Black vs. Kissinger and Buckley

Hey, we thought you were 'friends'!

By Murray Dobbin 3 Jan 2008 |

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee.

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Black: Weird column.

In a smackdown between two titans of the right -- William F. Buckley Jr. and Conrad Black -- who is most likely to win? Buckley, googly-eyed master of the sneering putdown, or Black, aka the "Dark Lord"?

The answer is obvious. The winner is Buckley for the simple reason that he is not the one going to jail. A soon-to-be convict like Black needs all the friends he can get and cannot afford to be mouthing off the way he recently did in the National Post and New York Sun.

So what possessed Conrad Black to write a column attacking not only Buckley but also Henry Kissinger, both of whom he is still claiming as friends? Challenged to explain why he would choose to get into this scrap with influential people after just being sentenced to go to jail for six and a half years, Black might argue "well, they started it." But his weird response provides a reminder of what a bizarre personality once dominated the Canadian newspaper scene.

Black's column was provoked by a piece Buckley wrote this December in the National Review. Buckley claimed it had been "painful" for Black's friends to write the character references they had submitted in order to moderate his sentence. He explained "It seemed to this friend, as to quite a few others, that he probably was guilty on at least some of the charges."

Buckley allowed that the crimes Black was accused of were "not the same thing" as Oswald's assassination of President Kennedy (ouch!), but said that he and other friends thought Black was "out of his mind" for pursuing the aggressive defence that he did.

As for Henry Kissinger, Black complains that the former Hollinger Inc. board member had told the FBI that Black was "probably guilty of something."

Going after Kissinger

Black's reply to Buckley and Kissinger amounts to far more than taking a few swipes at old friends, as was reported. His column meticulously describes how Buckley, when given an opportunity to gracefully decline, had insisted he really wanted to write a character reference on Black's behalf to the judge in his trial. That Buckley had said at the time he would find it a "pleasing" task. That it was Black's lawyers -- not Buckley -- who came up with the idea that the character reference should not discuss the specifics of the case.

These otherwise boring details are significant because they directly contradict Buckley's version of events. Is Black accusing Buckley of lying?

Kissinger's regard for the truth comes under even sharper attack. Black claims Richard Nixon had once told him Kissinger would lean whichever way the prevailing winds blew. In terms of help with his own legal problems, Black says Kissinger "promised more and I hoped for more, but Henry Kissinger is an 84-year-old fugitive from Nazi pogroms, and has made his way famously in the world by endlessly recalibrating the balance of power and correlation of forces in all situations."

Is Black saying that lack of integrity is a natural result of experiencing persecution? What about all the victims of bigotry who became advocates for justice, regardless of the personal cost?

Having recruited Kissinger for the board of Hollinger, Black's opinion of him obviously has soured. In his recently published biography of Nixon, Black asserts that Kissinger received disproportionate credit for the Nixon administration's "foreign policy successes." At one point he says that Kissinger's "jejune explanations of his conduct [in the administration's wiretapping] are not believable."

Playing the age card

Black also tries to minimize the weight that might be given to Buckley's and Kissinger's opinions by underlining how very old they are. Black starts off his column in a peculiar way, seeming to compliment Buckley and Kissinger by saying how much they were admired by his father. But why would readers care what Black's father, or his second cousin for that matter, thought? Well, Black makes a point of saying that his father died more than 30 years ago, which would make the two objects of his admiration very much past their due date by now. In case his readers are too slow to do the math, Black mentions Kissinger is 84 and that he and Buckley "need only survive and retain their faculties a while longer" to see Black emerge victorious from his current problems.

Despite pile-driving Buckley and Kissinger into the mat with these verbal assaults, Black still describes them as great men. And although he believes in Black's guilt, Buckley makes the astonishing claim that "that Conrad Black has nobly enhanced the human cause."

In what sense could such a characterization of Black possibly be true? This is a man who has savagely ripped into a true humanitarian, Stephen Lewis, for what he described as Lewis's "clangorous tambourine-rattling on behalf of the United Nations."

In giving up his Canadian citizenship, Black said for 30 years he had opposed the prevailing public policies. He left expressing the regret that Canadians viewed themselves as a kinder and gentler nation than the U.S.

Black gained control of a majority of Canadian newspapers in 1996 and then created the National Post, a publication that has continuously lost money, because he thought the Globe and Mail was insufficiently conservative. In some provinces, he owned all of the daily papers.

Black has said that in his newspapers, "we argued for alternative policies." These "alternatives" included: rolling back the social safety net; providing tax breaks for private schools to "emancipate Canada's children from the teachers' unions"; an end to "pandering to the Third World"; and bringing back private medicine.

Black as serial insulter

In the contempt he has voiced for the people in his employ and his love for titular honours, Black reveals a kind of neo-feudalist world view. He advocates right-to-work laws that would effectively eliminate unions. Through Black's eyes, journalists generally are "ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequately supervised"; workers at the Dominion stores he once owned were "a slovenly work force"; striking workers are "gangrenous limbs"; household staff are a "notoriously unreliable group."

Black once explained that membership in the British House of Lords would be his only opportunity to be a "legislative person" as he would not deign to achieve this status by actually running for office.

So rather than "nobly enhancing the human cause" as Buckley claims, Black has worked to set it back by several hundred years. What does it say about our democracy that such a man was able to control such a large chunk of Canadian newspapers and have such a profound influence over political debate in this country?

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