July 28, 2017
he books written by Conrad Black, one of world’s great men of letters, range from biographies of former presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon to Canadian histories. He is also the former publisher of Canada’s National Post, the U.S.’s Chicago Sun-Times, the UK’s Daily Telegraph and Israel’s Jerusalem Post.
Black has also had his share of struggles. In his high-profile, 2004 U.S. court case, Black was accused of taking and spending roughly $80 million. He lost Hollinger International, his once-mighty newspaper empire, and, while the Lord of Crossharbour remains part of the UK’s House of Lords, he’s on a long-term leave of absence. Initially sentenced to six-and-a-half years in 2007 after being convicted on three fraud counts and one count of obstruction of justice, Black was re-sentenced in 2011 to one count each of mail fraud and obstruction of justice after several counts were later overturned on appeal. He ultimately served 37 months in an American prison.
Personal matters notwithstanding, witnessing Black’s keen observational sense and analytical mind is a pleasure—and he remains as sharp as ever. His new book, Backward Glances: People and Events from Inside and Out, is a collection of some of his finest writing over several decades.
The volume’s sections include North America, Europe, book reviews, and personal topics. While his weekly National Post column forms the bulk, the volume contains selections from National Review, the New Criterion, American Spectator and National Interest. There are even a few hidden gems, including an unpublished book chapter.
International readers will likely find his focus on Canada confusing. If you’ve never lived in Canada, some observations and details will elicit uncomprehending stares. But if you’re willing to dig a little deeper into the country’s surprisingly rich history and vast political landscape, Black can serve as a superb guide.
Canadians are “a collection of people who weren’t Americans,” he wrote in 1995. Yet this nation, which has been “by most criteria...very successful,” regularly suffered from a “self-conscious aura of the secondary and the derivative and a spirit of envy and insecurity, especially vis-à-vis the United States.” At the same time, “Canada became and remains the only transcontinental, officially bicultural, parliamentary confederation in the history of the world,” he noted in 2015, and has grown into a respected entity across the world.
Black looks at the issues that have shaped Canada’s history and culture, from the Airbus scandal that rocked the nation’s judicial system, to its complex relationship with the Native Canadian community. Prisons come into play (for obvious reasons), and he argued in one column that the “whole concept of prison should be terminated” because it’s “an antiquarian and absurd treatment of non-violent lawbreakers.”
The talented author, writer, and thinker certainly doesn’t mince words when it comes to Canadian prime ministers, either. He admitted to having his “ups and downs” with Brian Mulroney, the Conservative prime minister from 1984 to 1993, but praised him for deciding to be “taken seriously” by presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, allowing Canada to remain influential in world affairs. Black describes Jean Chretien, the Liberal who held office from 1993 to 2003, as a “pretty good caretaker,” but not so good as to justify his “patting himself on the head as a world statesman.” As for Stephen Harper, the Conservative who was prime minister from 2006 to 2015, Black compares him to Disraeli, Churchill, Thatcher, de Gaulle, Theodore Roosevelt, and Reagan for grasping that “a successful Conservative Party has to be the intelligent nationalist party.” Nevertheless, he described Harper in his final weeks in office as “competent and diligent” but felt it was “time to see him off” because Canada “really cannot have another four years of government by a sadistic Victorian schoolmaster.” Ouch!
When it comes to the U.S., the book contains an entertaining mix of history, politics, personalities, and reflections on the criminal justice system. While Black can be critical of his neighbor to the south, his respect and admiration is also crystal clear. “The rise of the United States from scattered colonies with a population smaller than that of today’s metropolitan Montreal to be, in one long lifetime, one of the greatest powers on earth, and in one long lifetime after that to half the world’s economic product, overwhelming military power including a nuclear monopoly, and immense popular cultural and moral influence, is a rise unexampled in the history of the nation state.”
The collection’s oldest piece is a lengthy homage to Lyndon Johnson from a 1969 issue of the Sherbrooke Record. (Black was the publisher of this Quebec-based newspaper, his first acquisition.) He described Johnson as a “liberal and international maverick,” and among “the most effective, ingenious, and picturesque figures in the history of the United States Senate.” Further, upon John Kennedy’s assassination, “never has a president been sworn in who was better qualified by experience, and never in more tragic circumstances.” From civil rights to the Great Society, Black noted that LBJ, with his successes and failures, was still the president “who routed the extreme right in 1964” and “helped to save the country from the extreme left in 1968.”
Richard Nixon figures prominently. In a 2009 National Review piece, his ethics are described as “no more unprecedentedly deficient than his presidency aspired in any way to be imperial.” Black writes that Nixon was “a master chess player” in politics, and an “impeccably honest financially as well as an unwavering patriot” who had “some infelicitous foibles that were worrisome, but ... were grotesquely exaggerated by the media.”
No collection on the modern U.S. could be complete without assessing Reagan. In 2011 Black wrote that, “though he was a great president and had remarkable human qualities, [Reagan] was a much more typical American man than Lincoln.” Meanwhile, a review of Edmund Morris’s Dutch (1999) called the book a “huge disappointment” because the author “lurches back and forth like a metronome between acknowledging manifestations of Reagan’s greatness and admitting his own inability to explain them.”
General observations about the U.S. range from fascinating to frustrating in Backward Glances, depending on your perspective. He disagrees with Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru’s “stimulating” National Review essay about American exceptionalism, written in 2010, claiming that they “exaggerate the pristine idealism of the founders...and the current state of the effervescence of its democracy.” Black has also argued that liberalism “saved America and led it to its greatest days under Roosevelt and Truman,” but also noted that it “ceased to be perceived as helping the deserving” by the 1960s, instead “taking money from those who had earned it and giving it to those who hadn’t in exchange for their votes.”
Ranging beyond North America, Black commends the British monarchy as “a valuable link in an international organization that would be largely united by the English language, the common law, democratic traditions, and much history.” He praises Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress, noting that his “eloquent and at times rather affecting words...rang much more believably as an assertion of the pre-emptive-strike option than does the desultory auto-cue comment from Washington that if agreement is not reached, ‘all options are on the table.’” Black correctly points out that while “the tremendous outpouring of admiration that has followed [Nelson Mandela’s] death is certainly merited...the great esteem in which he is held obscures and transcends some matters of legitimate controversy.” There are also personal essays on converting to Catholicism, as well as his impending stay and ultimate release from prison.
The development of Black’s analysis and thought process in some areas, and modification or complete reversal in others, can be found throughout this engaging collection. Readers will surely agree and disagree with his opinions, but they’ll also gain a greater appreciation for a man who always looks at the world with intelligence, wit, and candor.