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Conrad Black's American History

'Flight of the Eagle' is an entertaining showcase of the Lord's biases, but not without merit.

Rafe Mair 12 Jul 2013TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair writes a column for The Tyee every second Monday. He is also a founding contributor to The Common Sense Canadian.

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Conrad Black's new book chronicles America's greatest achievements as selected by Conrad Black. Photo credit: Peter Bregg.

My first thought when reading Conrad Black's new book, Flight of the Eagle: A Strategic History of the United States, was of the great Dorothy Parker, who said of another narrative in another time, "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." But though Black's book has many faults, I read all 699 pages -- and felt both shortchanged and better informed for the effort. Perhaps a more apt quote would be: "Like the curate's egg, parts of it are excellent."

Black postures that he is a competent enough scholar to expertly describe the greatest of all empires, the United States of America, and I found myself recalling Arthur Balfour's remark on Winston Churchill's The World Crisis when he said: "How clever of Winston to write a history of the world disguised as his autobiography."

Black is a former Canadian, ennobled in the U.K., and a former media giant who has written biographies on Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. His corporate meanderings brought him just over three years in U.S. prisons.

The credibility of Lord Black's account of the rise of America, and assessment of its biggest strategic decisions, isn't helped by his statements that he was found not guilty, in the end, of all the crimes of which he was charged and convicted. The book is also laced with self-praise for his time educating fellow convicts.

But the book is well written, with these two quibbles -- many of the sentences seem interminably long, and he uses many words that one never hears in conversation nor, in my case, has, until picking up his book, even read.

The difficulty is that he tries to do in 699 pages what needs double that for full coverage. This means that he glosses over the important and magnifies what he likes best. All authors are biased, but Lord Black, in many places, elevates his ill-proved biases to an art form.

Leaders the lord loves

Black does a good job on the American Revolution, given the space he allots it, yet Tom Paine, author of the written inspiration for the Revolution, Common Sense, is only casually dealt with. In relative proportion to the population of the colonies at that time, 2.5 million Americans, it had the largest sales and circulation of any book published in American history, with 120,000 sales in the first three months.

Black, as you will read, falls in love with George Washington, as he seems to with all strong leaders -- even those like Franklin Roosevelt who were not of his political persuasion. For a more balanced look at the U.S.'s first president, I recommend Washington, A Life by Ron Chernow.

I would have liked to have read about the Constitution of 1787 and the remarkable men who made it. After all, this was the one great legacy America gave to world politics.

Black trivializes the War of 1812, in my mind justifiably, as it was, despite our federal government's attempt to make it a huge Canadian victory, a relatively minor sideshow to the Napoleonic Wars -- embarrassing to America and a nuisance to Britain.

He does a good job on the years between the Constitution and the outbreak of the Civil War where, with some justification, he falls in love with Abraham Lincoln. What amounts to a précis of those times is sharp and informative.  

Selective coverage

Probably the least interesting period was between Lincoln's death and the rise of Theodore Roosevelt, yet he kept my attention. Here again, though, space becomes the enemy of fuller coverage, so we learn little about the boundary dispute in our region of the planet and the rise, sometime falls, and long-term effects of the "robber barons let by John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and their ilk.

There is all but nothing on the '20s and the Republican days leading to the Great Depression.

Black seems in a hurry to get through the prelude to and involvement of the U.S. in the First World War to more modern times, starting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he elevates quickly to sainthood. One can understand this love affair, I suppose, because Black wrote a bestselling biography of FDR. Again, for the history buff the coverage is too brief, and the exoneration of FDR's sickness based soft handling of Stalin at Yalta hard to swallow.

It is the post-war story to the present which will interest many readers, and here His Lordship's biases carry the day. For example, Black barely touches the long-lasting Iran political extravaganza. Perhaps it would be better to say that he intersperses it without giving it its own place. He is, in the extreme, forgiving of Richard Nixon, about whom he has written a biography, which may explain why Henry Kissinger did the foreword. He clearly doesn't care much for Bill Clinton, and the coverage of the break-up of Yugoslavia is tossed aside in two paragraphs!

And an appalling index

On the other hand, Ronald Reagan is elevated to presidential greatness, alongside Lincoln and Washington. The Republican-tolerated stock market and bank boondoggles arising in the George W. Bush day gets little coverage, and the book stumbles to the end, which is today.

The footnotes are few -- almost invisible -- and when they happen often refer to a previous Black book. The tome is sprinkled with maps which bear no relevance to the storyline at that point, and there is no bibliography, leading me to conclude that his research was mostly from his own books and Wikipedia.

The index is appalling. For example, if you want to learn about the U-2 crisis, you will not find a reference to "U-2" or "Gary Powers," the pilot. Nor is there a reference under "Eisenhower." The only mention is found under "Khrushchev." 

In all, this is a spotty overview of the U.S. which, though multi-flawed, I enjoyed.  [Tyee]

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