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: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’.
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.