Basic Black

On the publication of  his latest memoir, A Matter of Principle, Conrad Black is interested in setting the record straight, He speaks with Leanne Delap


LEANNE DELAP: I’d like to start with a quote that jumped out from the book. Here you are describing how you felt just before you went in to prison. “To the chroniclers, I had had a crushing reversal. I had. It was all that and more. Having hoped so much and proclaimed so forthrightly that I would be vindicated, I had lost more than I ever could have imagined. That’s what also made it a huge challenge and opportunity to rise above what I was about to face -” Is that the main message you want to leave readers with?

CONRAD BLACK: That’s an earlier stage. I did recover considerably from there. But it’s part of the message I’d like to leave. The message there is you just don’t give up. If you’ve got a cause that is actually right, i.e., I was not guilty of any illegalities although I may have been guilty of misjudgments or flippant quirks of personality at times but not the sort of thing that is, in a civilized place, responded to in the way that I had had to face. Then you just fight on, so I’d always give that message. Giving up is never the answer.

LD: You also say, “There is also a drama in notoriety that is sanitized, even made wholesome, by being guiltless in fact.” 

CB: Yes, that was more a comment on what your different responses are considering what the actual record is. We all do things that we regret. I think most people in certain circumstances probably could be tilted into something that might even be accidentally illegal.

My views, in those circumstances, had I done that, I wouldn’t have wasted everyone’s time with a strenuous defence. I would have pleaded guilty and asked, as I think I wrote in the book and as I said in court on June 24, I would have asked to be enabled to expiate my guilt and shame and still reintegrate into society.

I do believe in the confession of wrongdoing and the punishment of crimes. I’m not a person who is in favour of such things simply being overlooked or dismissed as the result of eating too many Twinkies when they were  children.

LD: The title A Matter of Principle is a way to make it very clear to potential buyers of the book and potential readers why you’re writing this. Was that always the title?

CB: No, I actually started out with the title Naked With My Friends but then was convinced that would be too easy to ridicule and it would look like a drinks party that got out of hand around the pool.

LD: Can’t we see the Rick Mercer sketch already?

CB: Yes, a pretty humorous one at that! And then Fight of My Life came up, but I thought that was a bit of a cliché in the end. I’m not saying A Matter of Principle is a gripping title that would get an uncountable amount of people storming and jostling each other down to the bookstores, but I think it has a sort of dignity and point to it that isn’t flamboyant but has adequate gravitas. I hope so anyway.

LD: You write about your feelings. Was that difficult for you?

CB: The prison stuff was. I’d never been in a prison aside from a couple times when I’d gone as part of a bonded prisoner program to engage someone where the government would bond their behaviour and we’d hire them. That was just being in the visitors’ part, but I’d never really been inside. So it was quite different, and I thought it was quite interesting. It’s something that isn’t often really described very well and, if it is, not in books that are in places that are terribly accessible to the general public. I’m not suggesting America tries to hide what goes on in prisons. I just think society has largely put the subject out of their minds. The curious can find something about it, but it isn’t the sort of thing that the average reasonably informed American citizen would see much of.

LD: You say you very quickly became immersed in the “parlance, mores and folkways of the carceral state” and there’s some great characters that you introduce us to. Some absurdist moments, such as when you are taking piano lessons from the French-Canadian film financier and self-cleaning toilet telemarketing fraudster. You describe doing impressions together, in funny voices, of Duplessis and Cardinal Léger.

CB: Yes, and what’s the more he looked like Rocket Richard back in Quebec 50 years ago.

LD: You were also meeting the kind of guys who had been so damaged by drugs that they would talk about nothing but Simpsons episodes.

CB: Yes, there was one in particular. He had his ears pierced but with sort of wide apertures so he could put padlocks in them. He had a goatee like Ho Chi Minh. The whole effect was quite startling.

LD: You seem to have genuinely found a lot of these people very interesting.

CB: I find most people interesting. Everybody is interesting up to a point, but these ones were quite exotic.

LD: You write that you felt some people wanted you to clean the toilets with your tongue but, in fact, the experience was “bearable” was the word you used, “survivable.”

CB: The people who wanted that weren’t at the institution. They were my critics in the media in Canada. There’s a tremendous amount of assumed knowledge about how the U.S. custodial system is organized that is, in fact, in detailed terms rarely really possessed by the Canadian who comments on it vocally. There are some very rough places, but federal low-security prisons are not places where there’s any significant amount of violence or severe mistreatment of people.

LD: On a more serious note you write that your faith was not shaken by this experience, but that within the institution the system and practices of faith became a series of micro-culture to watch.

CB: My religious faith [Catholicism] wasn’t shaken at all. It was quite well observed there. We had a Nigerian priest who was a little hard to understand sometimes, but he was a man of great moral authority. He used to pour fire and brimstone down on the evils of the regime, which was very refreshing for all of us. As he would open each service by saying, “For the next half hour, you are in no one’s bondage,” which was quite good. Then we had a Vietnamese who had a slightly different approach. He was very articulate, spoke very quickly but was equally a man of independent moral authority. Some of the others, the chaplains of other faiths and so on would tend to sort of blend in with the cops. They’d stop people coming from the dining hall to see if they’d taken pieces of bread or something, which I think is quite inappropriate for someone in that line of work. One Catholic priest, when asked to do that, said, “I don’t work for the Bureau of Prisons. I work for the Pope!”

LD: Your whole family was very supportive, and you write very gratefully about the number of friends that stood by you.

CB: And I was sincere in that. Some people came from Australia and Israel, Italy as well as Britain and far parts of the U.S. and Canada to see me. It was very touching. Because of the way that the time that the visits occur and how they’re spread out, it happened that I was regularly seeing people that I literally hadn’t seen for years. It’s devoting the time you have with each other to the most productive and interesting conversations. Whether it’s recollections of things or contemplations of things that you hope to do or perceptions of various things. That sort of pressure tends – and I don’t want to be dogmatic about this because I haven’t formulated it out too carefully – but it tends to make both visitor and resident want to make the most in content terms of the time they have together. Because it is finite. If you’re living next door to a neighbour, you can talk any time, but if you’re in prison and some guy comes from Australia to see you, you can’t talk to them any time. You can exchange emails but you can’t do more than that.

LD: That’s sort of the inspirational quality that comes from this work. You wrote the trial note as you were undergoing it and then you have a recollection “nostalgia was the constant companion of my thoughts and melancholia was never far off.” Do you still feel that way?

CB: No, it’s eased off quite a bit. That was written, I think, just before the trial when I would be wandering around our house in Toronto or Florida, and they’re sizable houses, but they’re crowded with objects that would remind me of various things. There was a slightly queen-y museum quality about them because they invited the unspoken question of whether these places were ever coming back to life again, you know? What stage was I at? Was I in a sort of dormant phase but would emerge from it like a caterpillar in the spring or was I just in an inexorable descent? The loneliness and melancholy came together. But it was a difficult time. If you ask me now, we clearly are at the end of it. All the accounts have been eliminated by being abandoned, acquitted or vacated by the Supreme Court and the reinstatement of two of them was a self-interested act by a psychotic judge who had to grab some sort of a fig leaf to pretend that these charges ever should have been taken in the first place. No one who looked seriously at this could imagine that anyone in this case did anything, other than my ex-associate, Mr. Radler. Given the correlation of forces between the U.S. government and myself, I think I’ve done quite well and proved my point and I think – feel free to contradict me if you’re of a mind to – but I think any fair-minded person reading this book would get a pretty clear idea that it was never a fair or reasonable enterprise to accuse me of crimes in the first place since I didn’t commit any.

LD: There’s an ocean of ink that’s been spilled around the trial. Was this your opportunity to go at it piece by piece carefully, all in one place?

CB: Yes, that was the chief purpose of it. I was also bringing my last book up to date, but obviously the large part of it was this. It has been a huge controversy, and I was terribly defamed at times and that’s why I went to the lengths I did to put the facts out there. I was fairly emphatic of what I thought of certain individuals. I put the facts clearly and I certainly was not above criticizing myself in certain areas but not to the point of breaking the law. That I would steal money from my own company is just insane. The chance of that happening in a million years is less than zero.

LD: Would you say that you are mellowing now in your mid-60s?

CB: I mean probably in the sense of being less prone to being stirred to a state of serious annoyance about something from time to time once I get to that state. I wouldn’t say I was much mellower. I’d say I was a battle-scarred veteran who knows the ropes better.

LD: You refer to the last leg of this as a victory lap?

CB: Oh, that’s a joke.

LD: It’s a fun joke. And it certainly seems to show the state of mind you’re in right now.

CB: It’s a nuisance, and it’s the last thing in the world I would want to do and it’s outrageous. It’s only there to create the pretence that this immense prosecution, which started out going for life in prison and the seizure of $140 million and accused me of every offence short of complicity in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, that there was something to it when, in fact, there isn’t, of course. There never was. So I have to go back to this place for seven and a half months. The physical separation from Barbara is appalling. The rest of it you can more or less make up by email, telephone, visits. It’s not that long. The thing to do is turn it into a reading, writing, muscle-toning and weight-losing operation and just come out of it, hit the ground running and just drive on.