Conrad Black refuses to play the victim.
At our Cardus Convivium dinner last week in Calgary, where Black was the marquee attraction, he asserted, responding to a question, his innocence in the criminal case brought against him by the U.S. government.
Again responding to a question from Convivium Editor-in-chief Father Raymond J. de Souza, he was steadfast in his conviction that the resulting time he served in an American prison was the outcome of injustice.
Just as stoutly, he insisted, digressing while answering a different question from Father de Souza, that his ill fortune be placed in proper context. He said:
"I don't want anyone in this room to imagine that I think that there aren't a great number of people…who haven't had greater problems of a different kind.
"I do not want anyone to imagine that I'm presenting myself to you as a uniquely beleaguered person. What I went through was certainly no day at the beach, but it does not compare with people with terminal illnesses. We've all had them in our families and amongst friends. It's a terrible crisis, the worst crisis. I want you all to understand that while it was a very difficult time, I don't represent it as unprecedented or anything like that."
Though he had earlier insisted that "even my worst enemies don't accuse me of carrying modesty to a fault," it was a moment of connection-through-humility that showed why Black is one of the greatest living Canadian showmen. Perhaps one of the greatest showmen we've ever had.
I use the noun as high praise. I mean it in the sense of someone who understands, as a craft master, the way language reaches an ear and so an audience but, more, who has reconciled his fate as a player in his own travelling one-man show, accepted the reality of life as theatre; not theatre as a synonym for pish-posh and facile flim-flam but as means for crossing toward a point that just might contain the truth.
There are those, chiefly on the left, who love to see Black as the Simon Bar Sinister of buffoonish bombast. There are those, trending toward Christian conservatism, who enjoy the frisson of considering him a stiff-necked sinner idling at the gate. We all wear the comfy slippers of our own caricatures.
To whatever miniscule degree Black's persona corresponds to either of those cartoons, or to a mixture of them both, he rises, in public and in person, gigantically above them. At our Cardus Convivium event in Toronto on May 3 when we hosted Governor Mark Carney, I had the good fortune to be seated beside Black during the luncheon, and sat with wine glass suspended above the table linen as he explained what Hegel really meant with his aphorism that no man is a hero to his own valet. This touched off a kind of brown bag Hegelian Improv in which Black opened wide the gates of memory to cite things other famous people have said that other less famous people have famously misconstrued.
I felt as if I should be raising my glass in a toast, and never once wished to echo Margaret Thatcher's tart corrective to him: "That will do, Mr. Black; that will do."
Yet my small moment of witnessing a prodigious mind tumbling forward in the sheer joyful rambunction of being able to speak itself as part of convivial table talk paled in comparison to his feat from the dais at last week's Calgary event when he essentially covered the sweep of Western history in responding to Father de Souza's questions. Here is an example, quoted at full length for the same reason we refrain from putting water into wine:
"I think a very important part of what we've been talking about is the issue of moral leadership of secular leaders, especially when they conduct themselves in a way that embraces, broadly-speaking, a spiritual role. It is unfortunate that this occurs usually, and for obvious reasons, in the greatest crises of life and death.
"We've been speaking of Abraham Lincoln. When he said the line I quoted, which is a line of poetry, about hoping the war would end soon, he added, 'But if God wills that all the treasured piled up by the bondsmen's 250 years of unrequited toil should be sunk, and that every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be repaid by the sword, so still it must be said that such a judgment is true and righteous altogether.'
"He was saying that he would see the war through, no matter how many people died, to abolish slavery. In that case, there was a secular leader, the president of a nation, speaking in what amounted to a religious way and enunciating a religious truth, and it was a truth.
"In our own times—there are people in the room who probably remember—the address that President Roosevelt gave on D-Day, began 'Our sons, pride of our nation, have embarked upon a mighty endeavor of liberation.' He said: 'They yearn but for return to the haven of home; some will never return. Accept these, Heavenly Father, Thy most heroic servants, into Thy kingdom. They will build the peace, invulnerable to the dealings of unworthy men.'
"That was spiritual as well as secular leadership. Now, we don't need it on that level now because we're not at war for the lives of our countries and our children, but we need something more than the pretty dubious and cynical and mediocre leadership that the United States have been afflicted by for some time."
There is, in those four paragraphs, a 50-plus word citation from Lincoln and another of the same length from Roosevelt, set down as the foundation for the larger thought, extempore, simply drawn out of memory on the spot to perfectly serve the purpose while the rest of us rustled in our seats trying to keep up. For the lines cited were actually an addendum to Black's responses, politely interjected at the end just to clarify and emphasize his earlier answers.
It was wonderful oratory and remarkable showmanship played not by a victim but by someone who genuinely deserves his fellow Canadians' applause.