I last talked to Conrad Black (aka federal prisoner 18330-424, also “Lord Black of Crossharbour”) six years ago, a year after he had been indicted on charges of mail and wire fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. I was writing a book about Bill Clinton’s post presidency. Black—born and reared in Canada—had had a few interesting encounters with the former president, and Clinton had blurbed Black’s biography of FDR (Black also wrote a bio of Richard Nixon). A Matter of Principle—the fifth book and second memoir of the historian and former publisher—describes his nightmarish clash with the American justice system. In layman’s terms, Black was accused of looting from the complicated corporate structure that owned the Chicago Sun-Times, among other papers. (In his heyday Black’s papers included Canada’s National Post, which he founded, London’s Daily Telegraph, the Jerusalem Post, the Sydney Morning Herald, as well as hundreds of small papers in Canada and the U.S.)
Released from prison earlier this year after serving, non-consecutively, three years and two weeks, the 68-year-old Black is back in Canada living on a temporary resident permit. He spoke to me by telephone from Toronto. His feelings about Chicago seem raw and angry—he is barred from entering the U.S. until his legal issues are resolved—and he has harsh words for, among many others, his “persecutor,” former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, “a notorious headline-seeking zealot,” and for F. David Radler, Black’s former business partner, former Sun-Times publisher, fellow indictee-turned-government-star-witness—“almost a caricature of a penny-pinching businessman” who is “endless[ly] grubbing for money.” (Radler is remembered by journalists here as the bean counter who flipped the off switch on the escalators in the old Sun-Times building to save money on electricity.) Black also speaks harshly of Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner—“a babbling lunatic” and “a rubber stamp for the prosecution”—whose resurrection of two counts sent Black back to prison to serve out an additional seven months. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
CF: Will you be returning anytime soon to Chicago?
CB: At the moment I’m persona non grata, and Chicago is patria non grata. I just found the whole experience of U.S. justice so profoundly upsetting.
CF: So you’re not a fan of Patrick Fitzgerald, a man who is thought so highly of here in Chicago, and often mentioned as President Obama’s next FBI head.
CB: If that were to happen, no one in America would be safe; they could knock at your door at four in the morning. Fitzgerald’s like a Nazi choirboy, so full of Catholic fervor, tolerates no imperfections. Grossly excessive.
CF: Your trial in Chicago lasted four months. Looking back what did you think of the jury?
CB: As you would expect in any random group of 12 people in a large city, there was a great variety. You don’t get on a jury like that giving up high-income jobs to attend a four-month trial. What you get are relatively low-income, or underoccupied or unemployed people…. Most of them, like most people, are decent people. But it was a complicated commercial trial and none had any background. About half were attentive, interested, doing their best. Two or three of them slept much of the time, didn’t understand much of went on.
CF: You served time in two different prisons in Florida, and while there, you were writing for the National Review and the Huffington Post. How did you keep up with the news enough to offer your opinions?
CB: I had newspapers delivered to me in prison just as I did when we had our home in Palm Beach. I read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, actually a pile of other papers as well. I worked as a prison tutor and I would give assignments and I had time to read while they completed the assignments. And then I had a chain of people who got the papers after I was finished. Some were inmates, some of them determined to make a tremendous turn, to go out more qualified than when they came in. Occasionally [the papers] went to correctional officers. When everyone who wanted them were done with them, they went to the arts and crafts room where they were used to make paper mache.
CF: Were you able to concentrate on reading, not to mention writing?
CB: Yes, but the first thing you notice when you leave prison is the quiet; in prison the noise never stops.
CF: Where do you and your wife expect to live? You have been a member of the British House of Lords since 2001; will your conviction affect your returning there?
CB: Between Toronto and London, and yes, I will resume sitting in the House of Lords anytime I wish to. And I expect I’ll be received cordially.
CF: Will you write another presidential biography?
CB: If I did it would be of Ronald Reagan or Woodrow Wilson.
CF: Would you be interested in writing about Barack Obama?
CB: No. I don’t think he’s an interesting president, and I don’t think he’s been a good president. I’m in the final edit of a strategic history of the United States. American history, as far I can see, has never been analyzed in that way. Henry Kissinger is writing the Foreword.
CF: Well, Obama managed to get reelected. How did he manage that?
CB: He couldn’t run on his terrible record so he ran on the idea that the Republicans were waging a war on women, and on issues such as abortion, immigration, gay rights, all legitimate issues but not particularly relevant to reelection. A strong opponent would have done to Obama what Roosevelt did to Hoover or Reagan to Mondale or Nixon to McGovern. I would have voted for Romney could I vote in the U.S., but he wasn’t a strong leader; he was a consultant, a manager. The best and most qualified Republicans such as Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Haley Barbour didn’t run; instead you had unsuitable people like Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann—all fine people, I know some of them, but not presidential.
Photograph: June Black