Parallel lines join Rome's insiders and Tony Blair's sanctum
July 18, 2007
He showed neither discrimination nor moderation in putting to death whomsoever he pleased on any pretext whatever. To those who were bidden to die he never granted more than an hour's respite, and to avoid any delay, he brought physicians who were to 'attend' to such as lingered. — Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, on Nero
Almost 2,000 years ago, Suetonius occupied the post of chief letter writer or general secretary in the office of the Roman emperor Hadrian. For his Lives of the Caesars , he scoured the imperial archives and sought out letters, recollections and the gossip of courtiers to write his account. Its incendiary mix of politics, murder and the sex lives of the great became the template for the insider tales to come.
He would easily have recognized Alastair Campbell as a fellow insider-scribbler.
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's pit bull (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)
Campbell is a great, bruising Scotsman, once a journalist, openly and violently biased in favour of one political party in Britain — Labour — and was Tony Blair's press secretary for much his period in power.
As press secretary, Campbell displayed utter, unflagging contempt for the tribe he had left. He roared at journalists, he spat contempt, he punched one reporter from the parliamentary press gallery.
The result was that reporters cowered in submission. So did cabinet ministers. He became known as Blair's alter ego, the real deputy prime minister. At one cabinet meeting, as a minister prattled endlessly on, he sent a note to Blair: "Saddam shot his health minister. Shall I get a gun?" Blair wrote back: "Yes."
So enormous was Campbell's footprint, so dedicated was he to the great spinning wheel of political propaganda that the spotlight began to focus on him.
With the approach to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the light became brighter and harsher. Campbell acquired the dubious title "Svengali of the dodgy dossiers" and was the man accused of "sexing up" the evidence for going to war.
He fought back ferociously and launched verbal weapons of mass destruction at the enemy, in this case, the BBC.
One result of this was that a British scientist and expert on Saddam Hussein's real weapons was caught in the political crossfire. The scientist committed suicide.
An official inquiry was set up and it absolved Campbell. But his career as an éminence grise — the quiet man standing behind the throne, barely visible, gently nudging the monarch in the right direction — was over.
He left the prime minister's office calling for blood and executions and they were forthcoming: the BBC's chairman and director-general were severed from their jobs.
Now Campbell is back. Just as his master left office, he's published his diaries.
He lived in habitual incest with all his sisters, and at a large banquet he placed each of them in turn below him, while his wife reclined above. — The Lives of the Caesars, on Caligula
Like everything else in Campbell's career, the diaries have sparked controversy.
But after the howls of outrage that he's pocketing $2 million for spilling the beans, when many of the people in the pages are still in office, comes the real question: what beans is he really spilling?
As Campbell freely admits, he's edited his entries to take out many of the nasty bits, notably about the volcanic feud between Blair and his successor, the new prime minister, Gordon Brown.
Campbell is unapologetic about this. His goal, he says, is to enhance Blair's reputation and to help Labour win a fourth successive victory. Thus the effort to sweep the foul-smelling entries under the publishing rug.
Nevertheless, the interested, and appalled, reader learns much about life at 10 Downing Street during Blair's tenure. One government minister, having sped through the large tome, said the impression given was of "government by hissy fit."
In the midst of this maelstrom stood Campbell, cursing and damning and spinning. None was spared, not even Blair himself.
The diaries even offer a whiff of political incest. Not only was Campbell the prime minister's press secretary, his wife was chief secretary to Cherie Blair, the prime minister's wife. Tensions in this foursome frequently boiled over.
Campbell thought the prime minister's wife a loose cannon, "pretty and odd in equal measure." She, in turn, thought Campbell and her husband were too close: "Cherie complains that the only time he ever came alive was when he was talking with me," reads one diary entry.
After one explosion, when Cherie complains of his hostility, Campbell suggests a group therapy session with both couples over dinner. New Labour meets New Age.
As the Iraq invasion approaches, the women are on one side of the issue, the prime minister's wife stifling doubts as her secretary openly questions the need for war. Meanwhile, their husbands line up the troops.
And then the unexpected twist. Four months after the invasion, Cherie Blair fires Campbell's wife. The reader can't help feeling that jealousy prompted the blow and that it was actually aimed at the husband.
He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe. For example, he trained little boys (whom he termed tiddlers) to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibbles. — The Lives of the Caesars, Tiberius
But a brief scent of political incest is not enough. Sex, raw sex, is the spice that keeps selling these accounts from inside the fortresses of power.
Campbell understands that need. He dutifully records his role in basically forcing Britain's new foreign secretary, Robin Cook, to choose between his wife and his mistress in a Heathrow airport lounge before flying out on a trip.
Cook chose the mistress and Campbell decided to "focus group" the media impact and how voters might react. His conclusion? "Cook's bonking plays well."
He also includes a conversation with Bill Clinton about his sexual adventures. Campbell asked Clinton what it was like having the whole world talking about his sex life. "He said as long as he couldn't hear them all at the same time he could get by."
Not bad, but does it really stack up against Suetonius's accounts of Nero's penchant for public debauchery, Caligula's for incest, and Tiberius's for little boys?
Campbell was, and is, an angry man who, while in office and in his diaries, takes no prisoners. He would approve Caligula's dictum as reported by Suetonius: "oderint dum metuant." Let them hate me as long as they fear me.