Frontlines

Bill Neville: Joe Clark’s weatherman

Jane O’Hara May 7 1979
Frontlines

Bill Neville: Joe Clark’s weatherman

Jane O’Hara May 7 1979

Bill Neville: Joe Clark’s weatherman

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

Jane O’Hara

It was as good a place for a showdown as any. William Neville, Joe Clark’s chief of staff and the non-elected official most likely to succeed should the Tories ride to glory May 22, was in the john. His wife of 20 years, Marilyn, was in a quandary. Already she had composed a letter which she left on his bedroom dresser. It read: “The boys and I want you happy, but we also want you alive.” There was no written reply. Despite the fact that Bill Neville is 43 years old, smokes 50 Salem cigarettes a day because he’s “addicted” and is 30 pounds overweight because he can’t find time to exercise, the missive was dismissed. Neville, a selfconfessed “workaholic” had, no doubt, filed it away under “future business.”

Undaunted, Marilyn awaited her next chance to speak up for herself and their two sons, Lindsay, 15, and Ross, 18. It came one morning in January, before Neville took off on what she calls Joe Clark’s “lost-luggage” trip. “I finally had to lock him in the bathroom to have a serious talk with him,” she says. “I asked Bill when was the last time he played a game of golf. When was the last time he sat down and relaxed with a good book. He couldn’t remember. I said, ‘Okay. Let’s

have another look at this life of yours.’ If I hadn’t done it, he’d be working 24 hours a day.”

As it stands, Neville now ¿ works 18 hours a day, pro2 moting and preparing, cautioning and advising Joe ¿

Clark for the spring day [£ when the electorate decides £ whether Pierre Trudeau § has finally become de trop, y For Neville, there is no Œ doubt of it. And there hasn’t been since the late ’60s when the weave of his political stripes was somewhat different. Having started his political climb in 1965 as an aide to former Liberal minister Judy LaMarsh, Neville had become increasingly disaffected with the Gaullist-style Trudeaucracy. Although some loyalties still remained to the Pearson government, Neville found in Trudeau “a man capable of tearing this country apart; an arrogant screw-you type of leader who was making Canada a country of confrontation. His style bothered me.”

Whether Neville believes his own

rhetoric is one thing, but since February, 1976, when Clark appointed him chief of staff, his mandate has been solid. Neville has been responsible for the assembly and day-to-day operation of the leader’s 45-man office staff. (There have been problems, including two major personnel overhauls and the loss of nine key people in three years.) He has also helped design policy (which he considers his forte) and has been a party to every important Tory decision—in all, a position which not only demonstrates

Clark’s implicit trust, but has earned Neville the uncloaked envy of his peers. “Bill’s a very combative guy,” says a former Tory aide. “He likes the spotlight and loves to be close to the power. It gives him a high.”

But of all Neville’s duties, there is none so riveting, none so positively alluring as the cause of ousting the Liberals from power. For that he reserves an almost missionary zeal. “Clark has been stumping from almost the first day he came to office,” says one Tory insider. “There’s only one man in the world with more ambition to defeat Trudeau, and that’s Bill Neville.”

A former “jock” with a ’60s Vince Lombardi mentality and haircut to match, Neville is an extraordinarily competitive man with a powerful commitment to the political game. He doesn’t like to lose—at anything. “I play solitaire to win,” he admits. His wife concurs. She tells of the time she started taking tennis lessons and then playfully challenged her husband to a game. The gauntlet was no sooner dropped, then the two of them were on the court. “He just made mush of me,” said Marilyn Neville. “I don’t play with him anymore.” Still, Neville does send her flowers every fortnight, and occasionally serves her breakfast in bed. Naturally “his eggs,” any style, are the best.

It is Day 13 of the election campaign and the Clark entourage-two busloads full—pulls haltingly into Woodstock, Ontario. The sounds of the Tory theme song warp an otherwise arcadian calm and if only cows were voters .. . Inside the bus, Clark, wearing a yellow orlon cardigan like a latter-day Perry Como, confers. As usual, Neville is not far away, but is nonetheless inconspicuous by his presence. Dressed in the corporate fatigues of a three-piece suit, he is one of a haze of aides who accompany the leader, settling round his feet like a deep mist. However, when Clark has a question or a suggestion or a request, Neville, like a mole coming up for daylight, surfaces. “Should I wear my rubbers today?” asks the leader, looking at the reluctantly melting remains of a flash snowfall. Neville’s answer is a definitive “no.” “Ninety per cent of what Clark knows now and after the election, 90 per cent of what he knows about the weather, is going to come from Neville,” says one backroom Tory. “That’s just the way it works.”

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Throughout the campaign, Neville will be the eyes and ears of Clark; a fly on the wall at a Windsor rally, an ear at the keyhole of the Liberal back rooms. Today a supporter, pleased when Clark seems to be gaining ground with voters. Tomorrow a critic, despondent when the leader blows one of his carefully crafted punchlines. “It’s not always the joke,” says Neville. “Sometimes it’s the delivery.”

Under the powerful aegis of Tory campaign chairman Lowell Murray, who sits in Ottawa like some ministerial guru charting broader strategies, Neville’s job is to handle the day-to-day crises that afflict a leader as vulnerable as Clark. (There is only one reason photographers jockey for position to catch Clark stepping off the bus. Like surfers waiting for the perfect wave, they are waiting for the perfect fall.) In tandem with Clark’s adviser, MP Jim Gillies, Neville works with Clark to tighten up policy statements, decide on theses for individual speeches and rehash the day’s events. At present, he’s paid close to $46,000 yearly. But the big reward will come later.

For Neville, a Tory win on May 22 would mean elevation to the job of principal secretary to the prime minister. It has a nice ring. It would guarantee him a chance to influence government policy and put him at the centre of the political decision-making process. As the most powerful non-elected official in Canada, Neville would not rule, but would silently be taking part in the shaping of Canada’s collective destiny.

“If we win, I’ll be doing for Clark what Jim Coutts does for Trudeau,” said Neville. “And I’ll probably have a hand in putting together the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office). But Clark’s government won’t be as centralized as Trudeau’s.

“Clark and I work together in a complementary way. He is first and foremost a manager of people and process. He wants to get stronger people in government and have the people out front making the decisions. My great interest is in policy, in its substance and presentation.”

Neville’s rise to his present position has been comparable to a climb up a rope ladder. It has required balance and a certain surefootedness. After graduating with a degree in journalism from Carleton University in 1957, Neville worked eight years as a reporter for United Press International and The Canadian Press. Most of this time was spent in the Ottawa press gallery, “watching politics from the outside.” He saw it from the inside in 1965 when he was hired by LaMarsh, following her through a health and welfare portfolio and her stint as secretary of state. “In 1967, Centennial Year, I think I spent the entire year opening arenas,” he says. In ’68, when LaMarsh quit politics and Trudeau came to power, Neville spent a brief time with Paul Hellyer (the man he had supported for leader), then surfaced as executive assistant to the finance department’s Edgar Benson. In ’69, Neville called it quits and went into private practice with Bill Lee, a former executive assistant to Hellyer. Together, they formed Executive Consultants and made their money advising large corporations and trade groups on how to deal with government. But after a few years as a private citizen, Neville began thinking there was more to life than a six-figure salary and a house with a pool in the suburbs. In 1971, he crossed the party lines, went to work on the successful re-election campaign of Toronto Don Valley’s Conservative Jim Gillies and hasn’t looked back.

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But he has watched his back. “When I worked for Gillies I wasn’t universally accepted,” said Neville. “Some people thought I was a Grit spy.” In 1974, Neville sought public office himself, running as a Tory against Liberal John Turner in the riding of Ottawa-Carleton. To insiders and outsiders alike, it looked as though Neville had been possessed of a political death wish. La Marsh warned him not to run, but she campaigned for him. “That campaign may not have demonstrated my intelligence, but it sure proved my loyalty,” Neville now says. He was defeated by 11,000 votes, and it was back to the back room.

With the Liberals returned to Parliament in spades that year, Neville had not only blown $60,000 in campaign funds, he also found himself frozen out of a job for close to half a year. The Liberals were having their vengeance. Neville maintains that he had several job offers as an Ottawa liaison for various trade groups. “Turner phoned them when he heard this and told them not to K come looking to Finance if they wanted any favors.” It was then that the Tories g intervened, offering him the job as di¡ü

rector of research under Robert Stanfield’s interregnum government. “When he challenged Turner, everyone thought it was a pretty plucky move,” recalls Dalton Camp, the Tories’ quintessential backroom boy. “He was given the research job out of sympathy to try and salvage his career. It took some selling to caucus. He still wasn’t altogether trusted.”

It was as director of research, however, that Neville met Joe Clark. Two years later, and the day following his election as leader, Clark chose Neville to be his right-hand man. Even his detractors give him credit. “You have to admit Neville’s one smart guy,” said one. Here’s somebody that starts off as a Liberal bagman and ends up at the top of the Tory heap. Of course, if the Conservatives lose this election, Neville will have made a few enemies. If they win, have bags of power.”

Back on the bus, Neville is speaking with reporters. His jacket is off and although his vest is threatening to ride up over his midriff and off into the sunset, his white shirt is impeccably starched. Ahead sits Joe Clark, the man on whose coattails Neville is riding to power. The task, as Neville sees it, is to convince the electorate that Clark is a leader. Neville bet on that once and collected $100 when Clark was chosen to lead the party. He’s wagering a lot more today, and he is convinced the public will come around. That’s his job. And Bill Neville doesn’t like to lose—at anything.

“Bill’s got a habit of getting his way,” says Marilyn Neville. “I remember when we first started dating, we’d only gone out twice and Bill had told a friend of mine that he’d met the girl he would marry. I said to him, ‘Who do you think you are?’ Well... I married