Gordon Campbell in the Bell Jar

May 1, 2009

In a small meeting room at the Marriott Pinnacle Hotel, a couple of months before the provincial election, the premier was singing the praises of his staff. “They’re the ones who get to see me when I’m frustrated and angry,” he said. “And they’re the ones who get to see me when I’m feeling high.” On really rough days, he added, “I’ll go down into Tim Hortons and have 12 doughnuts because I need the comfort.”

His press secretary, Bridgitte Anderson, who was also taping the interview, winced theatrically.

“Okay,” the premier said. “Not 12 dough­nuts. Six.”

Anderson again shook her head, adding a mock scowl. She used to work in television news; her expression was picture-perfect. I wondered what sort of worst-case-scenario headlines were scrolling through her mind. “Premier Pounding Dutchies”? “Gordo Gorging on Crullers”?

“Not even six?” Campbell asked, not missing a beat. He turned back to me. “One. One doughnut.

“See, that’s the kind of support I get,” he added. Then, pretending to be her, he deadpanned, “Hold yourself back, Mr. Premier. Hold yourself back.”

Anderson smiled and inched away from the table. Behind her, beyond the glass door, a security man stood guard. It’s his job to keep uninvited visitors away from the bell jar they’ve placed over the premier. It’s her job to keep him in the jar.

Gordon Muir Campbell has lived in the glass house of public life for 25 of his 61 years. His bio is well-known: he was raised by a single mother on the city’s far West Side, attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire on an alumni scholarship, and married an athletic New Westminster girl named Nancy Chipperfield, whom he had met on a ski trip to Whistler. Together they spent two years as volunteer teachers in northern Nigeria. Upon his return to Vancouver, Campbell went to law school at UBC but dropped out to work for Mayor Art Phillips. He earned his MBA at SFU while working as a real-estate developer. He was mayor of Vancouver from 1986 to 1993 and leader of the Opposition from 1994 to 2001, and has been premier since 2001, one of only five B.C. premiers elected to consecutive terms. If the Liberals are returned to power on May 12, he’ll join Richard McBride, Thomas Pattullo, and the Bennetts, W.A.C. and Bill, as one of the only B.C. premiers to be twice reelected. “You look at pictures of yourself,” he said, “and you think ‘Boy, I’m older.’ ”

Older, no doubt wiser, but how else changed? Lifelong politicians tend to ossify into caricatures of themselves, delivering the same flash-card anecdotes day after day and living a strictly scheduled, carefully strategized existence that leaves little room for candour or spontaneity. Like a figure behind glass, Campbell gives the impression of being perfectly, constantly visible, but impossible to touch.

That said, two family events appear to have touched him deeply since the last election, in 2004. His mother, Peg Campbell, died in 2007. She’d played an exceptionally strong role in his life, especially after his father, Dr. Charles Gordon Campbell, committed suicide when Gordon was 13. “My real hero was my mom,” Campbell said. “She was absolutely exceptional in how she gave us a sense of confidence in pursuing the things we wanted to do. I think that’s a real gift.”

Schoolmates remember Gordie as a popular, hard-working athlete whose glasses were perpetually taped together. “We were not a wealthy family. Mom was a school secretary,” Campbell said. “No matter what she was facing, she never really loaded us up with that. She always lifted us up; she always got through that stuff.”

The recent births of two grandsons also changed life inside the jar. “My kids—my two sons and their wives—are suddenly parents. They are suddenly who I sort of think of myself as being.” Does he get to spend enough time with his new grandsons? “No, you never do.” Did he get enough time with his own sons when they were young? “When I first started out, I said to the boys, ‘If there is anything you want me to do, just let me know,’ ” he recalled. “Nicholas said, ‘I’d really like you to come to more soccer games.’ And I realized that he was excluding his soccer games because he thought I was busy, he didn’t think any individual soccer game was necessarily important enough for me to show up. So that was a great message to me. You can’t ask them to ask you. You gotta just go and do it.”

He told the anecdote earnestly. And it felt true. After all, what working parent doesn’t pine for more time with the kids? Yet the soccer-game story also seemed a bit too carefully polished, as if some aide had long ago hewn the rough-edged truth down into something that fit more neatly into the bell jar. Perhaps it started with a whisper: “Not 12—don’t say you missed 12 soccer games.” All these years later, the story seemed to have degraded from a personal revelation into something more like one of those flash cards. This particular one included a punch line.

“Nicholas paid me back,” the premier added. “I came home one day and I said, ‘Nick, I’m going to be free tomorrow. Do you have anything on?’ And he said, ‘No, Dad. I’ve got a couple of appointments.’ ”

Campbell produced many such flash-card stories during our interviews. Some I’d heard him tell before. Others I’d read in accounts by other journalists. Many involved the Olympics. Most invoked the notion of provincial character. All, in what might be called the Peg Campbell legacy, were stoically optimistic. Positive messages are what the public wants to hear, of course, and rare is the politician who says in public what he actually thinks and feels. An upbeat anecdote is the verbal analogue of the mirthless camera-ready smile, akin to the politician’s habit of seeming to take you into his confidence by prefacing banal disclosures with phrases like “to be honest” and “to be perfectly candid.”

In response to a question about his faith, the premier replied: “Well, I wouldn’t designate it as essentially religious, but I have a core belief in the people that are here. I have a fundamental belief that you are way better than you think you are.”

To a question about his proudest accomplishment: “I am proudest that British Columbians feel good about themselves. You know, when I was growing up in British Columbia, there was a sort of cockiness and a jauntiness in your step and in the step of the people who lived here. I think that people were losing that in the 1990s. They were sort of looking down. Now I think they’re looking up.”

And to a question about which Olympic event he’s most looking forward to attending (the hockey finals, men’s and women’s): “Honestly, the thing I’m most excited about the Olympics is how people will feel when it’s here. I think if we do a good job at the Games people will be on a high for quite a while.”

Campbell appears to have inherited the other side of his mother’s grit as well. Just as she never burdened her children with her struggles, he has a reputation for resolving problems behind closed doors. His firm command of his caucus, together with his penchant for private decision-making, are magnified by the glass that separates him from the public. His political enemies have sought to capitalize on the resulting Nixonian image. New Democrats urge voters to believe that “Gordon Campbell Can’t Be Trusted,” while a Vancouver union, COPE Local 378, has gone so far as to suggest that “Gordon Campbell Hates You.”

Campbell speaks frequently of his desire to “change the personalized kind of politics” for which B.C. is well-known, but he offers neither a plan for doing so nor even a hint that he understands how his personal style has fuelled public uneasiness about his government. When asked what he would do differently if given the chance, he offered this assessment of his first-term budget cuts: “Politically, if we could have done the financial changes we did in a way that felt less imposing to people, I’d do that over again, right?” He added: “I’m not sure I know how to do that, to be candid about it.”

He’s legendarily a hard worker. Some staffers call him a workaholic—a label that was also hung on his father. He still approaches a room like a first-term city councillor. One night last fall, I watched him shake more than a thousand hands. And to the last person in line, he served up one of his flash-card stories as if it was fresh from Tim Hortons.

He’d like to ski and golf more, he told me, but has difficulty making time for such pursuits. “Every year I say to myself, ‘I’m going to ski every other weekend.’ ” I asked how that plan was going. He replied, “I’m not going to get any skiing in this year.”

He longs for more “downtime” to read or listen to music, but the concept is sufficiently unfamiliar that he felt a need to define it. “The really important part about downtime for me is that it’s totally nonscripted.” The premier made eye contact as he repeated the point: “It’s totally not scripted. There’s no schedule.” And then, as if catching himself in the act of being overly earnest, he lowered his voice and mocked the tightly scheduled nature of our interview: “You’re going to have a really good conversation, and you’ve got to stop it within 23 minutes.” For just a second, he seemed like puckish little Gordie Campbell, peering under the jar.

Campbell does take three weeks a year of what anyone would call downtime. He goes to Maui with his family every Christmas. It may well be the only time and place he really loosens up—gets perhaps a bit too loose, occasionally. “That’s kind of what I used to think of in the old days as summer vacation with my family,” he said. “We go to the same place every year. We mark out our little spot on the beach. We all sit around and talk. We have daily Scrabble games, which I regularly lose. We swim, we surf. We don’t organize anything. We’re just with one another.” No handlers, no bell jar.

Has he felt connected like that on other occasions? He told a story about connecting with a young student when he was a teacher in Nigeria. Has he ever had that feeling in British Columbia? He said he wished he’d been in Vancouver when the Olympic bid was awarded, but he was stuck in Prague at the time. That’s when it hit me: many of the premier’s fondest memories are of moments spent outside the glass, and outside British Columbia.

I shared the common observation that he sometimes appears to be having a hard time connecting with the people of British Columbia, and they with him. “You know, I do think there’s that,” he said. “And to be candid about it, the longer you’re in this job, the harder it is for people to remember that I’m still little Gordie Campbell who grew up here and did the stuff I did, and fooled around and had a good time. I think sometimes people see me joking around and they think, ‘Wow, he jokes around?’ ”

That process, he said, started when he was a civic politician. “When you’re mayor, people slowly—they don’t push you away, they’re not trying to push you away, but the job itself puts you in a different place. They talk to you differently. They’re more nervous. I mean, I know if I go to a meeting, people are totally different if I’m there. And I don’t think it’s because of me. I think it’s because of the job.”

From a political perspective, Campbell’s two terms as premier seem hard to reconcile. The first was marked by severe fiscal austerity (including the controversial sale of BC Rail), a referendum on treaty rights, and the reduction of environmental protection. His second term included the largest social-housing expenditures in decades, a new relationship with First Nations, and passage of a landmark carbon tax. When asked what sort of premier would emerge during a third term, he said, “I understand the political analysis, but I think I’m the same person. You don’t get to do the stuff we’re doing now if we hadn’t done the financial stuff early.”

Indeed, if one views Campbell’s policies through the lens of his own life—if you put Gordon Campbell on the couch, as it were—the seemingly incongruous aspects of his record appear to converge. His fiscal conservatism, for example, resembles neither the angry gnashing of Stephen Harper nor the patrician pruning of Paul Martin. Rather, Campbell’s calculated conservatism may be nothing more than the thrift of the kid with taped-up glasses who grew up among wealthy peers. (His younger brother Michael, the business journalist and talk-show host, has also embraced a Will Rogers style of conservatism.) When asked for his response to the economic crash and its effect on the province, the premier replied, “I think you have to prepare for the worst and work for the best.” A scripted answer, no doubt, but just the sort of bromide his mother might have expressed.

Likewise, his ardent support for the carbon tax looks different when viewed through the eyes of a man who not only longs to ski more often, but hopes his grandsons will be able to enjoy the outdoors as well. “For me, what we’re doing now is for my grandkids, and your grandkids, and everyone else’s grandkids. You know, Jimmy Mitch was born in August and Bowen was born in November. They’re going to be here in 2050. I hope they’ll want to live in British Columbia. We can pretend that what we do today won’t have an impact, but I know it does.”

In the same way, Campbell’s provincial homelessness initiative, viewed through a strictly political lens, seems curious. After all, B.C.’s homeless population ballooned during his second term, in part because of cuts to welfare and other social services during his first term. But viewed through the personal lens, homelessness—and its sibling spectres of mental illness and addiction—are precisely the problems to which Campbell, given the family history, would be drawn. On this point, he stepped out of the jar without hesitation.

“You know, my family lived through someone who obviously had significant addiction problems. My dad was an alcoholic, and he took his life. That’s pretty clearly not someone who’s happy with what’s going on. He obviously had some serious challenges I wouldn’t have known about when I was 11 or 12, but I lived with the consequences of those from when I was 13 on.

“It’s there. Let’s not pretend it isn’t there. Let’s not pretend it doesn’t have an impact on families’ lives. We’re not embarrassed when someone breaks their leg. Why are we embarrassed when someone has a mental illness?”

The interview was coming to an end. Anderson gave us the five-minute heads-up, and then the one-minute warning. “One of the challenges is that mental illness is mysterious,” said Campbell. “Are you a normal human being? You could be having a problem today, I don’t know.

“Or I could be.”

A few final questions, handshake, eye contact, camera-ready smile—and the premier was ushered to his next appointment.

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.