Conrad Black by Adam Daifallah

In the heat of the debate over the Conrad Black trial (and tribulations), we offer the following 2005 piece by his staunch supporter, Adam Daifallah, in counterpoint to John Moore’s thoughts.

Conrad Black, profiled by Adam Daifallah, Oct. 25

National Post
October 25, 2005
The National Post is looking for Canada’s most important “public intellectual” — which we define as a thinker who has shown distinction in his or her own field and can communicate ideas and influence debate outside of it. In today’s instalment, Adam Daifallah profiles Conrad Black, an author, businessman and founder of the National Post. All profiles to date, as well as contest rules, appear at www.nationalpost.com/beautifulminds.

Many people meet the National Post’s criteria for a public intellectual — “someone who has shown distinction in his or her own field, and can communicate ideas and influence debate outside of it.” But how many can claim to have written two major works of biography that changed the accepted wisdom about their subjects, while building one of the world’s greatest modern newspaper empires? And how many can casually quote the likes of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? Or show up to a costume party dressed as Cardinal Richelieu?
None can, except for Conrad Black.
Lord Black was a great newspaper proprietor. In an era where “dumbing down” content and catering to the lowest common denominator too often rules the day, he kept his papers to the highest standard of quality. Even some of his critics — including not a few left-wing journalists who happily accepted a pay cheque from him over the years — now privately say they miss him.
Yet I suspect Lord Black’s intellectual pursuits are what give him the greatest satisfaction and sense of pride. His colourful personality, his lofty prose and his fondness for taking on controversial topics have made him as well known among book reviewers as among social columnists and business editors.
Lord Black enjoys being a contrarian. One of the most memorable episodes came in 1969 when, as the newly-minted 25-year-old proprietor of the Sherbrooke Record, he used the Quebec daily’s comment page to pen a lengthy editorial praising U.S. president Lyndon Johnson. As the anti-war movement raged and LBJ’s popularity nosedived, Lord Black defended the president’s record and skewered his critics, labelling novelist Norman Mailer a “bedraggled warhorse of American blowhardism.” It was the first of many articles written in that trademark style.
In 1976, Lord Black released a biography of Maurice Duplessis — a repackaged version of his McGill master’s thesis. Until then, most if not all of the literature on the long-time Quebec premier had been unflattering. Historians depicted Duplessis as a tyrant and troglodyte. They labelled Duplessis’s time in office, which preceded the Quiet Revolution, as la grande noirceur (“the great darkness”). Black took on the Quebec intelligentia’s groupthink head on, showing that Duplessis had in fact been a modernizer, implementing what was at the time Canada’s most liberal minimum wage, disability pension and daycare legislation.
In 2003 came Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. The 1,300-page tome was met with near-universal critical acclaim. Given the smugness of the professoriate, it is rare for a scholarly book written by a non-academic to receive such praise. Like his book on Duplessis, Champion of Freedom cast its subject in a totally new light. Rather than being a tax-and-spend socialist who sold out Eastern Europe to Stalin, Black’s FDR is portrayed as a sensible centrist who saved capitalism and secured the best deal possible at the Tehran and Yalta conferences.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I played a small research role in the FDR project. But by the time I got involved, the manuscript was already complete. (It was then tens of thousands of words longer than what was published.) When I first saw the draft, it was obvious that this was the product of a lifetime’s worth of reading and research about a man Black clearly admired. Whatever Black’s other troubles, he must be gratified that his work is now regarded as one of the most important books on FDR ever written.
When the lawyers have all had their say, Conrad Black will still be remembered as one of this country’s most fertile minds. He not only helped facilitate more rigorous and healthy intellectual debate, he continues to make great contributions to it himself.
© National Post 2005

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