A Matter of Principle, by Conrad Black — a Mrs. KfC Guest Post

Full Disclosure: In my previous life as publisher of the Calgary Herald, Conrad Black was my “boss” (co-owner of the firm, actually) for the final few years. He was a controversial figure in Canada even then — rich, powerful, threatening and, perhaps, abusive. As Lord Black of Crossharbour, that reputation followed him to both the United Kingdom and United States. A Matter of Principle is the second of his autobiographies and deserves attention from a less-conflicted source than me. Mrs. KfC is exactly that — and a seasoned biography reader as well. Here are her thoughts:

Review copy courtesy McClelland & Stewart

Please choose the sentence that most accurately describes your views:

• The Corporate Governance Zealots have ruined the business climate in America and made it impossible for brilliant businessmen to run their enterprises effectively.
• I believe Henry Kissinger is highly overrated and since the end of the Nixon era has devoted himself to aggrandizing his reputation, and scampering on his feet of clay from anything remotely requiring a courageous stand.
• I enjoy reading revisionist history and revenge narrative.
• I would like to improve my vocabulary.

If you have responded positively to any of these statements, I urge you to shimmer down to your nearest bookseller and buy a copy of Conrad Black’s latest tome, A Matter of Principle (Osteo-alert: it’s a 575 page hardcover book. You may need to get a small crane).

Conrad Black, aka Lord Black of Crossharbour, aka Prisoner 18330-424, is a brilliant author, whose métier involves shining a light on prominent historical figures whose lives may already be known to us, but not fully understood. His biographies of Maurice Duplessis (a seminal French Canadian politician), Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon have received almost universal critical acclaim and, in writing volume two of his autobiography, he is putting himself in the league of these men. Conrad Black’s self-regard knows no bounds.

The theme of this book is the detailed description of Black’s prosecution by US authorities on a long series of charges, most eventually dismissed, and his resulting fall from the highest pinnacles of British society to the lonely life of a convicted felon. But make no mistake — this is neither a boring recitation of legal intricacies, nor a deep dive into self-pity. Rather it is a highly entertaining, immensely readable book by an author who takes every opportunity to set the record straight on his innocence on every count, and excoriate his enemies, real and perceived, with the most erudite language a reader is likely to find anywhere. It is a delicious read.

Once Black’s troubles began, schadenfreude on an international scale was evident. All those lesser beings he and his wife, journalist and editor Barbara Amiel, had trod upon over the course of decades began to rejoice in the spectacle of their fall, and the international media piled on when it was clear their power was waning. In his book, Black devotes a lot of ink to payback, most of it priceless in its description.

Richard Breeden, counsel to the Special Committee appointed to investigate him, is described thus:

Breeden’s appearance was not reassuring: round, flabby face; dull lifeless eyes behind thick spectacles; a brusque humourless and unanimated demeanour. He reminded me of nothing so much as a regional commissar of Beria’s, with the bloodless, piscine coldness of someone whose power vastly exceeded his intelligence. I was not optimistic that appearances were deceiving.

He said little. When he spoke, it was to restore the prosecutorial tone of the proceedings. As the meeting wore on and its direction was firmly established – my head on a stake – Breeden brought to mind Kafka’s description of Mr. Pollunder in Amerika: “The words rolled furiously over his sagging lower lip, which like all loose heavy flesh was easily agitated”.

Henry Kissinger, whom Black had recruited to the board of his company, is singled out for much elaborate narrative, including:

Had Kissinger called me then and questioned me about these so-called criminal acts or “unauthorized payments”, he would actually have fulfilled his duty to shareholders. He was the sole person on that board who had the personal weight and stature to halt Breeden. But he was too fearful. This extraordinarily intelligent refugee of Nazi Germany seemed not to understand that the contemporary equivalent of “I was only following orders” is “my lawyer advised me not to”.

Henry’s approach reminded me of his exhortations to Nixon in 1969 to 1971 to be fierce with North Vietnam and North Korea, while assuring his liberal journalistic and social friends that he, Henry, was all that was preventing the madman president from blowing up the world. To adapt Churchill, it is in small as in great matters that statesmen fail to distinguish themselves.

The great Metternichian was befuddled by this sudden agitation in the balance of forces in a small matter like a coup d’etat in the Balkans, or in our times, even in Central Africa. He got it wrong, as the passage of years would show.

Two members of the Special Committee draw this scathing commentary:

Thompson and Burt were like dogs licking the hand of the vivisectionist as he sharpens his knife in his operating room, their tails debouching from between their legs only to wag contraintuitively, to appease the author of their impending fate.

Marie Josee Kravis was another of Black’s enduring trophy board members and a longtime rival of his wife Barbara Amiel. Both are beautiful, intelligent women who perfected the art of marrying up. Kravis, who had benefitted both financially and in reputation by her association with Black, seemed not to comprehend that you “oughta dance with the guy that brang ya” and turned tail on Black as soon as he was in trouble. Here’s how he describes her at the hearing:

M-J too, seemed aged since I had last seen her, three years before. She appeared to be embalmed. So white and taut was her face, though that might have been the result of having had a bad allergy and flu that day. Her rather high hair appeared to be set with magic glue, and her wax works face was not well served by dollops of red lipstick like Anne Hathaway’s in The Devil Wears Prada.

These are but a few of the wonderful quotes of revenge in the book: there are hundreds.

There are two surprising treatments in this book. The first is Black’s characterization of his wife. She is portrayed as a frail little bird, sickly, exhausted by the injustice of it all, and forever pessimistic. She faithfully stands by her man, against all public odds, and requires much support from him. This person will be unrecognizable to her readers over the years who have become accustomed to her hard right wing views and her brittle sense of society. So too will the many people she has trampled upon be very surprised to read of her transformation to the needy little woman.

David Radler, Black’s business partner for 35 years, copped a plea and ratted him out. Given Black’s treatment of many other people in the book, it would not have been surprising to have had whole chapters devoted to what a rat fink he turned out to be. But no. There are references, to be sure — but surprisingly, only relatively mild references, out of scale, one thinks, to the Judas act he perpetrated. It is a mystery.

Another terrific feature of this book is Black’s sense of scale — the original title for this book was The Fight of My Life. Everything is epic. For example:

It was the last time I would see our corporate airplane. I did not even have the opportunity to say, as General Gordon did to his camel at Khartoum, that ‘we would ride no more under the desert stars’.

Or:

These grand houses were mockeries of our former status: we rattled around in them, I thought, like the Romanovs in the Alexander palace, waiting for the Bolsheviks to take us away and execute us.

I had thought Kafka a novelist all these years. But if history repeats itself as farce, fiction returns as journalism. By the time I left Chicago, I thought Kafka clairvoyant.

In this same highly accessible way, though, Black takes dead aim at the US legal system. He believes that there is not a US justice system but only a US legal system populated by overreaching attorneys general, using it to further their careerist agendas at the expense of natural justice. He takes considerable time in the postlude of the book to decry the abuses of the American justice system, the dangers of plea bargain, and the overwhelming prosecutorial advantage in the US. It is chilling to read this articulated in such a clear way.

He shares his views of US society (on the wane), Canadian society (boring backwater), British society (chinless twits), his defence team (incompetent), captains of industry (toadies), Judge Amy St Eve (well-coifed but misguided) and myriad philosophical issues that crop up on his path to explaining his victimization by the system.

Even if none of this is of any interest to you, this book is worth reading for Black’s account of his time in prison. His descriptions of his fellow inmates, their foibles, their occupations and their daily routines is not only immensely interesting, but is told with a light and respectful touch. He has clearly been moved by the authenticity of his new friends, and almost seems to enjoy the transparent nature of the system, and his place in it.

This book is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit and to Black’s immense capacity for self-delusion. It’s a jolly good read.

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26 Responses to “A Matter of Principle, by Conrad Black — a Mrs. KfC Guest Post”

  1. Dr. D Says:

    Ha! Only you could entice me to pick up this book, and that you have done with this very entertaining post. I simply must find out more about poor wee Barbara and her delusional knight in tarnished armour…..I shall read it with a grain of salt. Thanks Mrs. KfC.

  2. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Dr D: I’m sure you would enjoy this book. It is VERY well written!

  3. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    I was debating about picking up this book after reading an article in Vanity Fair where Black says he just might, maybe, be able to survive on $80 million/year. Your excellent post has tipped the balance and I am going to rush right out and buy it.

    And I swear I’m buying it only because I want to improve my vocabulary and not for the sheer joy of reading about another mega millionaire’s fall from grace.

  4. dovegreyreader Says:

    Sheila, superb!! Who knew I was even interested in Conrad Black?? Conrad Who?? He has barely graced this corner of Devon but I am as tempted as could be to … er … improve my vocabulary:-) Fabulous review, thank you.

  5. Lisa Hill Says:

    ROTFL, Mrs KfC, I’m not tempted to read the book but I loved your ‘less conflicted’ review!

  6. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Susan and DGR: there is no doubt you will improve your vacabularies by reading this book. Remember when guys used to buy Playboy for the articles? Same deal………major side benefit!

  7. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Lisa:
    i was ROTFL while reading this!

  8. kimbofo Says:

    It sounds like a treat. To save my back, I might wait for the Kindle version.

  9. alison Says:

    I thought I would be able to resist this book, but not after your fabulous review. It sounds like loads of fun.

  10. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Kimbofo: Kindle version is a smart choice for this book. it’s certainly worth the read, but it’s a honkin’ big book!

  11. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Alison;
    its a must read for those who have followed Conrad and Barbara. I mean, talk about revisionist!

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kimbofo: Interestingly, Amazon.com in the US has a Kindle version, but the UK and Canadian sites do not. I also wonder what the arrangement in the States is, given their restriction on criminals “profiting” from their crimes by writing books about them. (And if you have the Kobo app, Indigo.ca is selling that for $9.99 as compared to Amazon’s $15.99).

  13. sally Feder Says:

    Shelia,

    Unbelievable. If it were not for the vocabulary, I would think he had been a governor of Illinois! Yes, I shall do the US Kindle version.
    Thank you! You could challenge him to a game of Scrabble.

  14. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Sally:
    never count him out – he could yet be governor of Iillinois. its not looking good fro him to get his Canadian citizenship back. you may be stuck with him.

  15. RickP Says:

    It was a great review though not enough to tempt me into purchasing it. Conrad Black is definitely a deluded individual and I just can’t give him any more time.

    Here is the link to Eddie Greenspan, in the Globe and Mail, begging to differ with some of Black’s passages.

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/edward-greenspan-rebuts-conrad-black/article2187024/

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rick: I had read the Greenspan response with interest. I don’t mean to be flippant, but there is an argument to be made that Eddie may be as deluded as Conrad is — although Conrad certainly attracts more attention and probably wins on the “scale” argument. Given my personal involvement, I probably will read the autobiography eventually but I think for many readers Mrs. KfC’s review (which I also think is excellent) probably covers the waterfront quite adequately.

  17. Margot Franssen Says:

    Dear Mrs. KFC,
    Your razor sharp wit and intrinsic ability to slice and dice Mr. Black without once being mean spirited makes my heart leap with joy. I could read your reviews all day long. They are insightful, clever and cunningly female. God how I love a woman’s point of view.
    M.Franssen – Toronto

  18. Lisa Hill Says:

    Just found this, it might amuse you http://wheelercentre.com/dailies/post/1d8eb38b467f/

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: Thanks for that link — Conrad continues undaunted, albeit locked up. Mrs. KfC is in Honduras and can’t respond — she will when she gets back.

  20. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    You are a brave man to read that Kevin. I fear that the world is increasingly being taken over by what we might call oligarchs of every description. Over here there are regular news articles about the vast salaries awarded to top executives, who then cause endless misery to their staff by their chopping and changing. We are now reverting to a Victorian society where an extremely wealthy layer of people run our nations at the expense of vast numbers of people who have no rights or security. I would find it hard to read anything written by one of these people although no doubt I need to hear what they say. An excellent review and thanks for summarising it so adeptly.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: I have to say first that it was Mrs. KfC not I who read and reviewed this book (she is in charge of our oligarchs department here). She will be commenting later, but I certainly think there is sense to what you say — Mrs. KfC did an earlier post on books about The Financial Meltdown which look at some of the abuses. And you are quite right that a large number of people pay a price for this kind of behavior at the top.

  22. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Tom:
    I understand what you are saying, and agree with you. The only part of this book which would be of interest to you, possibly, is the last section – a series of mini essays on various aspects of America that are broken ( all justice related). Black is a gifted writer, but his other biographies ring much truer.
    Thank you for your comment.

  23. Brian Brennan Says:

    Good review, Sheila. I always appreciate it when reviewers – as is common on this website – quote relevant passages to give us a sense of how the writer writes.

    Kevin, I too was curious about the “profits of criminal notoriety” laws in U.S. states, and discovered that most of them have been thrown out by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. In Canada Conrad is safe from prosecution under one of our provincial “Son of Sam” laws because he would have to be living in the province where the crime was allegedly committed. (Ontario doesn’t have such a law. It only applies in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia.)

    As for those of us who used to work at the Calgary Herald, sad to say there isn’t a single reference to the paper in Conrad’s book. There is plenty about the Herald, however, (shameless plug here), and about you, my friend, in my own autobiography, “Leaving Dublin” recently published by Rocky Mountain Books. I hope Mrs. KfC will see fit to review it one of these days :-)

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Brian: Thanks for stopping by and your comment — we do try to give visitors here a flavor of how the books that are reviewed read. And we allow shameless plugs if they follow intelligent comments. :-)

  25. David McBride Says:

    A brilliant book! It rings true to me and not In the sphere of self-delusion, rather delivered from it.
    How do I email Black directly? DM

  26. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Sorry, David, i dont know which slammer Conrad is in, so dont know how to find him. Maybe the National Post can help.

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