While serving time for whatever he supposedly did, newspaper baron Conrad Black taught history classes for his fellow prisoners.
Naturally, this prompted predictable “Geneva Convention” jokes among Black’s many detractors.
Even some of the prisoners were probably thinking, “This sure ain’t New Year’s Eve at Folsom.”
But ending up with Lord Black instead of “the Man in Black” isn’t the worst “punishment” I can imagine, although I can’t fathom how inmates without even GEDs coped with the former’s formidable vocabulary.
As I’ve stated before when talking about his latest book, Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America From Colonial Dependence to World Leadership, most of us could do far worse than have Conrad Black as a history teacher.
His enthusiasm is contagious, his erudition bracing, and his breadth of knowledge impressive.
(Maybe too impressive: While it purports to be a history of the United States, Flight… actually covers plenty of European ground, especially the continent’s martial and monarchical history from the eighteenth century onward. This isn’t a bonus if, like me, the very words “Habsburg” and “Crimea” can knock you into REM sleep faster than any hypnotist.)
For Conrad Black, that must have been an interesting location from which to revisit the subject of one of his earlier books, President Richard M. Nixon.
(While Nixon avoided incarceration after the Watergate break-in and the hearings it spawned, few of his aides did.)
The enigmatic Nixon continues to fascinate: a Republican who championed screamingly liberal big-government stuff like the EPA; a career anti-Communist who normalized U.S. relations with China; a “war monger” who signed arms treaties and pulled U.S. troops out of Vietnam; a man whose biggest “crime” — as I’m sure many of the enemies who outlived him would probably admit — was getting caught.
And if Watergate was utterly unfathomable to me as an eight-year-old kid, I can’t imagine how a curious young person today might begin to make sense of it.
All that being said, Conrad Black’s chapters about Nixon’s administration serves as a fine “primer” on the man and the scandal that brought him — and America’s morale and self-image– crashing down.
Unfortunately, that section gets off to a shaky start.
As an intro to a section on domestic policy, including education, we’re informed that Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, “had briefly been a school teacher.”
This is true but leaves out the vital fact that LBJ and his wife were far from humble folks, having made a fortune in broadcasting under somewhat shaky circumstances. Such “sins of omission,” especially in a history book, can easily become distracting.
Far more egregious is Black’s habitual use of that libelous expression “Red Scare” — every liberal’s “the Loch Ness Monster” — to dismiss what we now know were legitimate concerns about the extent of communist infiltration throughout the government, Hollywood, and the educational system.
(For example, Black insinuatingly calls Alger Hiss an “alleged former Soviet spy,” which I suppose is accurate if by “alleged” one means that Whittaker Chambers truthfully “alleged” that Hiss was an agent, and if by “former” you mean that Hiss is now safely deceased.)
This is especially puzzling because Black is intimately familiar with Nixon’s star-making role in that trial.
I wonder if Black would be interested in debating the “Red Scare” with the likes of M. Stanton Evans (author of Stalin’s Secret Agents: The Subversion of Roosevelt’s Government). Perhaps if the ticket revenue went to a mutually acceptable charity? Somebody make this happen!
That said, it’s impossible to remain annoyed at Black when he serves up the sorts of quaint sentences only he can get away with, and which these days one generally encounters in used Flashman novels:
A gentle and cheerful people, the Indonesians, famously, run amok occasionally and become wantonly and brutally violent.
Black comes no closer to cracking the puzzle that was Richard Nixon — a man arguably too introverted, twitchy, and cerebral to ever get elected today; possibly too smart to be president, in every way that phrase can be interpreted.
However, he does a superb job of relating the tale that ran like a weird, annoying, and ominous noise in the background of millions of childhoods, and left the grownups around us cynical, paranoid, and depressed.
What now took place was unprecedented in America — a bipartisan dual suicide. (…) The Democratic convention in Miami was a shambles that saw votes cast for fictitious characters and Mao Tse-tung for vice president, and where [nominee, pacifist George] McGovern only got to speak at 3 a.m. The vice presidential candidate, Thomas Eagleton, had to withdraw because of earlier mental health problems…
The Watergate break-in had already happened, but most Americans hadn’t heard much about it before the election.
Nixon went on to win “the greatest plurality in American history,” but, Black writes, “time had run out” for the president:
Despite its great achievements and the high prestige of the reelected president, the Nixon administration disintegrated very quickly [after Nixon’s second inauguration] as the Watergate story unfolded amidst a host of minor campaign and administration officials turning court and partisan-dominated congressional committee hearings into confessionals, launching endless accusations of “campaign dirty tricks, financing liberties, cynical motivations, steadily further up the chain, in the manner of the American pleas-bargaining system.
A system Lord Black is all too familiar with.
Black, a man who values and rewards personal loyalty, can barely contain his contempt for “oleaginous” White House counsel/turncoat John Dean, but, like many of us, he retains a grudging respect for another Watergate personage who, like him, has “done his time”:
Practically the only Nixon underling (…) who did not crack eventually was G. Gordon Liddy, a heroically motivated lawyer and political soldier who had periodically suggested blowing up the Brookings Institution and other lively initiatives. Even when sentenced to 35 years in prison, he did not alter his testimony, gave a military salute as he left the court, and early in his stay in prison beat up a fellow inmate for the unauthorized borrowing of his toothbrush.
Black relates the whole sordid story fairly and accurately.
(At least as accurately as we mere non-insider mortals can ever know.)
Nixon was no angel, but the frenzy he inspired borders on mass hysteria:
Many of the tapes were favorable to Nixon, but some were legally worrisome, and many contained more coarse language and ethnic slurs than Nixon would want in the public domain. The hostile press (…) were already deluging the public with spurious charges against Nixon of underpaying taxes, zealously tapping telephones (including that of his own brother) and almost what Franz Kafka famously called “nameless crimes.” In April 1974, the Internal Revenue Service, after a campaign of leaks, disallowed Nixon’s agreed tax-deduction for the contribution to the National Archives of his vice presidential papers, but the National Archives kept the papers. This was outright theft…
It didn’t help that the price of oil went up 400 percent at the same time.
Literally unable to govern, Nixon became the first American president to resign.
I well recall newspaper surveys over the course of the next ten years which put Nixon at the top of the “Most Hated Men in History” list, with Hitler placing a distant second.
With decades of hindsight working in his favor, Black sums up Nixon’s life and legacy with considerable poignancy, saying he “seemed a rather ordinary man” who:
…attracted and retained a following of tens of millions of ordinary people to whom, as to him, little came easily, and who never ceased to persevere, often against more glamorous, facile, advantaged, and wealthier people (the Kennedys, Rockefellers, Stevensons, etc.) This bond with ordinary people, many of whom would be routinely described as strivers or even losers, was the constituency he never lost.
And what of Conrad Black’s own fate?
He’s sold off all his properties except for that breathtaking Toronto house.
He has a book about Canadian history due out later this year.
And maybe, just maybe, he’s going to start hosting his own TV talk show.
It looks like all the jealous, puny haters will still have Conrad Black to kick around for a while longer.