Conrad Black: A Scribe’s Progress

Armed with his powerful intellect, his cattle-prod invective and the ornate prose that can make him sound like an incensed 18th-century pamphleteer, Conrad Black has from the beginning of his authorial career chosen subjects that have given him an advantageous platform for his conservative views. He established his bona fides as a historian in 1977 with Duplessis, a revisionist life of the mid-20th century Quebec premier. With that biography he also began his career as a combative iconoclast eager to blast away at the received wisdom of the Canadian intellectual establishment and the country’s political left. Later, using the same intellectual framework, he expanded his targets to include commentators and activists in the United States whom he pummelled for their misreading of two American presidents.

Black’s first book was designed to upend the then accepted academic view of Maurice Duplessis as a union buster and corrupt, petty dictator who had for almost 20 years retarded Quebec’s social and economic development. The research buttressing the 743-page Duplessis, whatever anyone thought of Black’s arguments and conclusions, had to be judged remarkable, and all the more so considering that the author wrote most of it as an independent scholar. (Some chapters were based on Black’s thesis that had been submitted earlier for a master’s degree at McGill University.) Dozens of interviews with the Quebec elite of the Duplessis era were conducted for the project, and through Duplessis’s aged secretary Black gained access to the premier’s vast personal archive. Black’s view of Duplessis as a transitional leader who, despite old-style patronage-based politics, set Quebec firmly on the road to modernization is now regarded as a legitimate if perhaps not universally accepted position. In that sense Black has certainly prevailed over his critics.1 But both author and book received some harsh denunciations when Duplessis first appeared in 1977.

The book’s most notable opponent was Ramsay Cook, a distinguished academic historian of French Canada, who attacked Black and his work in a scathing—and unbalanced—Globe and Mail review. Cook caricatured Black’s work as “often little more than regurgitated source material spiced with an intensely partisan hostility.” The reviewer offered this stern reproach without in any way acknowledging the prodigious amount of fresh scholarly research that anchored Black’s opus. Cook’s piece also breezily condemned the biography as overlong, disorganized, wrong-headed and, by implication, virtually worthless. To read this review 30 years later is to wonder how Cook, a highly accomplished writer then and now, could have allowed himself a tone of such peevish contempt. Black countered with a strongly worded letter to the Globe challenging the reviewer’s impartiality, noting that Cook, as the outside academic assessor, had tried to block Black’s M.A. thesis at McGill and pointing out that Cook’s own work had been attacked in one of the footnotes in Duplessis, which ought to have made him ineligible to review it. Cook, sounding bruised, offered the defence that he had reviewed the book from galleys without seeing any of the footnotes. This was a curious admission for an academic historian to make and did not mark a shining moment for the professor. Those who were following this dust-up must have concluded that young Black had at the very least held his own.

Duplessis won a few positive notices, but criticisms similar to some of Cook’s—minus his slash-and-burn belligerence—appeared elsewhere, and in my view the 1977 edition is indeed ineptly organized, repetitive and longer than it needs to be to tell its story well.2 Then there is the prose, “extraordinary” as one reviewer gently put it or, as another said, “so unbelievably awful that it attracts rather than repels.” But this, we know after four books and 30 years of his journalism, is Black’s sui generis style. It has been mocked, parodied and occasionally marvelled over. A liability in the eyes of a number of reviewers in 1977, Black’s baroque locutions seem to be accepted three decades later as a forgivable eccentricity.

Moreover, I can report that even the most rococo flourishes in his two most recent books—biographies of U.S. presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon—are a model of clarity compared to the orotund pronouncements that clog some passages of Duplessis. Black’s language has grown less cumbersome over the years without losing altogether its signature antiquarian flavour. The two later books have also cut back somewhat on what could be called Black’s tone of noblesse dirige, the off-putting hauteur that conveys, often by way of overheated rhetoric, the message that lesser minds ought to genuflect before the author’s superior knowledge and incontestable reasoning.

Nowhere is that superior tone more evident than in Black’s autobiography, A Life in Progress, published in 1993. Although not yet 50 years old, he had by then become a high-profile owner of international media assets. The inside story of this remarkable business achievement deserved to be told. But whether readers needed more than 150 pages documenting Black’s youth and early adulthood is debatable. Did we really need to be informed, for example, about this wealthy young man’s holidays abroad? “I went to Europe for a leisurely restorative and contemplative tour of some of France’s most commodious watering places,” one chapter begins. (Black was in his early thirties at the time.) An account of heavy drinking in the author’s hotel in Biarritz ensues, and the purpose of the anecdote seems to be to tell us that it was in this very hotel that Edward VII installed H.H. Asquith as British prime minister in 1908. Why would anyone clutter a memoir with this sort of rubbish? Two answers, one fact, the other theory. The fact is that Black, as this book amply shows, is an unregenerate serial namedropper. He seizes opportunities, however bizarre, to associate himself and his personal dramas with the notable men of history. My theory, not unrelated, is that Black has probably always seen himself as an exceptional and significant figure, even before he had even the remotest claim to be one.

Thirty years ago, the Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles introduced into common parlance the term “narcissistic entitlement” to characterize the personalities of children of affluent families. Raised with servants to look after their everyday needs, ensconced in fine houses and diverted with expensive possessions and pastimes, many children of wealthy parents are conditioned to believe they are inherently important and deserving. Although I have shaken his hand a couple of times, I do not know Conrad Black personally, so I am speculating here, but what we know of his childhood from his biographers, along with the early sense of self-importance that bursts out of his memoir, as well as his penchant for comparing himself to the great personages of history (such as Frederick the Great, Napoleon and Cicero, all within two adjacent paragraphs in his memoir) strongly suggest that his formation fits quite snugly the wealthy-child paradigm.

That said, it would be unfair to leave the impression that A Life in Progress offers little but self-regarding pomposity. The story takes off in 1976 when Conrad and his brother, Montague, come into their sizable inheritance, which Conrad then shrewdly parlays into control of Argus Corporation, a famously powerful Canadian business conglomerate. Much of Black’s detailed account of his complex corporate machinations over the following decades may be eye-glazing for anyone who was not a shareholder of one of his companies, but he had been the subject of such vicious attacks in the media for the previous 15 years that his desire to tell his side of his business story is understandable. The book offers a useful addition to Canadian business history, written by one of the few Canadian business leaders who know how to craft an elegant sentence.

And craft them Conrad Black now can, most dependably when he is not trying to sound like Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, an impulse that he had sensibly curtailed by the time he wrote Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom.3 The bombastic wordsmith of Duplessis and the too often self-enraptured raconteur of A Life in Progress are supplanted in the 2003 biography by a more plainspoken voice that seldom badgers the reader with the aggravating subtext of “Stop—and regard how clever a phrasemaker I am!” Black’s Roosevelt is well organized, fluently written and authoritative. The amount of material that had to be mastered to tell the story of “the most important man of the twentieth century,” as the author describes Roosevelt, would have defeated many writers. Black ably holds command of this epic narrative for more than a thousand pages, colouring the story with telling detail and offering his own sharp-tongued political judgements along the way. A conservative defence of the Depression-era and wartime president, the book defends him against the longstanding critique of elements on the American left who have accused Roosevelt of moving too slowly and reforming too little. The author also shreds the accusations of far-right commentators who for more than half a century have charged that FDR sabotaged American capitalism with his catastrophic New Deal policies and undermined American national security with his “giveaway” of eastern Europe to Stalin at the end of World War Two. Black gives no quarter to these hard-right anti-Roosevelt dead-enders. He portrays FDR as the saviour of American capitalism, a commander-in-chief who performed brilliantly against long odds in the world war and a realistic negotiator who knew the American people would not support the sacrifice of yet more lives in 1945 to challenge Stalin’s post-war power grab. The Roosevelt book won high praise from some eminent critics in the U.S., including the Columbia University professor Alan Brinkley, a leading expert on American presidents and on the Roosevelt era in particular.4

As with his first two political biographies, Black powers his new The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon with revisionist energy. He attempts to rescue Nixon from the dungeon of disgrace where liberal historians locked that president’s reputation decades ago. This seems a much less spectacular task than Black’s spirited defence of FDR’s policies—the conservative ideologue jumping in to rescue Roosevelt, the bête noire of the Republican far right. Given Black’s known biases, his endeavour to rehabilitate Nixon is hardly surprising. Nor is Black’s revisionist view of Nixon entirely original. Ever since the president’s 1974 resignation over the Watergate scandal, there has been an unbroken thread of conservative opinion maintaining that he was railroaded by congressional Democrats and media zealots and ought not to have been hounded from office. So one might legitimately ask why we should pay any attention to this biography that has no startling new material to add to the record.

The simple answer is that Black’s Nixon is an exceptionally well-crafted one-volume life that brings Nixon’s complex character alive and acknowledges the full range of debate about his flaws and achievements. The book does not supplant Stephen Ambrose’s exhaustive three-volume treatment, but is not so intended. Exasperating though I found some of the author’s opinions, I have to say that Black has produced another engaging, thorough and often entertaining presidential biography. His sense of drama, his felicitous deployment of vast piles of biographical detail, his vividly drawn characters, his knowledge of American political history and his sharp analytical mind will repay anyone who spends time with this gargantuan tome.

To my mind, however, neither Black’s evidence nor his advocacy succeeds in eradicating the worst stain on Nixon’s record, which I take to be his personal involvement in the continuing cover-up of the Watergate scandal. Black does condemn what he views as Nixon’s ethical lapses, but the author also performs intellectual acrobatics in his attempt to leave a sliver of daylight between Nixon’s behaviour and the dark well of illegality that many observers have concluded the president fell into during the Watergate turmoil. Black’s defence is a worthwhile exercise if only to force us to rethink all the clichés that abound about Watergate, but in the end I still saw Nixon floundering down in that criminal well. The heroic role of the media in toppling the president has been massively overvalued, according to Black, and that may be true. To argue, however, as he does, that Nixon “was not a uniquely sleazy president, but was treated as one” seems to me at best an obfuscation. There has never been, as far as we know, another instance of a modern president personally involved in such a long-running chain of White House–orchestrated dirty tricks, high-level political deceptions, disavowals compounded by lies and more than likely obstructions of justice. Black may believe all presidents engage in similar behaviour to the same degree, but his book comes nowhere near proving it. We certainly do know that most modern presidents have deceived the public at one time or another, and that some presidents have engaged in practices for which Nixon alone was widely vilified (such as wiretapping citizens who were under no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, which happened under both of Nixon’s immediate predecessors). But we have no hard evidence of another administration participating in a vast web of sleaze of the sort that ultimately sank Nixon. In that sense, Nixon was unique.

Black’s rehabilitation of Nixon does succeed up to a point, but at several key instances his defence of the president cracks under pressure from the historical record. Particularly irritating examples include the events that led to Watergate, the scandal itself and the attempt to subvert Chilean democracy. On the White House–inspired burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office—an operation intended to obtain information to discredit Ellsberg, the former defence department official who leaked classified Vietnam war documents known as the Pentagon Papers to the press, and on the other activities of the so-called “Plumbers” unit including their forced entry into the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee, Black’s brief for Nixon, although hedged with caveats, remains unpersuasive. It was Nixon who in effect urged that such a sub rosa unit of tough political operatives be set up in the White House, and he was subsequently informed that it had been established and was active. Black does acknowledge that the president “was by this time straining at the leash of ethical judgment, legal prudence, and presidential decorum.” The author, however, reserves his most unforgiving treatment for Nixon’s senior counsellors, who failed to protect the president (from himself!), and for Nixon’s enemies, who would go to almost any lengths to destroy him. Yet even on the evidence Black supplies, it is clear Nixon knowingly involved himself, albeit at an executive level, in these low-life shenanigans. He avoided awareness of the details so as to enjoy what later came to be known as “plausible deniability,” but he was certainly not duped by his advisors. Why should history in any way forgive him for presiding over such an ethical disaster area?

Similarly, the author’s account of American meddling in the Chilean presidential election of 1970 seems to me to lack moral clarity. Black does refer to the State Department’s “squalid attempts to bribe [Chilean] congressmen,” but finds no fault with Nixon’s ordering the head of the CIA to prevent the installation of Salvador Allende as president. (The CIA subsequently assassinated Chilean army chief of staff General René Schneider, who was opposed to the military coup that the United States was encouraging, although ultimately no coup was mounted, and Allende took office.) Black offers a straightforward recital of the facts here without any sermonizing. Yet in other instances in all his books including this one, he thunders his moral denunciation when he encounters a perceived injustice. Why did he not conclude that the 1970 Chilean intervention was unacceptable? Does he believe the Cold War justified the insertion of American power anywhere, even to overturn a democratic election in another country? If so, he should have made his argument (although he almost certainly would not convince readers like me). Later, when commenting on the resurgent Chilean economy that followed the bloody 1973 military ouster of Allende, Black judges Nixon’s posture toward Chile as “broadly successful by all criteria except short-term human rights outrages.” While the U.S. cannot be tagged with direct responsibility for the coup in Chile, it certainly did not oppose it. Dismissing as a mere “short-term outrage” the murder and torture of Allende’s supporters is, in my view, an absurdly benign depiction of this brutish aspect of Nixon’s foreign policy.

To judge Nixon by Watergate or Chile alone, however, is to reduce him to a cartoon and, while he was in fact an object of derision much favoured by cartoonists throughout his career, they perpetuated a distorted one-dimensional view of him. This is clearly the kind of material that excites Black’s writerly passions: the misunderstood political leader whose intelligent conservatism has been unfairly maligned. As with Duplessis and the Liberal establishment in Canada, so with Roosevelt and the intelligentsia of the Republican hard right, and so too with Nixon and the American left—the author’s goal is to smash the critics, demolish their unjust charges and credit his biographical subjects with their inadequately recognized achievements.

It must be said, however, that Black is no blind partisan in his treatment of Nixon, and at many points in this chronicle he registers sharp disapproval of Nixon’s dubious judgement and conduct. The book paints a fully rounded portrait of this brilliant, neurotic politician who so often came across as unprepossessing, awkward and ordinary. Readers who know Black’s writing only from his journalism miss one of his strongest talents, his remarkable ability to depict character through both biographical incident and his own acute psychological observations. This feature makes both his presidential biographies a pleasure to read. Indeed, I would give a slight edge in this regard to the Nixon book. An enormously complicated man, principled yet chronically devious, courageous yet woefully insecure, Nixon presents a package of contradictions not easy for any biographer. Black’s treatment vividly resurrects the man and achieves what every biographer strives for: a fascinating and, at least intermittently, sympathetic portrait.

I am not charged here with a full review of the Nixon biography, and a book of this length dealing with such a controversial subject deserves its own full discussion. But I would be remiss if I did not touch on the governing theme of the book, which is Nixon’s unshakable determination, against what were often very substantial impediments, to fulfil his political ambitions, not only to complete his personal destiny but also to advance his beliefs. Nixon’s detractors have portrayed him as a sharp-eyed weasel who believed in little other than his own political upward mobility. Much of the American Old Left never forgave him for his relentless anti-communism and in particular for what they regarded as his cruel and unjustified pursuit of Alger Hiss. The New Left especially despised him for his continuation of the Vietnam war. But as other biographers have demonstrated, Nixon’s early anti-communism—in the 1940s and ’50s—was unexceptional in the sense that it reflected the broad American political consensus of the day. From this evolved the more geopolitically sophisticated Cold Warrior that Nixon became: the president who encouraged detente with the USSR and began reconciliation with China. Black’s narrative adeptly recreates Nixon’s childhood family, their struggle to maintain a small business and the young boy’s heavy load, putting in hours for his parents while keeping up his school grades. Taken as a product of his own hardscrabble youth, of his family’s belief in self-reliance and of mainstream America’s dedication to the creed of individualism, Nixon’s lifelong anti-communism seems natural and deeply sincere. One may fault his tactics in pursuing this ideology, as Black himself does in several instances, but the biography leaves no doubt as to Nixon’s intelligence and authenticity on what was always for him a key animating issue. The invisible arc of Black’s book, however, left undrawn by the author yet pulsing through the pages nonetheless, is the story of a bright, morally unsullied young man who over his adult years became corrupted by the multitude of political corners he felt obliged to cut in his repeated pursuit of electoral office. Black presents Nixon as an indomitable survivor who ultimately prevails against his lifelong enemies in his final years by establishing himself, at least in the eyes of some, as a respected elder statesman. Yes, indomitable in his own way, but for this reader Nixon remains a tragic figure, a prodigiously talented and fiercely determined individual undone by his own ethical slippage.

It will be interesting to see what sort of reception American reviewers give the Nixon biography. (As I write, in mid November 2007, the book has just been released by its U.S. publisher.) Will they be asking themselves how seriously to take a book about a president accused of obstruction of justice written by an author similarly accused—and then convicted? Will they question whether a historian tainted with the label “fraudster” (as the Daily Telegraph identified Black in its coverage of his trial this past summer) can be trusted as a reliable purveyor of fact and sound judge of character? My own view is that works of history should be judged on their own qualities, which are evident in the works themselves. However delinquent or dishonest Black may have been in his corporate activities, his transgressions as a CEO do not vaporize his worth as an author. If we banished writers for sins committed off the page, our reading lists would be slim indeed.

Black was recently asked whether he saw parallels between his own life and Nixon’s. At the time, the biographer was awaiting sentencing and planning an appeal. Of course he denied there were similarities. But parallels will leap to the mind of anyone familiar with the two men’s lives. Both emerged as young public figures battling what they saw as the excesses, hypocrisies and deceptions of the left. Both have been the subjects of sustained attack by the liberal intellectual establishments of their countries. And the careers of both were severely disabled by charges of ethical and legal lapses when each was at the height of his power in his early sixties. There the similarities end. Liberated from the threat of prison by a presidential pardon, Nixon used his considerable pre-Watergate achievements along with his writings and his still accessible network of international notables to rebuild his standing. Black, should he lose his appeal, will have only his pen and his prison togs. Judging by the high quality of his two most recent books, however, the flow from that pen could well refloat what looks at this moment to be a badly listing if not totally sunken reputation.

  1. It is Black, for example, who contributes the articles on Duplessis to the Canadian Encyclopedia, both the online and the paper editions  

  2. A revised and abridged edition of Duplessis was issued as Render Unto Caesar in 1998.  

  3. Some of Black’s favourite verbal condiments, such as the words “rodomontade” and “condign,” appear in Johnson’s 1755 compendium.  

  4. Alan Brinkley’s review in the New York Times (“Books of the Times: Getting Roosevelt into One Volume, A Trick in Itself,” November 26, 2003) judged Black’s work “one of the best one-volume biographies of Roosevelt yet.”