Conrad Black's Fall
(The Nation, January 2, 2006)
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The myths about Conrad Black, Nicholas Coleridge noted in Paper Tigers, his wry survey of two dozen international newspaper tycoons, "all concern money and power: a family friend remembers blinking in disbelief as he watched, through the summer haze, an eight-year-old Conrad carefully washing dollar bills and hanging them out on a line to dry." Five decades later, Black's quest for money and power has brought him to the brink of ruin: According to a recent indictment prepared by Patrick Fitzgerald, the US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois (and the man who indicted Lewis Libby), Black and several associates stole $52 million from Hollinger International, the publicly traded newspaper corporation Black controlled. The eleven-count indictment further alleges that Black abused corporate perks by billing Hollinger shareholders for a variety of lavish personal expenditures: a vacation in French Polynesia, renovations on a pricey Park Avenue apartment and a $62,000 birthday celebration for his wife, Barbara Amiel, at La Grenouille in New York City (where the wine and champagne bill came to $13,935). If found guilty, Black could face forty years in prison.
Black's current difficulties sprouted in late 2003, when he faced a shareholder revolt at Hollinger: A special committee of the board charged Black and several cronies with the illegal use of $32 million in company funds. In early 2004 Hollinger removed Black from the chairmanship and sued him and others for plundering the corporation. A beleaguered Black found himself at odds with his handpicked board of directors, which included Henry Kissinger, Richard Perle and former Illinois Governor James Thompson. On January 20, 2004, the board met by teleconference to ratify Black's removal and to approve the shareholders' lawsuit. Kissinger, who had known Black for two decades, could no longer remain neutral and voted yes to green-light the lawsuit against his friend. Richard Siklos recounts the episode in his fine biography Shades of Black: "'Henry, did you just vote against me?' 'Yes,' Kissinger repeated into the phone. 'Et tu, Brute,' replied Black." (After considerable pressure from shareholders and management, six members of the board--including Kissinger, Perle and Thompson--decided not to stand for re-election in January.)
An imperial air of conquest and intrigue has long been a vital element of Black's life. As a teenager, he devoured W.A. Swanberg's biography of William Randolph Hearst, Citizen Hearst. Later he was expelled from prep school for selling copies of final exams. In the late 1960s Black began to acquire obscure newspapers in the Canadian provinces. By the time he was 50, he was the proprietor of one of the world's largest newspaper companies, which he used as a springboard for social climbing on a grand scale: In 2001 Black was inducted into the British House of Lords, and obtained the title of Lord Black of Crossharbour. Black's properties included the Jerusalem Post (which he pushed to the right by switching the paper's support from Labor to Likud), the National Post of Toronto (which he used as a battering ram against the Canadian healthcare system), the Chicago Sun-Times and several prestigious media properties in London, including the Daily Telegraph and Spectator magazine. Hollinger provided a $200,000 annual subsidy to the influential right-of-center quarterly The National Interest, and the company also invested in the New York Sun, a scrappy conservative daily. (Hollinger has since sold the Jerusalem Post, the National Post and the Daily Telegraph.)
By and large American newspaper publishers prefer the shadows to the light, and when they do emerge they hardly raise whirlwinds. (Consider Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s dismal November 10 appearance on Charlie Rose, when he evaded questions about recent convulsions at the New York Times.) Black exhaled fire: Siklos likened Black's rhetorical invective to "verbal napalm." Here is Black on media baron Robert Maxwell: "An endomorphic, shameless gadfly, poseur, fugitive and confidence trickster...one of history's greatest swindlers, a crook of Dickensian and Zolaesque proportions." On Quebec separatist René Lévesque: a "repulsive little gnome...greasy, twitchy and specious." On journalists: "My experience with journalists authorizes me to record that a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised."
Black's self-image transcended that of raconteur: He fancied himself a serious intellectual, especially in matters of history, politics and diplomacy, and produced weighty tomes for the literary marketplace. In 2003 PublicAffairs published Black's 1,300-page biography, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, which received some glowing reviews in the United States: The Journal of American History proclaimed it "the liveliest and most comprehensive popular biography of Roosevelt to date." (Booklist was less enthusiastic, deeming the work "frequently ponderous.") Even Black's powerful friends seemed to grow weary of his verbosity: After listening to a long recitation by Black on the armaments and tonnage of all the battleships in World War II, Margaret Thatcher reportedly declared, "I know, Conrad."
Throughout his long career, Black relished his connections with the mighty and powerful. In addition to his friendships with Kissinger, Perle and Thatcher, Black cavorted with the likes of Ronald Reagan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Condoleezza Rice, William F. Buckley Jr., David Brinkley, George Will (who reportedly received $25,000 for a single day's toil for the Hollinger board) and Tom Wolfe. It was Wolfe who, in 2000, drafted a letter of recommendation supporting Black's quest for membership in Manhattan's exclusive Century Club. "Ladies and gentlemen," Wolfe wrote, "Conrad Black has done more for the lively, provocative, and sane discussion of the important social, political, and intellectual issues of our time than any newspaper publisher of the past decade. He is also a delightful, charming, congenial gentleman. He is not merely a good candidate for the Century--we need him." Reading Patrick Fitzgerald's exhaustive sixty-page indictment, one gets the feeling that Conrad Black's final destination will not be an armchair in the Century Club but a bunk in a prison cell.