It was big news recently when jailed newspaper baron Conrad Black won the rare right to appeal his fraud convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bigger news still that he will likely request to be let out on bail during the appeal process. But the biggest news of all? Our own conflicted feelings: What if he's granted bail? What if he actually wins?
Yikes! I mean, now that's awkward. How do you spell schadenfreude backward? Actually it's eduerfnedahcs but that's too unpronounceable a word to describe the delicate process of taking back the gloating barrage of insults and smug glee many people exhibited when the larger-than-life media tycoon and British Lord was sent to a Florida slammer for 61/2 years for fraud and obstruction of justice.
Most people assumed Lord Black, who went to jail in March, 2008, would be safely tucked away for some time, and that calling him a convicted felon and disgraced media baron - over and over again - was not only fun but his just desserts.
Now he may walk among us sooner than we thought, promoting his newly written memoir, or even, if our borders are as porous as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano seems to think they are, sitting next to us in a Toronto restaurant over dinner. What then?
"Conrad! Welcome back! Great to see you! You look pretty good for a guy who's only been in the exercise yard for an hour a day … and I'm so glad you've been able to keep publishing those pithy political opinions despite being ensconced in an 'office' not of your own choosing … waiter! Cheque please. Gotta run. …"
This won't be me, of course. For one thing, I can't afford to dine out much these days, especially in the places that the Lord might frequent. But even if I could, I wouldn't be the least bit nervous running into the man I gently, but I think rather warmly, mocked in a handful of opinion pieces. My light-hearted musings on Lord Black have always, I think, contained a certain underlying solidarity with his troubles, that however subtle, I'm sure he picked up on, or hopefully didn't even read.
Of course, Lord Black has always vehemently maintained his innocence of any of the charges against him, including the three for fraud he's now appealing and one for obstruction of justice, in which, you will remember, he was famously observed by a surveillance camera cleaning out his Toronto office even though he had been ordered by the courts not to.
In the bad old Disgraced and Locked Up Media Baron days, we used to label that defiance part of his self-delusional "I can do what I want" flawed character, but now we can see it from a slightly different perspective: Throughout his long ordeal, Lord Black has remained tenaciously committed to the idea that it was everyone else's fault but his and that he has been unfairly prosecuted and convicted. In this light he becomes a heroic figure, rather like those toy soldiers he loves to play with, who moved into battle this way and that, and who has, for the first time in a long time, ended up in a good place on the battlefield.
Uncharacteristically, the Lord has been fairly subdued since the Supreme Court news came down. No gloating. Which makes me think, in this continuing love-hate or hate-hate relationship we have with Conrad Black (whether we admit it or not), we've moved into a new and thrillingly unpredictable phase. What will we think of him next?
Oh, I know there will be those who say: What? Abandon all principle and publicly forgive the guy just in case the U.S. Supreme Court discovers wriggle room in his case? Forget it! He's exactly what we said he was, right from the get-go.
But I say, a little less schadenfreude is in order here. Conrad Black is unique in his combination of talents and, yes, flaws, and his story has of course unfolded on a grand scale, but I think we've all socially experienced a version of this dilemma: Someone we know or work with makes an absolute mess of things, or suffers a major downfall, and we never expect that they will claw their way back. And so we act accordingly. But then they do claw their way back. It's why the phrase "what goes around comes around" is so popular.
The truth is, you never know what's going to happen next. Even in the case of Conrad Black. Give the man his due. What's wrong with calling him "the once disgraced media baron"? That has an appealing ring, don't you think?