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Campbell contradiction

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Vancouver — Despite being poised to become the first British Columbia premier in more than 20 years to win back-to-back victories, Gordon Campbell remains an enigma to a province that gave him a massive majority in 2001.

In person, he comes across as charming, considerate and extremely well-read. But his public persona is very different.

At a recent appearance at the Vancouver Board of Trade, he is a cool, detached corporate executive as he strides out from behind the podium to talk, without notes, about the world of balance sheets, numbers and policy. But the youthful-looking, 57-year-old politician, who has been in elected office at the civic and provincial levels for 21 years, fails to project any warmth. He's cool and distant, as if he is selling commodities and not ideas meant to inspire a province.

"There's something about him. People can't break through and make a connection," says Jeremy Dalton, a former Liberal MLA who is a neighbour at Mr. Campbell's summer retreat in Halfmoon Bay on the Sunshine Coast.

"And despite knowing him for many years, I can't say that I really know him. He's very private. We all have personalities and his is complicated," Mr. Dalton said.

That's not surprising, perhaps, given his difficult childhood. When he was 13, his father, Dr. Charles Gordon (Chargo) Campbell, assistant dean of medicine at the University of British Columbia, overdosed on prescription drugs. Peg Campbell, her daughter and three sons, were forced to move out of their Point Grey family home and take a small apartment. A life of privilege suddenly became hardscrabble.

Mr. Campbell emerged from that childhood to pursue a political career of soaring ambition. He has never personally lost an election, and polls show his party with a solid eight-point lead over the NDP.

Despite his winning record, Mr. Campbell has been warning Liberals they could lose the May 17 election. It's as if he has never forgotten how quickly the world can change or how painful that can be.

He should know. Of the many faces B.C.'s 34th Premier has, one that keeps popping up, pasted to light poles and bus-stop shelters, is a grainy mug shot that shows a slightly dazed Mr. Campbell, an uncomprehending grin plastered on his face as he stares at a police identity camera in Hawaii, shortly after being arrested in January of 2003 for impaired driving. That was his wild side, never seen before, or since, by the public.

No matter how close they stand, the journalists who have covered him for more than two decades, first as mayor of Vancouver, then as leader of the opposition, then as Premier, never manage to penetrate his personal space. Not even fervent talk-show hosts such as Rafe Mair or Bill Good can knock him off the message track. But behind the closed doors of cabinet and caucus meetings, he can flare in anger, or even break down and cry.

Which is the real Gordon Campbell? The policy wonk who calls colleagues late at night to bounce ideas off of them? The drinking driver veering over the centre line? The tough politician who can stick to his policies even when thousands of angry protesters fill the streets? Or the vulnerable man who is not above weeping openly?

Many people agree that Mr. Campbell is a complicated individual who is intellectually much deeper than his critics acknowledge and much more sensitive than his public image suggests. He is a man who, in seeking to protect himself in the rough- and-tumble world of politics, may have layered on armour so thick that he can't let his true feelings show.

"He has trouble, like a lot of people do, revealing his inner emotions. That's difficult for him," said Christy Clark, the former deputy premier of B.C. and a long-time political colleague. "But that's true for a lot of us. He really is a very supportive, very caring guy."

Ms. Clark, a star in the Liberal cabinet, shocked nearly everyone in B.C. last September when she announced she was leaving politics to spend more time with her growing son. But when she broke the word to Mr. Campbell, she said, his response was immediate.

"That's great," he told her. "That's what you have to do. Family comes first."

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