For someone who vowed to keep a low profile now that he is back in Canada, Conrad Black has been extremely visible.
Although he is still dealing with the messy legal aftermath of the crash of his newspaper empire, he is a popular fixture on Toronto's social circuit, continues to write a weekly newspaper column and is active in various business ventures ("only non-public companies," he stresses). He is also set to launch a weekly talk show on Vision TV this summer (his old friend Moses Znaimer talked him into it, he says).
What Mr. Black most likes to talk about, though, is serious history.
A close student of grand strategists and strategy (his 2003 biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was widely praised), he is about to release a new book next week: Flight of the Eagle, he says, is meant to correct a common misconception that the United States stumbled into greatness; instead, America's destiny was shaped in large part by a series of exceptional leaders.
You write about America. And you've often held it up as a country that Canada ought to emulate.
I used to.
Yes, that seems to have changed quite dramatically. You describe the U.S. now, not without affection, as vulgar, banal, slovenly and complacent.
There are those aspects to it, yes.
I certainly don't take any pleasure in what I would say is the comparative decline of the U.S. – or at least the trajectory of that country – but it does have an advantage for Canadians. I detest the spirit of envy and I never gloat over anyone's difficulties (although I cannot say that I've always myself been received in that manner), but Canadians should at least now be cured of the subconscious feeling that we are, in fact, inferior to Americans.
It hasn't always been so – I think [Ronald] Reagan ran a better administration than [Pierre] Trudeau did – but this is a better-governed country than the U.S. now and it has been for some time.
Your book seems to suggest the high-water mark for the U.S. – for American power and prestige in the world – was 1989.
In fairness, its vocation for greatness had been realized before. The U.S. dealt with a succession of challenges very effectively: the prevention of a German victory in the First World War, the containment strategy against the Soviet Union, even Vietnam – and I don't make light of it, that war was a serious mistake – led to a complete victory. But then it wasn't clear what the goal was, so George Bush Sr. talked about a new order in the world. But what did it mean? It's like "a thousand points of light." You could never say what it actually meant. I guess countries, like people, respond better to a challenge than they do when there isn't one.
America has also undermined itself in terrible ways.
Ah, but that, in a way, is the development of the challenge – the challenge within. There are lots of things inside the U.S. that are now a real challenge to that society: The education system isn't competitive, the whole wealth distribution/welfare system, broadly stated, is responsible for wasting staggering and horrifying quantities of human resources. The justice system is simply an outrage. The problem of corruption in government and in public life generally, the excesses of the pecuniary society…
So what happened to American leadership after the people you mention in your book – the Madisons and the Washingtons?
This is a terribly serious question. You're younger than I am, but you remember that horrible year of 1968 when there were assassinations and riots everywhere, 550,000 draftees in Vietnam, undeclared war, no one knew what they were doing and 200 to 400 young men were coming back dead every week. But at one time or another Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller were all running for president – and they were all qualified to be president, they were all very substantial people. In this last election, the best Republicans didn't run. [Barack] Obama was a vulnerable candidate…
He should have lost.
He was actually not a bad president. He wasn't a good political leader, but he wasn't a bad president. Still, he didn't lose. The strongest candidates didn't run. At the time, I remember writing that this was a very worrisome signal of how things were; normally it's such a great office and Americans are such a patriotic people and you're automatically going to be a famous person in history if you're the president. And yet the candidates who could have won didn't run.
You said something pretty controversial about President Obama. You said the main reason he was elected in 2008 was "white guilt."
That was the campaign he ran. I didn't say it critically of him, I thought it was a genius campaign.
It wasn't explicit, but not subliminal either. The message was: You Americans – non-black Americans or white Americans – the great majority of you are decent, fair-minded people and you are naturally troubled by the aspect of our country's history that consists of, in Mr. Lincoln's phrase, "the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited toil," followed by 100 years of segregation. Now you can be rid of that. As an added bonus, you will never have to listen to charlatans like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton again. The African-American community will have a respectable leader that doesn't grate on your nerves when you hear him speak – and all you have to do is vote for me.
Now, he never quite said that, but if you had interviewed the average white Obama voter and said, "Do you feel that this would be the consequence of voting for him?" they all would have said yes.
So vote for me and you can feel good about yourself…
I'd put it more respectfully than that: Vote for me and we can turn the page on that terribly difficult time. And he's right.
What about Canada: Are you able to stay?
My temporary permit has been renewed.
Do you have to get it renewed year by year?
Yes, at some time I would be eligible to apply to make it permanent. One step at a time.
At this point, do you think you're a historian or a businessman first?
Well, because of the horrible onslaught I had to endure for most of the last 10 years, I sort of cranked up my writing career. It was something I could do while I was trying to conduct my defence. And of course for three years I was a guest of the great American people and you can't run a business from prison. Some people did, but I couldn't.
But now I am focused on a commercial relaunch – not large public companies and not in a way that's controversial, but completely under the radar, which is how I started. I have some aptitude for that.
Do you ever wish you'd done history from the start and forgotten about business?
I live quite well and I couldn't live the way I do on what you earn as a writer, even if I was a much more successful writer. It's not a terrific career in income terms, as you know.
What do you think is the most indispensable history book on America, apart from your own?
Can't I have one per century?
All right, one per century.
I would say Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life. I suppose Carl Sandburg's life of Lincoln, and this is a terribly self-serving thing to say, but holding one hand over my eyes and repenting as I very tentatively put it forward, my life of FDR.