THE BACK-ROOM CONSPIRACY
Maclean’s staff writer Mysterious Top Strategists do plot party campaigns. But who does the thinking for them?
JUST AFTER THE WRIT WAS ISSUED for the recent general election I found myself genuinely disquieted by the way it was beginning to sound as though there were people who thought they could make up the voters' minds for them.
Newspapers had already made the blunt statement that. “In about two thirds of all ridings the final result is virtually a foregone conclusion and individual decisions are of little account.” The whole operation sounded very coldblooded and knowing.
At that time my grasp of the electoral process was tiny and female, governed by chancy notion plus an anecdote or two, such as the story about the bishop of Montreal who arrived at the polls early one election day only to be told that all the ballots had been used and besides the record showed he'd already voted. I believed, that is to say, that in Canada the people freely chose their government, though 1 had registered subconscious intimations of machination.
But now that 1 w'as alert, almost every political story and news report of the accelerating campaign, no matter which of the four parties it concerned, seemed to hint at master-plans and vast intrigues. They kept mentioning “top strategists," “the brain-trusts." “the back-room boys.”
The back-room hoys. Suddenly 1 found 1 believed in them. Indeed. 1 was visited with a very clear series of impressions: crimson leather armchairs in the Rideau Club lounge pushed together in conspiratorial huddle; a Toronto board room hung with charts and graphs and someone pausing before a scale map of the 263 Canadian ridings to move up red-pin reinforcements to the cluster surrounding a target area; a St. James Street office with a plummy expanse of Turkey carpet and an executive mahogany desk . . . three approving men watching a fourth bark orders into a telephone; a suite in the Chateau Laurier with a stratus-cloud of cigar smoke sifting toward the transom and men in expensive suits haggling in soft, flat voices.
Well, that was back last May before 1 began a dogged, self-imposed search for the boys themselves. Since then my fine, clear vision has clouded, altered and grown confused. 1 have been in a conspiratorial huddle in the Rideau Club, hut all 1 heard was a piece of year-old Ottawa scandal, juicy but irrelevant. I have visited what I was positively assured were among the key board rooms, hotel rooms and executive suites; but while some of the occupants were full of the lore of
CONTINUED ON PAGE 41
continued from page 15
“I went to Key Liberals. I went to Top Tory Strategists. I got the same thing — a run-around”
sewing up elections I now suspect that they were of lower rank than the ones who, like a Top Tory Strategist, told me bluntly, “Nobody knows the right things to do: all we can really do is try to avoid some of the wrong things.” On the other hand, would an authentic, card-carrying Top Strategist be telling the truth about a thing like * that?
There's another thing: that Top Tory Strategist. Actually it was Dalton Camp, who is head of his own Toronto advertising firm, and who acted during the campaign as coordinator of the five ad agencies who shared the national Conservative account.
You'll notice that as soon as he is identified he becomes less sinister. But the atmosphere of intrigue l kept encountering was, I found, catching and even now 1 don't know whether it was genuine intrigue or just, well, atmosphere.
I will mention one significant—and typical — little series of incidents. Early in my researches I asked a Key Liberal Worker1 straight out if he would name the masterminds of the Liberal campaign. “Sure.” he said briskly, and read out a list: Lester Pearson. Walter Gordon. Paul Martin, Lionel Chevrier, Jack Pickersgill, Paul Hellyer, Senator John Connolly, Tom Kent. Richard O'Hagan. Maurice Lamontagne. Allan MacEachen. Bruce Matthews and Keith Davey. I saw 1 had been naïve. He had simply given me the members of the National Campaign Committee.
Growing more devious, 1 decided that the Tories would probably know who their chief adversary was and. for obvious reasons, would be much more ready to peach. I went to a Senior Conservative Official’ and asked. “We've been discussing that very thing.” he said. “Someone's running a very smart campaign for them, and I just don't believe it's Gordon or Kent or those boys. Prime Minister Macmillan visits Diefenbaker? They get Pearson to dinner at the White House with Kennedy. There's a man in Newfoundland owns a piece of the radio station there. He’s a very smart cooky. It just might be him.” I recognized that he meant Don Jamieson. part-proprietor of C.ION and
1Keith Davey. an ex-radio sales manager now national organizer for the Liberal party. Though he was several limes identified to me as one, I cannot seriously believe he is a back-room boy: for heaven’s.sakes. I went to college with him.
•Art Burns, an ad man from Montreal, who loaned himself to Tory headquarters for the campaign and seemed mostly to be in charge of the PM's tour itinerary. / know he’s a Senior Conservative Official. though: two weeks before the election a Globe and Mail reporter polled Tory headquarters to see if they expected a substantial Tory victory. “ If / u rn not absolutely certain that would be the case I would be down in Florida right now.' said a senior Conservative official.'' That was Burns.
CJON-TV, who was one of two men who had already been suggested to me as the Liberal's special secret adviser on TV. (I'm pretty sure now that it was indeed Jamieson.)
I was thus armed with an inside guess when I went to see the Senioi Liberal Official11 who was the SCO's opposite number on the itinerary desk.
3It’s a losing battle: he has made me promise not to name him because lie's a civil servant.
It was at the end of the dull opening phase of the campaign and he suggested that, as he saw it. Diefenbakei was holding back something sensational that he would use to liven things up midway. “1 asked the man I consider oui Top Strategist what it would be,” he continued, “but he had no idea . . .”
“Don Jamieson?” 1 shot in smoothly. watching his face. Heavens, no. Walter Gordon? Keith Davey? “I’m not going to name him.” he said.
The point is, I never found out whom he meant and I can’t think of whom else to ask. You see the difficulty.
Still, I’ll try to make what sense out of it all 1 can.
As an utter tyro, l started my investigation by going straight to Ottawa. seeking out a pundit I happen to know and asking fot leads. He said I'd bettei start with the national organizers or campaign managers of each of the four parties: Allister Grosart, an ex-advertising man, for the
Conservatives; Keith Davey for the Liberals; Carl Hamilton, a youth leader and economist, for the NDP; in Toronto, David Wilson, a Bibleclass teacher and ex-investment house employee, for the Socrcds. He mentioned a lot of other names as well, but they didn't mean much to me at the time ami, besides, what 1 quickly learned about Grosart was enough to head me in that direction first: he had been identified in public as a backroom boy, the only man in Canadian political annals to be so identified in his lifetime, as far as 1 can discover. On the night of the 1958 Conservative sweep Prime Minister Diefenbaker himself called Grosart "the architect" of the victory.
To add to Grosart's credentials. I had been told that Grosart, not long before, had himself said privately he had two functions as a back-room boy:
(a) to tell the prime minister how the public could be expected to react to any proposed party policy and
(b) if the party adopted an unpalatable policy, to tell the prime minister the best way of selling it to the public.
In addition, Grosart had said (c) that he had considerable respect for the accuracy of the Gallup poll (which everyone else seems to discount the instant it goes against them); (d) that if the Tories could hold the Maritimes and the west, and split Ontario and Quebec, they were home-free; (e) that any party going to the polls with a sure forty-five percent of the vote was home-free; and (f) that, though the latest Gallup poll had shown the Liberals with the required forty-five percent, it could change before election day.
It was. to me, significant that though I tackled Mr. Grosart by wire, telephone and intermediary for the remaining five weeks of the campaign he was always too busy to see me. On the one occasion when I actually got through to him by phone he said curtly, "My job is to do it, not talk about it." Though disappointed, I had to approve: by staying in the back room Grosart had demonstrated clear right to his title. Unfortunately it left me the task of inferring his strategy from the course of the campaign itself.
My conclusions are: (a) he told the prime minister that devaluing the dollar would be a bit sticky to put over;
(b) he told the prime minister it would help if all Conservatives called it "pegging the dollar" instead of "devaluation."
Also: (c) and (d) I presume he was right.
(e) I guess I have to say no party went to the polls with a sure forty-five percent of the vote.
The final Gallup poll (published on June 16 but referring to June 13) gave the Liberals 38%, the PC's 36%. the NDP 12%. Social Credit 13% and Others. I %.
(f) Well, the actual vote was Liberals 36.7%, PCs 37.4%, NDP 13.9% and Social Credit I 1.7%.
Meanwhile, as I recounted earlier. I had suffered frustration in even identifying the Liberal's Top Strategist. so for quite a while in the middle of the campaign 1 was reduced to calling on front-room boys. At the red brick Liberal headquarters
in Ottawa I talked to a succession of nice, energetic young men, very busy in their shirt sleeves. They were sending out confidence-inspiring progress reports to each riding, and campaign anecdotes for the candidates to use in their speeches; they were looking up figures for Mr. Pearson to use in bis speeches; they were on the phone constantly to the campaign train itself. to campaign managers in various ridings, to leaders of provincial Liberal organizations and to reporters, volunteer workers, candidates, wellwishers and earnest men who wanted to sell them job lots of pencils that they could put campaign slogans on.
They had all read The Book’, and discussed Liberal strategy with me quite proudly. They were zeroing in on the urban and suburban areas of Ontario as well as counting on regaining their traditional support in Quebec. They were taking a positive approach (that is, they would not bring up the twenty-two years of Liberal rule, and the pipeline debate). The C onservatives, who were the only ones being acknowledged as also in the race, were consistently being called The Tories. If they had to refer to the New Democratic Party, they would call it The Socialists.
We came to the question of surveys. Here I want to combine what the Liberals told me and what the Tories told me. because I do think it's interesting to compare them. Both commissioned assorted surveys ahead of time, and what they mainly wanted was to assess their party popularity and their strong points. So, besides Gallup-type polls, they set out to discover useful issues and something called "leader image.”
The Liberals found out that unemployment was the most important issue people could think of to mention
'Almost universal usage in Ottawa, during the campaign, for The Making of the President, IV60, hy Theodore White, The Hook's message for campaign planners is that if you pinpoint the pivotal electoral districts, psychoanalyze the voters, come across well on TV, are tactful to lesser politicians who have influence and tough with the rest, have enough money, troops and kinfolk — and if the wind is right — you can get elected.
to a poll-taker, and that people thought the Liberals could handle it better than the Conservatives. They found that Pearson was linked in the public's mind with Ontario; (Diefenbaker was linked with the west); that his image as a policy maker was unclear, since there was no real agreement about whether he came on strongest as a leader, a spokesman for a group, or a joint-decision-maker; that some people thought him boastful, cokl and vacillating and that a lot of people disliked an informal picture of him (out of an assortment of ten shown the respondents) taken at a curling rink. They liked best a Karsh portrait taken in the House of Commons.
The Tories concluded from their surveys that the most important national issue was unemployment and that people thought the Liberals could handle it better than the Conservatives. They likewise concluded that people considered Diefenbaker more self - confident, forceful, vigorous, principled, sincere and practical than Pearson, though they thought Pearson almost as goodlooking, trustworthy, businesslike, warm, intelligent and honorable as Diefenbaker. They found the Tories and Diefenbaker were anathema in Montreal, and not very popular in Ontario.
So far as 1 can make out, the Liberals wavered for a while over what to do about their polls, experimented with a voice coach to get Pearson's voice down, edited his speeches to take out all possible "s's," suggested he abandon the bow tie and then changed their minds, issued orders that he was to be called nothing but “Mike,” (warm? Too informal?) and then switched to calling him 'The Header (policy-maker-like). For a while they even contemplated keeping him off their free-time political telecasts in case he alienated people. Finally they settled for stressing The Team (and planted that image by a virtually omnipresent TV spot showing athletic young men bursting off a bus). They began stoutly insisting that Pearson’s image was "sophisticated" and therefore had a natural appeal for the "crucial" suburban Ontario voters; and hit the unemployment is-
sue on the hustings for all they were worth. They also issued country-wide instructions to candidates to ignore Diefenbaker and concentrate on "The Tories,” presumably on the theory that, if they pretended the PM wasn't there, people wouldn't notice how forceful, etc., he was.
The Conservatives, arguing from the same premises, campaigned pretty exclusively on a platform of Mr. Diefenbaker. So far as I can make out, their strategy was to show him around to as many voters as possible and let self-confidence, forcefulness, vigor, principle, sincerity and practicality take their natural-born effect even if it cost them some of the Ontario suburbs and most of Montreal.
I got all this from Reliable Sources."
But I was not, in the meantime, forgetting what I was looking for, and presently I was discussing NDP strategy and strategists with an amiable young university graduate named Terence Grier, who was the only party official in attendance at NDP Ottawa headquarters at the time. He seemed perfectly frank and outspoken. The party had taken no polls or surveys and had no campaign strategy except to arrange Tommy Douglas’ itinerary so that the best and biggest rallies, in the major cities, would come in the last week before the election, and to stress medicare and nuclear policy on the hustings because these seemed to be getting a good response from the crowds. They were desperately short of campaign funds and the whole national campaign — pamphlets, press releases, TV scripts, itinerary and so on — was being handled by Grier and three others.
I was inclined to believe him since I had already heard from A Colleague'' that when Douglas had been speaking in Windsor. Ont., his aide had lost his briefcase and for a while it had looked as though the NDP national campaign would fold on the spot: the case contained all the speech scripts, the party's traveling money and their plane tickets.
Oh yes. Any slight changes in strategy or tactics were decided by Douglas himself or by the obvious party executives.
1 felt balked at every turn and began to cast about wildly for someone who would qualify as an NDP backroom boy. “Who," I finally asked cunningly, “would Mr. Douglas phone if he wanted to consult someone on a major campaign decision and had only one dime?”
Cirier Named a Name.'
I raced back to Liberal headquarters. Who would Pearson phone with his dime. I asked Keith Davey.
He said, “Walter Gordon, the national campaign chairman." He added
T'red Pelaire. James Moore. Keith Davey il.ibera! headquarters): Pat Mac Adam. Art Burns (PC headquarters): Dalton Camp: some Political Analysts: and two men who were talking in front of me on the plane back to Toronto.
'David Lewis Stein. See The birth of a labor party?
It was a disappointment. He named David Lewis, e.x-CCF national secretary and a very public lieutenant to Douglas: in fact he was so public he was running as IS DP candidate in Vork South, Ont. He won.
that Pearson would also be apt to talk to Tom Kent, but he wouldn't need a dime because Kent was traveling with him.
I flew to Montreal the next day to intercept the Pearson entourage and talk to Tom Kent, who proved to be a thin, donnish Englishman with a long, rueful face and glasses. He is ex-editor of the Winnipeg Free Press and by way of being a philosopher of Liberalism. We talked in a genuine hotel room, and there was a camp trunk there jammed with file folders labeled Statistics, Devaluation, Strategy Papers(!), Development Areas and so forth. But Kent said he was not a strategist; he just sat on the strategy committee and wrote up the minutes afterwards. I asked who else was on the strategy committee and he began a familiar list: Pearson, Gordon, Martin, Chevrier . . . The national campaign committee all over again.
I asked him what he was if he wasn't a strategist and he said. “The main thing I've done since I went to work for the Liberal party-is to talk to Pearson and to some other leaders and to play a part in the decisionmaking process." I suspect that what he was trying to say was that he'd bootlegged some of his pet ideas into the Liberal platform. Before I left he told me that if Diefenbaker had called the election last year the Liberals would have had no trouble winning, because unemployment was at its worst then. “We're in a temporary upswing of the business cycle." he said. “The timing is bad for us in this way."
I flew back to Toronto and went to see Walter Gordon, Liberal national campaign chairman. 1 walked into his office (Woods Gordon & Co., Management Consultants), with its plummyexpanse of Turkey carpet and its mahogany executive desk, and I said to Mr. Gordon, who is dapper, graying and courteous, “Arc you a strategist?"
“I am national campaign chairman,” he said courteously.
He said the national campaign committee decides strategy, and he named its members for me. He said that if Diefenbaker had called the election last fall or even this March, the Liberals would have had no chance of winning because the organization wouldn't have been ready. Gordon, as a management consultant, is a specialist in organizing workers, workflow, communications and so forth.
He said he didn't wish to be rude, but an important decision had to be made within the next fifteen minutes . . .
I got up to leave and felt a quick stab of hope when I saw three Party Stalwarts' waiting just outside the door. An important decision! Later I boldly called one of them to ask what it had been. I learned that it was a simple okay on the layout of a fullpage testimonial newspaper ad for Pearson, signed by. among others. Wayne and Shuster.
Feeling rather desperate, I resorted to my last hope: Dalton Camp, head of Dalton Camp & Associates, known strategist in the 1958 Tory campaign (he came up with the slogan. It's Time
'Daniel Lang Jr., David Anderson (Ontario Liberals) and George Elliott, the vice-president of MacLaren Advertising in charge of the national Liberal account.
for A Diefenbaker Government), and co-ordinator of advertising in this one. Camp said firmly that nobody was a Tory strategist this time around except Mr. Diefenbaker and there weren’t any back-room boys. There were people like Grosart and himself who made recommendations on tactics and there were people like John Fisher. Roy Faibish and Merrill Menzies, who traveled with the PM and offered him ideas and words and phrases for his speeches, which he might or might not accept. "We are dealing with a man who is not susceptible to suggestion." he said.
Just to check. I went down to the Royal York when the Diefenbaker caravan came to town for the final rally before the election. I talked to Faibish. who is ordinarily special assistant to the minister of agriculture, and to Menzies, an economist whose private monograph on the state of the nation was the basis for a complete overhaul of Tory policy in 1957. Faibish. a slight young man, was smoking a fat back-room-boy cigar hut he said flatly, "There arc no backroom hoys in this group. The PM uses maybe five percent of the stuff we turn out for him.” Menzies nodded.
Then I struck paydirt.
I had been feeling rather guilty about Social Credit and had, in fact, gone along to see the national organizer. David Wilson, in Toronto. He had listed their national committee for me, had told me they’d been planning their campaign since January. and said their main strategic problem was to get their leader. Robert Thompson, known to the country.
As election day neared, 1 called the advertising agency that was handling the Socred account. And the account executive let slip the name of the Socred Mastermind."
I went to see him and he admitted he was. He said he wrote Thompson's speeches, stage-managed the rallies, and created Thompson's image. He said he didn't believe in surveys: “The situation changes so fast that they're not very useful.” He said this was not an important election for Social Credit . . . “except as a PR campaign.” He said, “Has the thought occurred to you that this election is being fought by the advertising agencies? It's the advertising approach to a one-day sale.” He added, “More nonsense is talked about the value of publicity in politics. The trick is pure organization: find out who your supporters are and get them to the polls.” He said that “only a bounder” would wear the clip-on tartan ties someone else thought up as a Socred party symbol.
He was a big, suave rogue of an Englishman wearing a costly creamflannel shirt; he said he airmailed his laundry and cleaning to England, where they did it properly. He also said he met Thompson during the war. in Ethiopia, whither he had gone on a special mission. To kill two chaps. M15? “Well, no, actually. A gunner-and-parachute regiment.”
"I cannot use his name. He is adamant. And I believe this qualifies him as a back-room boy even more than Grosart’s remaining uncommunicative. / can tell yon. however, that he is a Publie Relations Executive in Toronto
His biggest strategic problems?
( 1 ) Getting rid of the party's revivalist image. Remedy: shrinking the encircled cross in the party symbol to insignificance.
(2) Counteracting the party's funnymoney taint. Remedy: call the devalued 92!/2C-dollar “Tory funnymoney.”
(3) Getting Bob Thompson an image. ("In espionage he’d be the perfect fly on the wall because you'd never notice him.’’) Remedies: Never allowing T hompson to w'ear a hat, so people won't mistake him for two different people.
There was to have been another remedy; the leopard-skin vest. (“To establish affection you have to have something, like Disraeli with his sideburns and Churchill w'ith his cigar.”) He said a leopard-skin vest would have been caddish if it weren't that Thompson had shot the leopard himself. in Ethiopia. But when the time came to unveil it, in mid-campaign, he wouldn't let Thompson wear it after all. "It just looked so very odd,” he said. “I'd visualized it like ocelot, with sheen and definition. But leopard turns out to look like Shetland pony.” (Thompson wmre a tartan jacket instead.)
He's just what 1 think your authentic hack-room boy ought to be.
Only one thing worries me. Just before I left he predicted that the election result would be either a landslide for the Liberals or a drastically reduced Tory majority. "We might get fifteen seats across the country,” he added.
That’s just not good enough predicting for a back-room boy.
Lor, of course, in Quebec, in the meantime, a Political Spellbinder3" was bringing off the biggest surprise in the election without any back-room boys at all. ★
“See A strongman’s road to power.