Alex Campbell, I’ve been told, had charisma.
Judging by a public appearance in Summerside recently, I’d say he still does.
I was only seven when Campbell was first elected in 1966, becoming the youngest premier in Island history. He was 32, and he went on to win four successive elections before stepping down 12 years later — an Island record for political longevity still unsurpassed.
I narrowly missed reporting on any of the Campbell years, 1966-1978. It’s a period described as ‘epochal’ in Wade MacLauchlan’s new book, Alex B. Campbell: The Prince Edward Island Premier Who Rocked The Cradle. It’s a remarkable and thorough chronicle of that fascinating era.
During an official launch for the book in Summerside last week, I got a glimpse of the charisma that helped make Campbell such a political success. At 81, he moved easily through a crowd of more than 100 people, calling most of them by name, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries before the speeches and book signings.
Clad in a Scottish kilt, he clearly enjoyed the moment, and he shone in the spotlight. In his remarks, he introduced and thanked his family, and he praised MacLauchlan who, after three years of writing and research, “has defined my legacy.”
There were flashes of his trademark sense of humour, too. Campbell recalled after one of his election victories meeting a recent UPEI graduate who proudly declared he cast his first ballot for the new premier. Campbell complimented him on his choice, but he learned it came with a swift consequences for the young man — he had to spend the night in the car when his father found out how he voted.
MacLauchlan’s book is laced with dozens of anecdotes about Campbell’s personal and political life and the people he met along the way. It helps give readers a true measure of the man who shepherded the Island through one of the most transitional and tumultuous periods in its history.
While Campbell frequently shared a stage with prime ministers, members of the royal family and dignitaries from every walk of life, MacLauchlan’s book makes it clear he never tired of listening to and spending time with ordinary Islanders.
Good job, too, because it wasn’t an easy time to govern or to hold on to the reins of power. The Campbell government had an ambitious plan to lurch P.E.I. into the 20th century and to revitalize its economy, largely through a federal-provincial agreement called the Comprehensive Development Plan. Over a 15-year period “the plan” brought millions of dollars into the province, resulting in widespread changes that impacted the lives of every Islander.
In his book, MacLauchlan takes readers behind the scenes of the sometimes contentious negotiations to get the plan through and then to implement it. Change wasn’t always popular on P.E.I., especially when more than 250 rural one-room schools were being closed as part of the plan’s thrust to modernize the education system, and a new university and community college were being created.
A modernization of the province’s main industries — fishing, farming and tourism — also brought changes not embraced by all Islanders. But after each election, Campbell still retained the confidence of the majority of voters.
Campbell stepped down from public life at age 44, and was elevated to the Supreme Court of P.E.I. He retired from the bench 16 years later.
As I watched him last week, I had the feeling he could have jumped right back into the political fray and he’d probably be very successful. Not likely, but consider this: when Campbell was first elected premier in 1966, the incumbent bidding for another four years in office was Walter Shaw. He was 76.
Alex B. Campbell: The Prince Edward Island Premier Who Rocked The Cradle puts into historical perspective an era of unprecedented reforms in this province. But it’s also an extraordinary political story about the young man at the helm during those years who retired from politics undefeated.
Alex Campbell’s legacy has never been in doubt, but now it’s clearly defined in MacLauchlan’s new book. It’s a fascinating and entertaining read.
Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.