a full, diverse and important life, but it was always tempered by this unspoken regret of “greatness missed”.

Geoffrey Stevens, former Globe and Mail columnist and Managing Editor of Macleans’, has finally captured, in print, the two sides of this contradictory and important figure in modern day Canadian history, that until now has been largely hidden, except from those who knew him best.

In his new biography The Player, Stevens tells the Camp story from his family beginnings in New England and the Maritimes, to its sad ending in a small hospital room in Fredericton, New Brunswick (although with two former wives and a new “lady friend” (that even his closet acquaintances knew nothing of), visiting his death bed in sequence, I must confess a smile interrupted any tears that otherwise may have accompanied reading the final chapter). In between, we get the now familiar details of Camp’s life in the Army, his entry into Atlantic Canadian provincial politics, the many elections he orchestrated and the two in which he put himself forward for public office, and of course, the singular event for which he has become most associated – the Dump Dief campaign of 1966.

While well-traveled territory, Stevens has a seasoned journalist’s eye and is at the top of his game when he is in the moment, detailing the layer of narrative that made up Camp’s life. If this was all that Stevens accomplished, the book would still be a welcome addition to our understanding of a period in Canadian politics, but it is clear, early on, that the author has also set out to write much more than a mere historical chronology of one man’s public life.

Stevens was given access to Camp’s unfinished memoirs, and in the early chapters is wise enough to let Camp’s own distinctive voice come through. He has also unearthed Camp’s personal journals and letters and through these, he weaves a tapestry of rich detail, giving the reader penetrating insight into the complex and often tormented private man. From these, we learn of a man who (literally) did not know what grade his children were attending or when their birthdays fell, yet would pore over his manual typewriter for hours to produce beautifully crafted letters, offering heartfelt life’s advice as they departed for University. Similarly, we discover that Camp’s competitiveness and continuing sense of his towering importance was such that in 1968, after he was out of the public eye, he started to exercise and lose weight only because he refused to let Pierre Trudeau “stay young while I get old”.

The other obvious strength of this book is that, unlike many of his younger journalistic colleagues who fear that any intimacy with the subjects of their coverage might sully their objectivity, Stevens is of a generation where actually knowing the people you write about is considered a prerequisite of understanding the events they shaped. His many years in Ottawa and his earlier biography of Robert Stanfield, put him on a first name basis and gave him direct access to Camp’s many friends and followers. And it is through those closest to Camp, where Stevens may have gained his own deep understanding of the man, his magnetism and his power.

Through the many interviews Stevens conducted with the men and women Camp mentored throughout his life, the reader comes to understood that Camp’s greatest contribution to history may have been less tangible than the public record, to date, has documented. Indeed where Camp’s mark on contemporary public life remains indelible was his unique ability to attract, motivate and transmit his own intense passions about politics and civic duty to those who were drawn into his orbit. To these people – his recruits to politics like Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark, Flora MacDonald and legions of others who went on to become Premiers, Ministers of the Crown, Senators and Supreme Court Judges; in short, those who went on to steer the course of Canadian history when he chose no longer to chart it but merely to comment on its passing – and even to his enemies, Camp was more than merely a back room boy; more even than perhaps the best there ever was. Camp represented an idea and an ideal.

Dalton Camp bullied, pushed and shamed the PC party into the 20th Century, forcing its members to accept the French fact, the dearth of women in their midst, the reality of an increasingly multicultural society and plight of those who do not share equally in our nation’s wealth. He might have been a Conservative by chance, but he also believed (and loved) institutions and felt they were the instruments of not simply election victories or laws, but through them, that humankind could be elevated and rise up beyond more base instincts and strive for a better society.

It is here that I found an otherwise solid and important biography somewhat wanting. Whether it is Manchester’s work on Churchill or Remnick’s treatment of Mohamed Ali, great biography invariably is great social history. It tells a story of not simply an individual and what made them important, but gives the reader a backdrop of society and the times that conspired to define greatness in their context.
In his day, Dalton Camp seized the imagination of not only the Progressive Conservative Party but the entire nation. Those who where there, tell me that his television appearances and public speeches were riveting and inevitably became the talk around the water cooler the next day. Pierre Trudeau had much the same effect. This rarely, if ever occurs today. Politics is deemed irrelevant and great leaders an oxymoron.

Were these men so different than the one’s who occupy center stage in our politics today? If so why? What lesson from that time have we missed that we should be harkening back to rediscover? And if not, what does that say about the way we and our society has evolved in the last thirty years? Great biography forces us to ask these kinds of questions and in doing so, propels us forward to a greater knowledge of not just great men or women, but ourselves. The Player may not make this test, but it still is a damned good read and worthwhile contribution to understanding Dalton Camp’s “greatness missed”.