Tony Blair’s press chief ready for close-up

It is difficult to think of an American counterpart to Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s longtime communications chief. Far more than a flack, Campbell was one of the prime minister’s closest aides until he stepped down in August 2003 amid personal burnout and public fallout over his role in Britain’s own prewar Iraq intelligence fiasco.

By then, his public image morphed into one of a ruthless spin-master. True or not, it shouldn’t be surprising that someone so vested in the cause of good PR has come out with his own sprawling account of what went down. The Blair Years is Campbell’s shot at setting the record straight.

In his 700-page-plus diary, he comes across as part Karl Rove, part Ari Fleischer and even part fashion police. (“TB was wearing Nicole Farhi shoes, ludicrous-looking lilac-colored pajama-style trousers and a blue smock,” he writes derisively in an April 2002 entry. “I said he looked like Austin Powers.”) Campbell claims he originally wrote more than 2 million words — whittled down to 350,000 for public consumption. He also makes it clear upfront that he edited selectively: Nothing stayed that could damage Blair’s successor and closet rival, Gordon Brown, or give any ammunition to the Labour Party’s political opponents.

Such an unwieldy book is best read in bits and pieces, with the help of the index. Campbell provides an insider’s take on Labour’s 1997 electoral triumph, the response to Princess Diana’s death, the Northern Ireland peace talks, the Kosovo War, the reaction to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and, of course, Iraq. What his prose lacks in narrative flow and coherence it makes up for with color, not to mention salty language.

American readers will find much of the minutiae hard to follow, especially on internal Labour squabbles and domestic policy debates. But the Iraq section is a must-read, because it provides such raw detail on the relationship between President Bush and Blair, the ferocious debate within the Cabinet over the war and the post-invasion debacle on Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction.

On Bush’s inner circle, Campbell admits at first he felt “a bit of a kindred spirit” in Rove because he “understood strategy.” He says little about Vice President Dick Cheney, except, “If he were a Brit, you’d say total Tory … very dry, quite quietly spoken.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gets less generous treatment: “What a clot,” writes Campbell following the Iraq invasion.

Campbell, a fan of President Clinton, seems to recognize that his team ideologically is poles apart from Bush’s. But by and large, it doesn’t seem to bother him. At the teams’ first meeting in early 2001, Campbell writes, sometimes the Bush contingent “would say something that exposed just how much further to the right they were, but [Bush] was obviously on his best behavior.” Campbell also seems personally fond of Bush; the two bond over running and stories on their old drinking days.

Bush comes across as openly grateful for Blair’s staunch support before the war. At a key meeting at Camp David in early September 2002 — when Blair helped persuade Bush to seek a U.N. resolution — the president confides to Campbell: “Your guy’s got balls.”

When it comes to Blair and the war, Campbell paints a picture of a true believer — a leader utterly convinced that regime change and ridding Iraq of illicit weapons were intertwined and urgent policy goals. Blair’s messianic streak also comes through. He has no doubt that he, and he alone, can keep the Americans “on the straight and narrow.” Campbell offers one telling Blair quote just after the Sept. 11 attacks, long before any Iraq war plans become public: “My job is to steer them in a sensible path.”

Blair missed the irony, of course, that his support had the opposite effect: He emboldened the administration by giving it international cover and helping neutralize Democratic and centrist opposition to the Iraq war. If Blair was on Bush’s side and making an eloquent case for war, many of these Americans thought, most of the world would come around, too. That belief, in turn, gave the administration a lopsided victory when Congress voted for the war authorization in October 2002, eliminating the last formal obstacle in the path to war.

Campbell doesn’t offer much rumination on the war itself, although he does throw in some cautionary words on the Bush administration and rising global anti-Americanism. He doesn’t spill any ink discussing whether Iraq really had illicit weapons and what the international response should have been. Instead, ever the loyal soldier, he writes that he followed Blair’s orders that September to produce a dossier to make a “clean-cut” case, based on intelligence, for action. This infamous dossier, later debunked, made the claim that Iraq could attack the U.K. with chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes.

After the invasion, the BBC reported that Campbell had pressured the report’s authors to insert the claim. A battle royale between the BBC and Campbell ensued, leading to the suicide of a key source for that story and a formal inquiry. The probe determined that the BBC reporting itself was flawed, but Campbell never clarified how, exactly, the intelligence agencies allowed that claim in. He could have used his diary to come out clean one way or the other, but he does not. “Nuclear timelines just about sorted. Some people reasonable convinced, others not,” he writes cryptically in September 2002, when the draft was done.

 Campbell likely felt that this diary would serve as a final defensive maneuver, settling scores and getting the record straight. He does well on the former, less so on the latter. But it remains a gripping insider account of one of Britain’s complex prime ministers, a leader who could boast a slew of political triumphs but was crippled in the end by a war in which he passionately believed.