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Ever since Gerald Butts met Justin Trudeau in their days at McGill, the two men have shared a love of literature and a taste for adventure. As the Liberals head into the heart of their mandate this fall, Adam Radwanski reports on the miner’s son from Glace Bay, N.S., who’s doing his best to help an ambitious Prime Minister reshape the narrative of Canadian politics​

Editor’s note: This article was originally published Sept. 2, 2016

Speaking at a university commencement service in 2005, the writer David Foster Wallace opened with a joke about two young fish who encounter an older fish while out for a swim. “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” the older fish asks. As the younger fish swim on, one asks the other: “What the hell is water?”

The point was about the importance of seeing the most obvious and relevant realities around you, rather than getting too caught up in yourself. Over the course of Mr. Foster Wallace’s address, which went viral, he made a case for empathy, for not being too certain of your own certainties, and for adjusting your “default setting” so you don’t give in to the impulse to see yourself as the centre of the universe.

Since his suicide in 2008, Mr. Foster Wallace has to some people become a bit of a punchline, in a “it’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans” sort of way – lit-bro shorthand, as New York magazine put it, conjuring images of guys who try to show their sophistication by conspicuously wielding copies of his masterwork, Infinite Jest.

If you're inclined to see fandom of the author in that light, you may be amused (or horrified) to know that Gerald Butts, the top adviser to the Prime Minister of Canada, is fond of telling people that he tries to live by the words in the This Is Water speech. You may be especially inclined toward snickers if you find Justin Trudeau's version of modern male sensitivity cloying, and think it's something he has cynically cooked up with Mr. Butts during their decades-long bromance.

But if you come to know more about Mr. Butts, you may be a bit encouraged by this revelation – especially if you understand his most important role for Mr. Trudeau, and how much his ability to maintain perspective will help make or break the government's trajectory.

Because Mr. Butts maintains an unusually high profile for a political aide in this country, there have been misconceptions about what that role is exactly. He is not Mr. Trudeau's brain, although that theory was popular heading into last year's election campaign, among those who doubted the one in Mr. Trudeau's head. Nor is he Mr. Trudeau's protector, a pseudo older sibling looking out for his more innocent friend ever since they met at McGill University in the 1990s. He's not even alone at the top of the food chain among Mr. Trudeau's aides: Katie Telford, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, has as much clout.

What he is, really, is a sort of co-author as Mr. Trudeau tries to write history – someone who has an innate sense of the big-picture story the Prime Minister is trying to tell, and helps to make sure the government's decisions are consistent with it. A guardian of the narrative, in the words of David Axelrod – who played a somewhat similar role for Barack Obama, and who offers occasional advice to Mr. Butts and spoke enthusiastically of him in an interview.

Mr. Butts has some experience with this sort of thing. Before the age of 30, he was helping a struggling Ontario opposition politician named Dalton McGuinty invent himself as an education-focused premier. "Gerald helped me be true to myself," Mr. McGuinty fondly recalls.

But the story Mr. Butts is trying to craft with Mr. Trudeau is more ambitious, abstract and romantic. Maybe Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Butts cooked it up back when they first became friends, as some suspect; probably it evolved over time. These are people who love the idea of big national projects, and who want to leverage Mr. Trudeau's charisma to build a new global image and self-identity for the country.

Almost a year after Mr. Trudeau led the Liberals to victory, and amid mounting anxiety over troubling economic trends, reflected in second-quarter figures released this week, there is pressure for them to get on with it.

But hints of their ambition have been everywhere – from a first budget loaded with foreshadowing about overhauls to an endless array of social programs, to showy attempts to work with the premiers on a national climate-change strategy, to an attempt to dramatically change our voting system before the next election. It's evident, too, in the way they keep indulging international fawning over Mr. Trudeau, including during his current trip to China, while Conservatives back home grind their teeth.

I've spent considerable time trying to better understand how Mr. Butts approaches the monumental task of helping Mr. Trudeau make something coherent and lasting out of all this, rather than letting it get away from him. I've had extensive conversations with more than 40 people who are or have been close to him. While he declined to be interviewed for this story, I've also had many chats with him over the years, dating from his days at the Ontario Legislature. That's not unusual – Mr. Butts talks to a lot of journalists – but it bears noting because he usually does so on background; what he says creeps into stories without attribution.

Even he might struggle to fashion an easily digestible narrative of his own career, the way he does with the politicians he serves, because it is a curious mix of skills, traits and experiences that makes him both a unique asset and a potential liability.

He is unusually gifted at figuring out what lies at the core of the politicians he serves, and how to connect that with what voters care about. He is able to draw on a remarkable network of contacts in the upper echelons of virtually every field, while remaining somewhat grounded in working-class Canada through his roots in small-town Nova Scotia. He knows the traps he wants to avoid in government, by virtue of his time working for Mr. McGuinty. He has a romantic view of the country and its potential, rooted in travels across it and in literary pursuits before he got into politics. He is able to draw on that romanticism to inspire people to work for and with him. Despite occasional hot-headedness in public, he is good at lowering the temperature behind the scenes when things get tense. He has Mr. Trudeau's trust, in a way few staffers could, because they were best friends first.

He also has a considerable ego: "He's the smartest guy in the room and he knows it" is a not uncommon description. He can be impatient with people he considers insufficiently committed to the mission he is on, or too concerned with matters he considers trivial. He's hypercompetitive, intimidating to challenge thanks to debating skills that made him a national champion. He is prone to stepping on others' turf. He seems to enjoy being in the spotlight, and moving in elite circles, a little more than he'd care to admit.

Life in Ottawa runs the risk of exacerbating the second set of characteristics at the expense of the first. As one of the biggest fish in a town where everyone lives and breathes their line of work in a way nobody else in the country does, it gets harder by the day to keep in touch – to see, through the eyes of people in the real world, your articles of faith, compromises or broken promises.

One need not look hard, this year, to see the dangers of political elites being insulated. There is no Brexit brewing in Canada, and no Donald Trump waiting in the wings either; but an activist government doing what it thinks is best for the country at large will always run the risk of a backlash from people who feel condescended to or overlooked.

As of this fall, we're entering a couple of years in which we'll find out what that activism actually involves. In between the initial honeymoon and the run-up to a re-election campaign, the Liberals should be consumed with the implementation of policies with which they will leave their mark. And they will be forced to confront sensitive decisions, such as whether and where to allow oil pipelines, in which it will be much harder to keep supporters happy than it has been so far.

The hope, since Mr. Trudeau will be turning to him for gut checks through that period and likely beyond, is that Mr. Butts will prove able to follow his literary hero's advice. So it merits a look at the people and experiences that have shaped his world view so far, and what others have observed of him along the way.

Youthful idealism, hard realities

Among the laudable things about the family who lived next door, John McNeil told me in his thick Cape Breton accent, was that they were never "a show-off people." I was inclined to take his word for it, because the seventysomething Mr. McNeil – who answered the door in his boxer shorts, seemed briefly to consider changing into something more formal after inviting me in, then sat down to chat at his kitchen table as he was – appeared someone whose show-off radar would be pretty strong. Also, it seemed doubtful that anyone who put on airs in Glace Bay, N.S. – where life was tough before the coal mines shut down, and has only become harder since – would escape intact.

The youngest member of that neighbour family, who was posting Facebook photos of himself shaking hands with Barack Obama around the time I was visiting his hometown, has become more show-offy since he left the nest at 18. But the grim realities of this corner of Atlantic Canada, and the ways in which his family pushed him to transcend them, shaped how Gerald Butts sees the country and himself. To understand him, you have to start here.

Coleman Lane, where he grew up, is on the edge of town, upper-middle-class by Glace Bay's standards. His mother, Rita, a retired nurse who used to treat workers down in the mines, lived in the family home until her death this spring. His late father, Charlie, in his 50s when Gerald was born in 1971, was a miner. He retired before the mine explosion of 1979, which accelerated the end of an already doomed industry, and in the process killed a dozen men – several of them the fathers of Gerald's schoolmates.

For many of the kids Gerald Butts grew up with, Glace Bay has not been kind. A shrinking town of about 20,000 with no hotels and only a couple of sit-down restaurants, its biggest source of employment these days is a call centre. Alcohol abuse has long been rampant, now joined by prescription-drug addiction. Even the oil-rig jobs out West have dried up, leaving more working-age men stuck at home.

For someone who prides himself on understanding others' life experiences, that state of affairs back home has to weigh heavily. It also helps explain his view of government as a force for good, up to a point. Courtesy of Ottawa's futile attempt to keep Cape Breton's failing mines open through public ownership, in the form of a Crown corporation launched under Lester Pearson's Liberals in the 1960s, Mr. Butts grew up with some recognition of the limitations of economic interventionism.

But it was also public institutions that allowed him to escape the fate of so many of those kids with whom he grew up. University was about the only ticket out of Glace Bay, unless you were a hockey star or joined the armed forces. And McGill was where his world really opened up.

No wonder education ranks alongside the environment as his favourite policy area. Asked what can be done for parts of the country that have struggled for decades – from much of Atlantic Canada to the Southwestern Ontario rust belt, where his wife, Jodi, grew up – he tends to mention reinvention built around postsecondary strategy.

In his university days, it was not immediately clear what Mr. Butts would do with the opportunity afforded him by education. It took him a while to settle on a major at McGill, back-and-forthing between political science and English. He landed on the latter, then did his master's thesis on James Joyce's Ulysses.

The easy grasp of public-policy issues, competitiveness and aptitude at framing arguments that would later serve him in backrooms were evident during a triumphant university-debating career, when he won consecutive national championships.

But it was not a life in politics for which he seemed to be on track. When they met through debating competitions, Jodi Butts said, her husband was "actively writing a ton of fiction." Even years later, she told me, "if you'd asked me what he was going to do, I would've for sure said he was going to become a writer."

Maybe he never quite abandoned that inclination. Friends suggest that remaining a voracious reader of fiction who wears on his sleeve his love for his literary heroes – Joyce, Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo among them – contributes to his ability to develop political narratives. Says filmmaker Jonathan Hayes, his closest friend in his early years at McGill, "He's always been animated by the power of the idea."

But fairly abruptly, he went from trying to harness that power in a relatively abstract way, to a more practical one. After a summer stint working for Cape Breton Liberal godfather Allan MacEachen, poring over old documents to help prepare memoirs that were never released, he moved to Toronto to pursue a PhD on the Enlightenment philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Then he abandoned his studies to work at the Liberal-affiliated opinion-research firm Pollara, from which he jumped to an Ontario Liberal Party that had just failed in its first attempt to oust Mike Harris's Progressive Conservative government.

The reasons offered by Mr. Butts for this change in direction, or at least by his spouse and friends, are a combination of youthful idealism and hard realities. The more he learned of the slash-and-burn Harris agenda, the more he felt he should do something about it. He and Jodi were also deeply in debt for student loans; he needed income.

But the force with which he moved into that world, seeking to install himself quickly in the inner circle of party leader Dalton McGuinty, suggests someone deciding it was time to do big, important things. And his drive can again be traced back to Glace Bay, in this case some exceptional factors in his own home.

For starters, and in contrast to many households in Glace Bay, each of Gerald's four siblings – all considerably older – had also gone to university. ("Charlie said at one time, 'The goddamn kids, are they ever going to get out of college?'" recalled Mr. McNeil.) By the time he wrapped up his studies, they were already excelling in their fields – law, medicine and engineering among them. It is not too deep a dive into psychoanalysis to guess that he felt pressure to make an impact himself, by the time he reached his late 20s, beyond writing an esoteric doctoral thesis and unpublished fiction.

And it's doubtful he would have chosen politics to make that impact if not for another rather unusual aspect of his childhood: the PhD-toting activist nun who was his single biggest influence growing up.

Peggy Butts, Charlie's sister, was briefly a senator in the 1990s, appointed by Jean Chrétien shortly before she hit the mandatory retirement age. Before that, she was, among other things, a school principal, university professor, anti-poverty activist, founding member of a women's shelter, regional health-board chair, and appointee to her province's Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment.

When he was small, she taught him to read. As he grew up, she helped to shape his view of public life. Mr. Butts seems to have told pretty much everyone he knows about Sister Peggy's aphorism that there are two types of people in politics: those who want to be something and those who want to do something.

She was not a socialist, but in describing Sister Peggy's influence, Jodi Butts used the term "social justice." There are many definitions of what that means exactly, but in the 20th-century Roman Catholic sense, it involves the pursuit of the common more than the individual good. Take into account the sort of activism to which Sister Peggy devoted much of her life, and being in politics to "do something" implies doing more, rather than less, with government and its institutions – making your mark by building ambitious programs meant to last.

Some of his friends and colleagues roll their eyes a bit at the small-town, humble-roots way he still presents himself. But nobody who knows him questions that, even a dozen years after his aunt's death, he still sees a lot through the lens she provided.

She may have had an impact on him in another way, too. From an early age, he learned to hold his own when discussing issues of the day with big personalities who were older and wiser. The moment he moved into politics, his ability to cultivate such people was one of his biggest assets.

George Smitherman remembers well the day in 1999 when, as a rookie opposition member of Ontario's legislature, he ventured down the highway for a meeting with University of Waterloo president David Johnston, and brought along his new assistant.

Mr. Butts, briefly cutting his teeth as a political staffer with Mr. Smitherman before he landed in Mr. McGuinty's office, had been a student at McGill while Mr. Johnston was president there. But Mr. Smitherman, who went on to be his province's deputy premier, recalls being surprised by the way Mr. Butts was better able than he was to speak on an equal level with the country's future governor-general. "It was clear he had made a sufficient impression on the president when he was at McGill that it created a tremendous ease in conversation," Mr. Smitherman says.

Almost everyone who knows Mr. Butts describes him as one of the best networkers they have ever met, capable of making a lasting impression on members of the elite even before he joined their number. He is adept at relating to people – remembering issues important to them, offering life advice without seeming presumptuous, bantering about sports, whatever it takes to connect. With those who are older and more accomplished, he has been able to ingratiate himself with what a political staffer who was once his superior calls "that interesting mix of confidence and obsequiousness."

That Mr. Butts naturally gravitates toward big names, and is then prone to dropping those names (sometimes preceded by "my friend") in conversations, can be a source of amusement to others. When he worked for Mr. McGuinty, there were running jokes among co-workers about his tendency to interrupt meetings by taking phone calls from very important people.

But Mr. McGuinty may not have landed in the premier's office without Mr. Butts's using his networking skills to help the Liberal leader be taken seriously – an ability he would later put to use for Mr. Trudeau, too.

Mr. McGuinty suffered from the perception he was "not up to the job," as his Progressive Conservative opponents had branded him. One way to disprove that was by showing that lots of smart people thought he was up to the job, but the aloof provincial leader was poor at networking. So Mr. Butts did it for him, spearheading outreach and follow-up with movers and shakers previously outside Mr. McGuinty's sphere – Bay Street titans, education gurus, environmentalists, veterans of other governments.

Not only did they offer guidance; they were on hand during the 2003 campaign to assert that Liberal policy proposals were well considered. As Mr. Smitherman recalled, it marked a big difference from Mr. McGuinty's disastrous first campaign as leader, before Mr. Butts was on hand.

By last year's federal campaign, Mr. Butts had a stunningly expansive Rolodex for a political staffer – built up through his time with Mr. McGuinty, and a subsequent stint from 2008 to 2012 as president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund Canada. And he used it in an even more aggressive effort to have outside validation disprove that Mr. Trudeau was "not ready," as his own Conservative foes tagged him.

Beyond an endless array of private meetings with various opinion leaders, the Liberals formally announced advisory councils to Mr. Trudeau – one on the economy, involving high-profile economists and CEOs; another, on foreign policy, loaded with ex-diplomats and former high-ranking military officers. Meanwhile, despite usually having a more strategic than organizational role, Mr. Butts served as a point person in recruiting high-profile candidates to run in ridings.

"It allowed Justin to develop a strong understanding of issues where people thought he would hit a wall," says Louis-Alexandre Lanthier, Mr. Trudeau's former executive assistant. And again, it ensured a lot of backup once the campaign began.

Now that the campaign is over, his network remains one of the most unique assets Mr. Butts brings to the Prime Minister's Office, often for better and occasionally for worse.

When the Liberal cabinet received advice on how to turn campaign promises into reality from Sir Michael Barber, former British prime minister Tony Blair's "deliverology" guru, it could be traced back to Mr. Butts's encounters with him early in the McGuinty era. (In an interview, Sir Michael said that, even though he was vastly more experienced than Mr. Butts when they met, "you never felt it was a one-way relationship" – Mr. Butts was always "well informed, not just about his own situation, but about yours," and offered useful observations about his work.)

Aside from continually giving Mr. Trudeau access to a range of advisers not in his employ, the relationships can help move the Liberals' agenda forward. In intergovernmental negotiations, a current colleague suggested to me, Mr. Butts is adept at identifying people who have cachet with the other side, then having them "grease the wheel" by making an ostensibly third-party push for Ottawa's agenda.

And as Mr. Trudeau tries to navigate global politics, Mr. Butts is especially skilled at the advance or follow-up work around international meetings. Even before the Liberals took office, he developed friendly relationships with top officials in the Obama White House. When accompanying Mr. Trudeau to such events as the World Economic Forum in Davos, he returns with contacts he may be able to dial up months or years later.

But as much as Mr. Butts may consider his constant outreach a defence against the myopia that can afflict those in power, there is also some danger of creating an echo chamber. When he is already leaning a certain way on a policy decision, according to a few current and former colleagues, he sometimes turns to like-minded experts rather than seeking out opposing views.

"It's human nature for people to believe their Rolodex is better than it is, and his is better than 99 per cent of people's," says the same person who praised his wheel-greasing. But at times he may not see that his contacts don't offer the best expertise.

An additional risk, flagged by a couple of people who worked with him back at Queen's Park, is that, on policy files or media relations or personnel appointments, his conversations with those outside the office sometimes stepped on the turf of officials supposed to be having those talks, creating confusion or false expectations.

It may be that, from the occasional hard feelings about such encroachment, he knows now to stay in his lane. If so, it would be among other hard-earned lessons, from his time with Mr. McGuinty, on evidence in Ottawa now.

Even for someone nicknamed "Premier Dad" for his father-knows-best persona, Dalton McGuinty sounds awfully paternal, expressing pride in the strategist and confidant almost young enough to be his son.

In our phone conversation about Mr. Butts, he painted a picture of someone who arrived for their introductory meeting a little raw and impatient (also "late, sweating profusely, and very apologetic") and grew into a model public servant.

"He's a lot better, for instance, at managing people than he used to be," Mr. McGuinty told me. "He's a lot better at inspiring people to work hard. He's a lot better at understanding the importance of caucus and cabinet and the bureaucracy." By this account, he got sharper at politics during his time as Mr. McGuinty's policy director and then principal secretary (the same title he holds with Mr. Trudeau), but didn't lose touch with the values his family had instilled.

Mr. Butts was front and centre in Mr. McGuinty's transformation from the pushover he seemed in his first campaign, in particular helping him figure out what he was best at talking about (any policy area with direct impact on children). Along the way, he became friends with a premier who seldom socialized outside his own family. To some colleagues competing for attention, that friendship seemed a bit calculated. "Gerald made such an effort to cultivate him," said one.

But in recent years, while still boasting of accomplishments such as phasing out coal power in Ontario, Mr. Butts has let it be known among friends that he was disappointed with what happened to Mr. McGuinty over the course of his time in power.

Considering the ugliness of Mr. McGuinty's exit from office in early 2013, as police investigated power-plant cancellations and files were frantically deleted from staff computers, that purported disappointment may seem like self-preserving spin. But it is sincere enough to have manifested itself in at least a couple of substantive lessons about what he wants to do differently with Mr. Trudeau.

First, he has been determined to eschew a strategy, common among new governments, to do unpopular things early in their mandates, leaving themselves time to repair the damage before seeking re-election. In Mr. McGuinty's case, that involved a health-care "premium" that violated an election promise not to raise taxes. It didn't stop Mr. McGuinty from winning two more elections, but it did saddle him with a reputation as a promise-breaker, and that clearly stuck with the adviser who was his policy director back then.

"He really thought McGuinty fucked up his first budget," at least in retrospect, says a colleague who worked with Mr. Butts on Mr. Trudeau's inaugural one, "and he really didn't want to do that again."

The federal Liberals veered somewhat from their campaign platform in their first fiscal plan, most notably by delivering a much bigger deficit than promised. But there were no surprises that would really resonate outside Ottawa.

An even more important lesson he took away seems to amount to a wariness of personalities or approaches that clash with his own.

Mr. McGuinty says that, during his first term, he encouraged a degree of healthy "friction" between Mr. Butts, who tended to view things through a long-term policy lens, and other staff more focused on short-term political imperatives. ("Oh, the bearded guru," one of them once said with a laugh, when I brought up Mr. Butts's name.) But tensions mounted.

Mr. Butts continued to provide advice to Mr. McGuinty after leaving his office in 2008, but after helping with the premier's last election platform in 2011, he was more out of the loop during the brief and disastrous mandate that ensued.

He was subsequently not shy about telling people he was disappointed with the handling of Mr. McGuinty's resignation, by which point the premier was immersed in scandal and in nasty fights with such erstwhile allies as the provincial teachers' unions. Mr. Butts's implication seemed to be that his old boss was ill-served by people who did not have his best interests at heart.

About the same time, Mr. Butts began in earnest his second go at crafting a party leader's political identity, this time for someone with whom he was close friends to begin with. And this time he would be much more zealous about trying to keep away what he saw as bad actors – boasting, as did others who worked for Justin Trudeau, that they had a "no assholes" rule.

The pull of loyalty

When Justin Trudeau, then a second-term MP, convened a gathering of friends and operatives at Mont Tremblant in the summer of 2012, to help him decide whether and how to seek the federal Liberal leadership, Mr. Butts straddled both groups. And save perhaps for Mr. Trudeau himself, he had the clearest idea of the substance of the future PM's pitch.

"Even in that very first discussion, he had a well-thought-out and articulated idea of what the narrative would be," says Richard Maksymetz, who now serves as Finance Minister Bill Morneau's chief of staff, recalling broad themes of optimism and of extra support for a squeezed middle class. "You could hear shades of the stump speech."

Precisely when Mr. Butts first began to think of how Mr. Trudeau could be sold to the public is a matter of debate.

To some eyes, the two were plainly plotting Mr. Trudeau's ascent back on the McGill campus, where they were introduced by a mutual friend.

"You can't have watched this thing roll out," says one Liberal who has worked alongside them, "without thinking they were starting to map it out in university."

Others who knew both men back then say that any "Hey, one day you should be prime minister" talk was two young friends idly musing about a wide-open future; they chafe at the insinuation that the small-town kid was drawn to Mr. Trudeau for his last name. Mr. Trudeau had a strong radar for people trying to use him, as did friends who had known him since high school, and they could tell his closeness with Mr. Butts grew organically – strong personalities who complemented each other, shared a love of cultural pursuits, and bonded on debating road trips and, later, international travels.

But almost as soon as Mr. Butts started working for Mr. McGuinty, his relationship with Mr. Trudeau crept into his professional life. He occasionally brought his famous friend around to meet colleagues and let it be known that he helped Mr. Trudeau with the eulogy for his father that brought him more into the public consciousness.

In retrospect, everything that happened from 2008 onward can look premeditated. That was the year Mr. Trudeau first ran for Parliament, and Mr. Butts left Queen's Park to run World Wildlife Canada. While buffing his professional and environmental credentials, and building relations across and outside Canada, Mr. Butts offered the political novice informal advice from afar.

In reality, while Mr. Butts may have had thoughts of Mr. Trudeau eventually becoming Liberal leader, he wasn't banking on rapid momentum toward that outcome after the party's collapse in the 2011 election. "It was very hard for Gerald to make the decision, even though the PM was a close personal friend, to leave WWF," says Jodi Butts. He was proud of bucking stereotypes by helping the environmental group forge corporate partnerships, and had long been wary of being pigeon-holed as a political lifer.

But the pull was too strong. Loyalty meant that, if his best friend was considering the biggest challenge of his life, he had to be there for him. Pride made it hard to turn down the opportunity to put to use his accumulated knowledge and perspective, in the service of a candidate he understood better than anyone, and to resurrect a once-proud party left for dead. The ruling Conservatives' minimalist and unromantic view of government was so at odds with his own that he could not pass up a shot at ousting them.

He briefly tried to wear two hats, advising Mr. Trudeau's leadership campaign while staying on at WWF – a situation that caused friction with the board of an organization seeking to maintain a functional relationship with the Conservative government. In October, 2012, Mr. Butts quit his day job to work full-time for his friend.

His role, while paid, had no title; his LinkedIn profile leaves the 2012-15 period blank, save for serving on McGill's board. But he was a constant presence, helping Mr. Trudeau fine-tune his performance skills, introducing him around, sometimes serving as a conduit between him and the rest of the Liberals' operations. At the same time, he was hovering at 30,000 feet, trying to make sure all the little decisions the Liberals made were consistent with Mr. Trudeau's necessary pitch: that he offered change from Stephen Harper in a way nobody else could.

It was not an easy sell; a New Democratic Party long seen as very far from the status quo had won Official Opposition status and thus had a clearer path to power than the Liberals. It did, however, appeal to Mr. Butts's desire to write history by disproving received wisdom – because it required sticking to strategies even when they faced criticism for being at odds with obvious political imperatives.

To contrast with the more buttoned-down personas of Mr. Harper and the NDP's Tom Mulcair, the Liberals would "let Justin be Justin" – cheery, cocky, prone to dramatic flourishes and occasional intemperate comments – rather than trying to make him more traditionally prime ministerial. To demonstrate boldness, Mr. Trudeau would make a couple of sudden, showy moves – announcing support for marijuana legalization, punting all Liberal senators from the party's caucus – which fed charges of impetuousness. To keep up the excitement, he'd raise expectations, with soaring rhetoric about improving Canadians' economic lot, despite lacking substantive policies, as he and his advisers took their time consulting broadly, trying to read where the NDP was going and how to go somewhere more interesting.

There was little internal dissent against any of this, which was not an accident. Yes, Mr. Butts resisted the temptation to respond to his experience with Mr. McGuinty by trying to put himself alone at the top of the backroom organizational chart – Katie Telford, who as campaign director oversaw the modernization of the Liberals' antiquated party apparatus, was his equal from the outset. But he did his best to keep at arm's length anyone who might fundamentally disagree with the approach the Liberals were taking. That included backroom titans who'd been behind the scenes when the party won elections in the 1990s and early 2000s, whom Mr. Butts indiscreetly referred to as "dinosaurs."

Those dinosaurs roared increasingly loudly as last year's election grew closer, as stumbles (such as Mr. Trudeau's infamous ad lib about "trying to whip out our CF-18s [in Iraq] and show how big they are" seemed to conspire with lack of policy to squander the lead in the polls he'd been gifted after becoming leader. Much of Ottawa's press gallery joined in the criticism.

A big part of Mr. Butts's job was making sure all the noise did not throw the Liberals off the course they had charted. He approached that task in two ways that made for an odd dichotomy.

Publicly, especially on Twitter, he acted like a hothead. He could scarcely let pass any criticism of Mr. Trudeau by pundits or partisans without returning fire that was often snarky and occasionally vicious: Privately, he told people that it was an act, to show the faithful that the Liberals were done being punching bags. Still, genuine emotion sometimes seemed to get the better of him. Other senior officials on Mr. Trudeau's campaign urged him to tone it down.

But when he was with those officials, he was a voice of calm. Almost to a person, colleagues say that one of his best skills is to lower the temperature when others are worked up. "He's an extraordinary adviser in a difficult time," says David Herle, a top Liberal strategist who steered Kathleen Wynne to victory in Ontario's last election. "In a situation where hot-house decisions can get made, he immediately comes off as the most rational person in the discussion."

Ironically, given his praise, Mr. Herle was inadvertently at the centre of a pre-election test of Mr. Butts's guardianship of the narrative.

In the days leading up to the official start of last year's race, the Liberals had been caught off-guard by the NDP's national surge following its Alberta election win and were back to third place in the polls.

Mr. Herle, who had an informal role on the Liberal campaign and played devil's advocate more than most others in the tent, argued it was time to switch up the playbook – most notably by running attack advertising. He was backed by members of the ad firm Bensimon Byrne, which the Liberals had contracted. Believing Mr. Herle was being unwisely ignored, old friends from his days running Paul Martin's federal campaigns – though by no account Mr. Herle himself, who seems to have been perfectly fine with his role – tried to convince Mr. Trudeau to let Mr. Herle run the show.

They obviously didn't understand the Trudeau-Butts relationship. Everyone who has seen them interact in private (including people critical of one or both) attests that Mr. Butts is deferential to Mr. Trudeau. Sometimes Mr. Trudeau rejects Mr. Butts's advice in favour of someone else's. But on the big things, he has Mr. Trudeau's trust. These are people who in the middle of a meeting can pass each other shorthand notes only they understand.

If Mr. Butts was able to figure out how a politician like Mr. McGuinty wanted to be seen, he sure wasn't getting it wrong with his best friend. The attempted coup was dead on arrival.

Mr. Trudeau's faith was rewarded. Not all the tactics that worked in the campaign were ones for which his core team could claim credit: It was actually Mr. Herle who first pitched a variation of the highly successful ad in which Mr. Trudeau directly rebutted Stephen Harper's "not ready" charge against him. The Liberals were not planning to embrace budget deficits all along, pivoting that way when the NDP prioritized budgetary balance. They could not have fully anticipated that the Conservatives would increase the appetite for Mr. Trudeau's brand of positivity by running a campaign that veered into xenophobia.

But the basic story Mr. Butts had first laid out at that retreat in 2012 landed them a majority government three years later.

In the process, the legend of Gerald Butts grew. Even he probably knew that that could be a mixed blessing, now that the Liberals were running the country.

Not long after the election, Mr. Butts went for a drink with Jenni Byrne.

Maybe he was trying to live David Foster Wallace's gospel about empathy. Having served as Stephen Harper's cutthroat campaign director – once the most feared person in Ottawa – Ms. Byrne was now a pariah, blamed by fellow Conservatives for the dysfunction that enveloped their party as it lost power.

Possibly he was also trying to remind himself that nobody stays on top of the political game forever, which he had once been reminded of by somebody who would know. Among the fruits of Mr. Butts's prodigious relationship-building had been a mentor-pupil friendship with the late Jim Coutts, a backroom legend who helped to save Pierre Trudeau's Liberals after they were reduced to a slim minority in 1972 – four years after Trudeaumania made it feel (and them act) as if they would govern in perpetuity.

Holding the same title with another Trudeau who enjoys plenty of swooning in his wake, Mr. Butts likes to tell fellow Liberals that arrogance is their kryptonite. But knowing that danger and proving able to steer clear of hubris are two different things.

If Mr. Butts proves to have a tragic flaw, a friend of his who has worked closely with him in politics told me, it will be pride. "When you fight your way up from Cape Breton being underestimated, it's natural. But it's dangerous as hell."

Last year's precampaign problems may have briefly knocked a bit of that pride out of him; several people told me that they privately saw flashes of self-doubt. But the outcome could make such moments less likely now, even as they may be warranted.

The first year in the PMO, despite some substantive achievements – the deal to expand the Canada Pension Plan; the easy passage of core campaign commitments like a middle-class tax cut and an overhauled child benefit – has hardly been entirely smooth. The Liberals were slow to hire staff, causing many key files to move slowly. They flailed about on a couple of sensitive issues: assisted dying and electoral reform. Rookie ministers have already got into hot water over dubious expenses. The more experienced foreign-affairs minister, Stéphane Dion, has been criticized for not advocating vociferously for human rights, and Mr. Trudeau has faced a similar charge during his China trip.

Mr. Butts has excelled at some of his new job's demands, such as intergovernmental relations, but has also struggled to adjust to some of Ottawa's realities. His patience has been tested by a public service skeptical about some of the Liberals' plans, such as the fast-tracking of Syrian refugees immediately after taking office. And attempts to massage the media narrative have not always worked with a press gallery that can be less cozy than the one at Queen's Park.

Occasionally, missteps have been big enough for the Liberals to acknowledge them openly. Mr. Trudeau was contrite after the bizarre incident in which he got physical over a procedural dispute and accidentally elbowed an MP in the chest; shortly thereafter, the government backed off attempts to limit parliamentary debate, tacitly acknowledging it needed to show more respect toward opponents.

But if you're the guy whose job is to keep your eye on the long game, it may be easy to write off criticism that you're too focused on photo-ops over results, or that excessive consultation is cover for indecision. You can remind yourself that things were much worse a little more than a year ago, when chirping pundits were joined by members of your own party – all of them sure that your unwillingness to listen to them had would cost you the election you wound up winning. Even when you constantly remind fellow Liberals of the perils of putting much stock in persistently strong poll numbers, their validation can be hard to resist.

At the same time, being inside that bubble yourself might dull your instincts if things do get worse out in the real world. You're a quasi-celebrity, now, in a company town – the PM's best friend, the genius who helped restore Liberal glory. Everyone wants a piece of you, and it's not in their interest to challenge you. Those bureaucrats you complained about can be replaced, and the "no asshole rule" means the PMO is filled with the generally like-minded. There's enough positive reinforcement available that opponents can seem peevish and out-of-touch. No matter how much you try, there just isn't as much time to get out and see how things feel on the ground.

"I could sense myself losing my sense of feel," David Axelrod said of his time as Barack Obama's guardian of the narrative. He tried to do regular smell tests with people outside Washington, as Mr. Butts does with his network, but it didn't stop him from feeling increasingly isolated and detached.

That helps explain why Mr. Axelrod stayed in the White House only a couple of years. But for the foreseeable future, it's very difficult to imagine Mr. Trudeau in the PMO and Mr. Butts elsewhere.

He is not quite as integral to the PM's every move as many may have expected, and no longer as much of a constant presence around him; Ms. Telford now travels with Mr. Trudeau almost as much. But any way you slice it, Mr. Butts is not a typical political aide – his and Mr. Trudeau's shared history make that impossible – and thus he has more than a typical political aide's level of job security.

It would take an awful lot for Mr. Trudeau to lose trust in his old friend's ability to help him be true to himself, as they keep trying to write history together. And since they're still figuring out what they want that history to be, Mr. Butts isn't likely to declare mission accomplished any time soon.

This summer, after years of commuting from Toronto, he finally moved his family to Ottawa. It will be a relief, for him and Jodi and their preteen daughter and son, not being apart so much. And several of his friends and colleagues told me not to underestimate the ability of Ms. Butts, a lawyer and executive who connects with him intellectually as few others do, to keep him level.

He has opted to live in Westboro, a neighbourhood outside the capital's political core. It's not as far from the Ottawa bubble as Cape Breton – or even as High Park, the comfortable area where he lived in Toronto – but it's the best he's going to do for now.

As for the story he is telling, in the works since back in the Sister Peggy days, whether he knew it then or not, you could see last year's election win as the thrilling climax, and everything else as epilogue.

But that's only if it's about his journey, and the whole point of that Foster Wallace speech he loves so much is that he's not supposed to be the main character. The country has much riding on his ability to see the water around him as he swims.

Adam Radwanski writes on national politics for The Globe and Mail.