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I first met Conrad Black when we were students together at Carleton University in the 1960s. We were not natural allies – I lived at home and walked to school whereas he drove a Lincoln and shared a luxury apartment downtown; and his politics were considerably to the right of mine, even then. But we shared a love of ideas and greatly enjoyed our battles over the chessboard (which I won) and in debate (which I often lost).
He could be intimidating. He possesses a keen intelligence and a truly remarkable memory which he used, for example, to recite the full battle order of the ships on both sides in the battle of Trafalgar. His command of language was even then quite extraordinary, leading his eloquence on occasion to stray into grandiloquence, using archaic constructions to make a simple point. He was, not surprisingly, bored with school until he went on to McGill and delved into the life and times of that towering figure of Quebec politics, premier Maurice Duplessis, of whom he wrote the definitive biography , the beginning of his lifelong study of political leadership.
At one point, Winston Churchill was reportedly asked his profession and answered, “Writer.” Much the same could be said of Conrad Black, whose literary and journalistic output were nearly as prodigious. His biography of FDR stands as a major contribution to our understanding of the man about whom so many others have written. His biography of Nixon was well-received and he put his talents to writing a number of other works, including a history of Canada, another of the United States, and more than one autobiography.
At one point, Winston Churchill was reportedly asked his profession and answered, “Writer.” Much the same could be said of Conrad Black, whose literary and journalistic output were nearly as prodigious
He revelled in his status as an unquestioned top-drawer public intellectual. I recall one occasion when my wife and I were privileged to attend a private dinner at his Toronto home, where I shared his table with Henry Kissinger. The repartee was scintillating and I judged that Conrad gave as good as he got with the iconic American statesman.
Black’s business career in Canada is well documented and, like everything about the man, highly controversial. What is not in dispute is that he significantly elevated the quality of journalism in Canada by transforming the sleepy Ottawa Citizen into a paper worthy of a national capital (as then-publisher Russell Mills will no doubt attest) and launching a new, national paper, National Post , which gave a platform for some of the most talented writers in the business, in all shades of the political spectrum, albeit with a predominant conservative hue.
Having outgrown his native country, he then moved on to the bigger stages in the United States with the Chicago Sun-Times and the United Kingdom with the Daily Telegraph . The latter led to a peerage when the Queen, on prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s recommendation, made him Lord Black of Crossharbour, an honour he greatly appreciated although it required renouncing his Canadian citizenship.
Ironically, at the peak of his extraordinary career, this great admirer of the American system was brought crashing down by what he and many others consider a travesty of justice. His prominence put him into the gun sights of a glory-seeking prosecutor and a biased judge, a combination that virtually guaranteed conviction. I will not recap the case here, as it has been amply documented by legal analysts, journalists and Conrad himself. Suffice it to say that after a protracted legal process up to and including the Supreme Court, Black was acquitted of virtually all charges, only to have the judge reinstate two lesser charges and send Black back to prison where he served more than three years in two American penitentiaries.
Meanwhile, Conrad’s business empire came crashing down and he was left in reduced circumstances, forced to sell his mansions in the U.S. and U.K. and lease back his family home in Toronto. He was branded for life as a convicted felon and forbidden entry to the United States for 30 years.
Throughout it all, Conrad raged at his tormentors and never displayed a shred of remorse. And through it all, his second wife, the remarkable Barbara Amiel (whom I have regrettably never met) stuck by his side, regaling her readers with her accounts of various travails. (My wife still roars with laughter recalling Amiel’s wonderfully self-deprecating account of one prison visit when she was obliged to remove the wire from her brassière to gain entry to the dismal place.)
The Conrad I know is a man of his own principles but also deeply pragmatic. I have never discussed these matters with him. From the outside, I formed the impression that he had made his usual cold-blooded determination of just what had to be done to repair at least some of the damage. His only chance of redemption lay in the hands of President Donald J. Trump, with whom he had enjoyed some dealings in the past. There followed a spate of favourable commentaries, with Black’s usual over-the-top eloquence about the great man, capped by last year’s hagiography, Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other . Let us just say this was not one of Black’s greatest works, unstinting in its highly personal praise of the president.
Many have suggested that this was all done in an effort, ultimately successful, to extract a full pardon from the one person who could give him some vindication. Perhaps. But perhaps having been betrayed by the American system he had so admired, it is only fair that he should exploit the flaws in that system to correct the injustice.
Gordon Ritchie was Canada’s ambassador for trade negotiations in the 1980s and one of the principal negotiators of the original Canada-USA free trade agreement.
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