Thursday, July 22, 2010

(No.104) Rooting for Conrad Black

My initial experience with members of the English aristocracy came during my first year as an undergraduate at Carleton University in Ottawa.

I shared a room in residence with Esmond Cooper-Key, the son of a Conservative MP at Westminster and the grandson of Viscount Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail newspaper in London. 'Coop', as I took to calling him, had been temporarily exiled to Canada by his family as the result of an embarrassing incident or three. He was a charming and unassuming product of the English upper class and many years later, when I saw Hugh Grant's character in Four Weddings and a Funeral, my first thought was how much that character reminded me of Coop.

On the other hand there was the Hon. Patrick Shaughnessy, heir to one of the handful of English peerages of 'Canadian' origin, who hung around our room at Carleton like a bad smell because of my upper class roommate from England. He never became the 4th Baron Shaughnessy but he was a prat when I knew him. I remember one evening I threatened to do him bodily harm when he extinguished his cigarette by grinding it out on the floor of our dorm room with his shoe. He picked up the butt.

Which brings me to Lord Black of Crossharbour or Conrad Black as he was until elevated to the peerage in 2001. We were both history majors at Carleton University at the same time but we were not friends or even acquaintances. We were both students and admirers of the magnificent history professor Naomi E.S. Griffiths who later became Dean of Arts at Carleton.

While I went on from Carleton to a varied career doing some of this and a bit of that, Conrad Black went on to build a business empire. However he did not lessen his interest in history and historiography. He wrote 3 excellent volumes of history: three thoroughly researched biographies of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis and U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Rickard Nixon.

Through the years I watched, listened and read of Black including the ideological posturing into which he seemed prone to fall. I thought then and now that his political views, while articulately put, were sometimes too similar to the sort of risible stuff I heard from American right wingers. I sometimes felt he knew better but was bent on playing a role for a particular audience. But whether it was a view with which I agreed or not, I enjoyed his arguments. He was always interesting.

After he had plead not guilty in 2005 to the dozen plus charges laid against him by the U.S. government he never appeared to waiver in his declaration of his innocence either before or after he was convicted. Nor did his confidence that he would eventually be vindicated seem to erode.

Few people believed legal victory possible much less likely and even fewer spoke up publicly on his side. His circle of friends and supporters seemed to shrink by the week. Indeed many in the media and elsewhere seemed to take great pleasure in joining the anti-Black pile on. After he began serving a 6 1/2 year prison sentence in March of 2008 the virtually unanimous opinion of the columnists and talking heads was -- this is the end; game over; bye bye Conrad.

After Black's appeal of his conviction on four of the charges was dismissed in June 2008 by the U.S. Appeals Court I cannot recall one publicly expressed 'expert opinion' that there was any real chance that the U.S. Supreme Court would agree even to hear Black's appeal much less, if they did, that they would issue a favourable ruling. But as we now know, they did -- as Black had predicted.

And this week after 28 months of imprisonment (and not in a 'country club' prison) Conrad Black was granted bail and he left that prison in Coleman Florida this past Wednesday. It has been amusing since the Supreme Court decision -- and especially since his having been granted bail this past week -- to watch the talking heads and opinion leaders (who had been so consistently wrong and dismissive of Black) forming choirs to sing publicly new tunes about him.

While I do not claim to have foreseen Conrad Black beating the legal odds against him so dramatically I can say that I consistently admired his self-confidence and unapologetic stance in the face of adversity. Even after he went to prison this attitude continued to be on public display through his newspaper columns in the National Post.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to hear his appeal I sent Black an email. It is as good an explanation as any of why I rooted for him. I wrote, in part:

"... I have intended for some time to write to you to express not my sympathy but my admiration for your unbending commitment to your publicly expressed views of innocence and most of all -- I suppose -- for your refusal to seek sympathy from the public or the court with insincere declarations suggestive of some sort of conversion on a road to Damascus. My impression is that you have not sacrificed your pride or dignity in response to what for many would have been irresistible pressure to bend if not break. ... I wish you well and the continued strength of spirit and intellect which you have so steadfastly demonstrated."

Conrad Black has been widely perceived and often characterized as arrogant and unsympathetic. This seems overdone to me but, whether disliked by many people or not, he is a Canadian except on paper and to say otherwise is too precious by half given the fact that Jean Chretien forced him (unnecessarily) to give up his citizenship in order to accept a peerage in England where he lived part of the year and did business.

Black is the sort of Canadian I have always had time for. This is so for the same sorts of reasons I like Canadians as diverse as Don Cherry, Rick Salutin and the late Tommy Douglas. They are/were self-confident, assertive and willing to take a position they believe in almost without regard to whether some or many people like it or not.

They seem to me, and I include Lord Black among this type of Canadian, incapable of being intimidated. When I think of Canadians historically, whether in war or when playing hockey, this has been an admirable and highly Canadian trait.

Alastair Rickard