Kim Campbell: The Making of a Politician

Biographers have not been kind to Canada’s first female Prime Minister. To my knowledge there are three books which take Kim Campbell as their subject, and only two can be called biographies. Frank Davey’s small volume Reading “Kim” Right is less about the woman herself than perceptions of her in the 1993 election, and sexism in Canadian society. However, that curiosity is for another day.

reading kim right

Not quite a biography

The “Acknowledgements” at the outset of Kim Campbell allude to the fact this was a rushed effort to capitalize on Campbell’s rise to attention. Fife relates the he and his editor guessed in November 1992 that Brian Mulroney would step down, and they staked their hopes on Campbell replacing him. When Fife contacted Campbell shortly thereafter to secure her involvement in the biography she called his move “presumptuous” yet agreed – until one of her advisers later cut Fife off from the candidate.The two actual biographies on Kim Campbell are Murray Dobbins’ elusive The Politics of Kim Campbell, and today’s subject: Robert Fife’s Kim Campbell: The Making of a Politician. All three of these books appeared in 1993, between the brief period of so-called “Campbellmania” and the 1993 election. Although I cannot yet speak to Dobbin’s book, more likely than not it suffers from the same drawback of Fife’s work: a lack of hindsight. In all but the most skilled hands, this is the inevitable pitfall of the timely political biography.

The speed at which the biography was produced shows. Fife is straightforward about how his sources were indirect. He did not have access to Campbell or her family, and was thus reliant on interviews conducted by other journalists. Although he approaches some political colleagues and acquaintances, the biography mostly collects together information about Campbell’s life which could already be found elsewhere at the time.

Nevertheless, it might be said Fife’s rudimentary biography is better than nothing. Though inartful it does trace her life from birth, through childhood, two marriages, provincial politics as a B.C. SoCred, the federal Mulroney cabinet, and her successful campaign for the P.C. leadership.

“There’s nothing more gratifying than several women in their servile places. Nothing more appalling than one who gets out of it,” {student John Kelsey} wrote. “[A man] must beat them into submission, showing no quarter, allowing no favour. And when he has subjugated one, he must start on another.”

What Campbell faced upon becoming Frosh President at UBC

Fife explicitly attempts to maintain his neutrality, although he clearly does not think highly of Campbell’s Ayn-Rand-worshiping first-husband. In the absence of a more intimate or scholarly biography, the book suffices to introduce Kim Campbell. While it remains to be seen whether Dobbin’s book is the better biography, there is reason to believe Fife’s is the more sympathetic.

In the absence of other scholarship Fife’s book is a resource for information on Campbell, and its limited access to its subject does lead to its one merit: it follows the political events as the average Canadian would. Events like the excitement over Campbell’s photo in Barbara Woodley’s photobook, or Jean Charest’s steady gains against her in the leadership race are documented at a distance, giving the reader the standpoint of the average Canadian.

kimcampbell

“Seriously, the notion that the bare shoulders of a 43-year-old 
woman are the source of some prurient comment or titillation, 
I mean, I suppose I should be complimented.” – Campbell

Limited though it is by its aim of being topical, Fife’s Kim Campbell is worth reading in the continuing absence of any more complete biographies. A Capital Scandal, Fife’s immediate project before this, is the superior of his books, however.

Some longer serving Prime Ministers have had to wait until a half-century after their deaths to receive a substantive biography. Poor Mackenzie Bowell of Belleville remains the only Prime Minister with no biographies whatsoever to his name. Yet Canadians should hope to receive a more complete treatment of the country’s first female Prime Minister in less time than that. Kim Campbell is still kicking around too; at the very least an update is in order.Limited though it is by its aim of being topical, Fife’s Kim Campbell is worth reading in the continuing absence of any more complete biographies. A Capital Scandal, Fife’s immediate project before this, is the superior of his books, however.

Next Time: depression era communism in the Canadian West…

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