Today's Seniors

June, 1996

Nobody's fool

By Christopher Guly

Former president of the Progressive Conservative Party Dalton Camp wouldn't play ball with Diefenbaker or Mulroney and still refuses to go with the flow. 'I am not a good sycophant' he admits.

On an early-spring Sunday morning, Dalton Camp ponders the state of malaise running rampant across the country. "There's an incredible sense of passivity in the body politic. I've never known anything like it," opines the man who penned last year's book, Whose Country Is This Anyway?

"Governments today can do anything, say anything and be anything, but people seem to enjoy being absolutely indifferent to being jerked around, fooled, propagandized or manipulated." In his 75 years of life, the former president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada seems to have avoided any of those outcomes.

Three years ago, when he became the oldest Canadian to receive a heart transplant from a 19-year-old female donor, the Toronto Star hinted Camp got the ticker thanks to his Tory connections. Surgeon Wilbert Keon - a Mulroney-appointed Conservative senator -conducted the procedure.

Camp quit the newspaper, where he had been writing a twice-weekly column. He later returned, no doubt, with heart beating faster. The bald-pated political strategist wouldn't let Mulroney jerk him around either. Appointed the former PM's senior adviser to cabinet 10 years ago, Camp left after a brief tenure - the two just didn't see eye to eye.

Much like Camp's relationship with Mulroney predecessor, John Diefenbaker. In 1967, as president of the federal Tories, Camp wanted the party to have the right to review its leadership. Dief felt threatened and fingered Camp as his Brutus.

Almost 30 years later, Camp also won't allow history to jerk him around in recalling the episode. "It wasn't a backroom conspiracy. It couldn't have been more public," he recalls, over the telephone from his home on an 80-acre farm in Jemseg, New Brunswick. "It was Diefenbaker who personalized it. All I wanted was the constitutional right to review the party leadership. I wasn't even going to review Dief's leadership. But he had difficulty with people, and I am not a good sycophant. He was unable to maintain an adult relationship with anybody. Either all were with him or against him. He acted as if he was paranoid, and imagined and invented plots against him. He was a sad man."

But perhaps Diefenbaker's, and even Mulroney's, difficulties at the helm of the Conservatives weren't entirely the result of each man's personality weaknesses. Understanding how power can corrupt, Camp - a one-time Grit - never ventured for the top spot in partisan politics. The two occasions the son of a Baptist preacher ran for a federal seat in Toronto in the 1960s, he lost. Once, to Mitchell Sharp, in 1965; the other time, to Robert Kaplan, three years later.

"I think power corrupts the spirit and soul after a while, if you have it too long," says Camp. "There's no doubt it can't help but isolate you, and people aren't born to be isolated."

Growing up in California, Camp knows of what he speaks. "When I lived there, on the other side of the mountains, there was insularity as a result. A sense of tribalism." For him, that suggests "a narrowness of focus and view" as shown in the separatist movement in Quebec and, to a certain degree, in the anti-centralist mentality evident in British Columbia.

Such issues find a voice in Camp's contributions in the Toronto Star gig, the four books already under his belt, and in the numerous appearances on CBC Radio's national and regional services.

That body of work has positioned him as a fixture in political punditry. Yet, curiously, Camp has avoided being pigeon-holed as an archetypal conservative. Maclean's columnist Allan Fotheringham hints he may be the most liberal voice in conservatism today. Certainly, Camp's unrestrained opinions make compartmentalizing him difficult.

"I've been told I write like a black, single mother on welfare," jokes Camp. "But, I write what I think or feel." For the Ottawa Citizen's Charles Gordon, Camp "deserved to be seen as a writer who happened to be active in politics, rather than a politician who turned to writing."

Holding a master's degree in journalism from New York City's Columbia University, Camp's life suggests a wonderment with the art of communications. His column-writing days began in 1952, giving him one tangible way of expressing himself and connecting with others.

In conversation, his new heart seems to skip a beat and he sounds like a New Age therapist as he espouses the merits of us staying in touch with one another. "As we enter the next millennium, there's no question we're carrying an awful lot of baggage. Everyome os suffering from information overload, but it's the silence that will kill us."

Enjoying a second wind in life has, if anything, offered Canada's political watchdog a new lease on life. "Every day is a gift, and I'm happy to be alive," says Camp. "The worst thing anyone can do is wish time away. You can begrudge or complain about the weather, taxes or whatever, but it doesn't matter as long as you have space to occupy. There are friendships to be enjoyed, friends to be made."

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