When I got a call from a friend asking whether I had seen Alastair Campbell "losing it" on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday morning, my heart sank a little. Already I had read an account of Gordon Brown's interview with Piers Morgan, to be broadcast this Sunday, in which he breaks into tears when talking about the death of his daughter. My instinctive reaction was that this was getting slightly out of hand – Campbell losing it and Brown crying. Without a pause we had moved from debates about the deficit to a highly charged episode of Celebrity Big Brother, from statistics to tears.
Then I watched the Campbell interview and changed my mind completely. For a start Campbell's anguished pause, ending with a deep breath of uncertain outcome, was gripping television. Was he about to explode in anger? Was he about to collapse into a traumatised extended silence? In fact he recovered with dignity and continued the interview. But momentarily we did not know.
Interviews tend to be fairly predictable these days, especially in the run-up to an election, when politicians stick to a script like actors in a carefully choreographed West End production. Last month I saw two interviews that surprised me. One was with Peter Mandelson on Newsnight in which he declared with a revealing ambiguity that "the party" did not want the removal of Brown, implying accurately that a significant part of the Cabinet was willing to move against the PM if they had detected wider internal support. The other was the interview with David Cameron in which he announced a significant and unexpected change in his plans for spending cuts this year. Indeed I am surprised at how surprising the events of January were – ground shifting in some ways. On the whole though, political interviews tend not to go in interesting directions.
The one with Campbell was a reminder of the potential drama of a simple one-to-one exchange, the simplest form of television and sometimes the best. Like a skilful musician Marr allowed the moment to breathe. The silence was more revealing than a thousand words.
I can imagine what Campbell was thinking. "I cannot escape from Iraq ... this was seven years ago and here I am still answering questions on the dossier, perceived as a war criminal." On his blog Campbell wrote later that he was trying to control his anger. That was clearly part of it. There was Marr, political editor of the BBC at the time of David Kelly's death and the aftermath, seemingly still advancing the BBC view that Blair lied about the intelligence. There was Campbell going through it again, four inquiries later, the build-up to the dossier, the other reasons for war, the deaths that followed, including a different sort of death, the demise of Blair's reputation for integrity. He seemed anguished as well as angry.
Some bloggers thought the moment of drama was an act. If it was, then Campbell was not acting wisely. His performance led to another prominent slot in the news bulletins about Iraq and Blair, not what he or the Government wants. But he was not acting. He was being human. Sometimes this happens in public. A caricature is called into question. It happens also with tearful ministerial resignations – Thatcher in her imperious prime in tears over her son, and so, it seems, Brown breaking down over his daughter.
We shall have to await the broadcast of the Brown interview to make a decisive judgement, but my guess is that his response to the questions was genuine. The willingness to answer such personal questions was no doubt multi-layered in its calculated ruthlessness. There is an election looming. A book is about to be published that will apparently portray Brown as a hot-tempered monster. There are advantages in a few tears. But Brown cannot act in a way that Blair could, and Cameron can to a more limited extent. He is a curious mix of the devious tribal leader who is physically transparent. When he is miserable he cannot disguise the fuming melancholy. On the rare occasions when he is upbeat he smiles like a child who has won a race on school sports' day. If there is a quivering of the lip next Sunday it will be genuine.
And in quivering Brown will convey that, like Campbell, he too is human. Campbell lives with a partner who opposed the war. He is not daft. He knows the case against as well as the one he advances. But he is loyal to Blair and is passionately convinced that when he was prime minister both of them behaved honourably. A moment's pause in a TV studio evokes a more compelling and complex story than the false one in which a monster compiles a dossier about weapons that he knows do not exist. Similarly, Brown is a grieving father as well as a Prime Minister who shouts at colleagues and staff. His situation is more interesting when he is humanised.
David Cameron too became intriguing and complex as a public figure when his son died. The tragedy did not fit with the caricature of easy privilege. When politicians do not conform to type they challenge us. The breaking down of stereotypes invites a wider consideration of the human side of politics, the heightened dilemmas and nerve- wracking judgements.
Of course there are dangers of making too many leaps. I must have heard a thousand commentators declare confidently on the day that Cameron's son died that his experience had changed his views on the NHS. How did they know? Was there not a political calculation based on the perception that the Conservatives had lost elections because they were perceived as the nasty party? Similarly, Campbell's fleeting exasperation does not change the arguments against a calamitous war. Nor do a few tears from Brown remove doubts about his style of leadership.
The emotional displays will not do Labour's cause any good. They remind voters how long these individuals have been around, so long that they look back on traumatic events while still in power. But the occasional humanising moment has its place when political leaders agonise more privately over what to do with the ailing economy. To my surprise I want more tears and anguished pauses to accompany debates on spending cuts. There is a lot to cry about.