Culture

Conrad Black Still Loves FDR (In Spite of Amity Shlaes)

My husband calls her “Sideshow Sarah,” for reasons that will be clear to any Simpsons fans who’ve seen recent photos of Toronto gadfly Sarah Thomson.

Thomson is one of those familiar fixtures in cities large and small:

Publisher of a tiny, unread “newspaper;” perpetually spurned seeker of public office; promoter of myriad crunchy, goofy fads and schemes.

One of those “Isn’t she married to Whats-His-Name?”s.

A combination Flying Dutchman and Don Quixote, plus a dusting of second-tier Kardashian.

My husband and I once heard a tacky little rumor about Thomson and Conrad Black years back, so were startled when Lady Black, of all people, verified the tale in a recent Maclean’s magazine column:

Around 2002, publisher Thomson offered, using normal scatology, to “bed” my husband in return for him granting an interview to her newspaper. Though the proposition did not intrigue him, Conrad found it very enterprising and endorsed her for mayor in the last election.

Indeed, Black’s public endorsement was titled “Sarah Thomson: The Woman Toronto Needs” — even though he clearly did not.

(And was at the time, come to think of it, nowhere near Toronto, either…)

Alas, Lady Black — whose journalistic instincts are usually feline and feral, and whose sense of modesty is not exactly legendary — omitted the best part of the story, at least as it was related to me:

That Lord Black had (supposedly) responded gravely, “Thank you, Miss Thomson, but my wife sees to my needs admirably on that particular front.”

Besides being amusing, that anecdote helps illustrate a larger point that’s relevant (I promise) to any discussion of Conrad Black’s new book, Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America From Colonial Dependence to World Leadership.

The first thing I noticed about the book when it arrived — besides its sheer size — is that it boasts “[a]n introductory note by Henry. A. Kissinger.”

Now, depending on when you came of age, Dr. Kissinger is either the punchline to a thousand Laugh-In jokes or a shameless war-criminal-in-waiting.

(As I’m a fogey of the former cohort, the mere sight of Kissinger’s surname — although an ever rarer occurrence — never fails to conjure up the cloying aroma of Love’s Baby Soft, with heart notes of freshly silk-screened “DISCO SUCKS” t-shirts.)

Inside the book, Black expresses his thanks to Tina Brown, Anna Wintour, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh — a Bilderbergian assortment of friends.

Which brings me back to Sarah Thomson.

You’d think her trashy pass at Black would’ve consigned her to the lower social realms for the balance of her natural life.

But as we’re all learning as we endure Anthony Weiner’s run for mayor, to cite just one cringe-inducing example: at this point in the 21st century especially, once you’re “in with the in crowd,” you’re never quite kicked out.

One-percenters (and those who hope to squeeze into that slender station one day) are awfully loyal and clubby, regardless of each other’s purported political views.

This phenomenon explains why otherwise comical conspiracy theories about Masonic New World Orders of Lizard-Men will never be debunked into history’s dustbins once and for all.

(Note: I just made a neutral observation about human nature and the ways in which we organize ourselves. It wasn’t intended as an “Occupy”-ish demonization of the Establishment’s habits of self-selection.)

So while Black’s new book does indeed focus on “grand strategies” — to the point where female eyes and brains may approach their melting points — it’s also, really, the story of “Great Men.”

Most modern historians mock the “Great Man” theory of history as a quaint antique, but its appeal as a narrative “hook” will never waiver as long as there are laypersons searching for human-shaped doors into the study of world events of epic scale and scope.

And for a man with Black’s profound (and perfectly justified) sense of personal destiny, the “Great Man” worldview isn’t even second nature. It’s first.

Anyway, one of the names on Black’s gracious acknowledgement’s list?

Amity Shlaes.

But doesn’t Lord Black consider FDR one of the greatest American presidents?

Well, yes…

Let’s ignore the handful of paleo-cranks who persist in criticizing or even condemning Roosevelt’s performance as the commander-in-chief during World War II, and pray that these fellows eventually take up other equally profitable pastimes. (Bigfoot hunting, perhaps?)

That war is long over, but the FDR’s New Deal was never repealed entirely.

The question of whether or not it actually worked mattered, and matters, enormously and was settled, as far as most of us are concerned, with the release of Amity Shlaes’ groundbreaking popular history, The Forgotten Man.

But of course, Conrad Black is not “most of us.”

Shlaes and Black have enjoyed a “spirited exchange” on this topic for some time, and I didn’t see much evidence in Flight… that she has shifted his “yeah” position one iota.

However, their debates are a delight to read.

Shlaes begins one round with a dainty diplomatic feint Letitia Baldrige would have (quietly) applauded:

[Black’s] rhetoric is so eloquent that some facts have escaped his attention.

(Yes, do write that one down…)

Shlaes proceeds to demolish Black’s points one by one, pointing out, for instance:

Roosevelt did fail to end the Depression, and we know that from common-sense measures. Most of us today define recovery as “getting back to where we were before.” Measures we use to gauge whether we have done that include unemployment, the absolute size of GDP or GDP per capita, and stock indices.

By these measures, FDR’s first term and most of his second were a flunk. Unemployment hung in the double digits during FDR’s first two terms. He won his third term in a quarter with one of the lowest unemployment rates of the decade, a still-atrocious 14.2 percent.

These data points come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)…

Elsewhere, Black parried:

I withdraw previous claims that Amity Shlaes is a member of the Roosevelt assassination squads that compulsively attack FDR at any opportunity, no matter how obscure. But I think she made a mistake in assimilating his economic policies to Hoover’s in her otherwise excellent book about the Great Depression, shortchanges FDR for the economic progress he made in each of his full terms, and imputes unjustly base motivations to him (though he was far from a political saint). As a result, Amity is being used as a stalking horse by ahistorical kooks who swaddle themselves in her well-earned reputation as a rigorous historian and commentator, to assault the imperishable Roosevelt piñata.

Unfortunately for Black, The Forgotten Man is not soon forgotten.

I doubt most PJMedia readers will be convinced by Black’s arguments in favor of the FDR’s New Deal, either in his 2005 biography of Roosevelt or in Flight…

What about the subject of Black’s other book-length presidential biography, Richard Nixon?

Has Black’s thinking about the once-disgraced, now semi-rehabilitated Nixon evolved?

Check back here next week to find out.