On Friday afternoon -- just a few hours after his Lordship had landed back at his boyhood home in Toronto -- I found myself discussing his return to Canada with my fellow VIA rail passengers.
I was headed out of the city for the weekend, and had boarded the train at Happy Hour. This is my favorite time of day to take the train -- not because I like to raid the rolling cart of its liquor and Hummos 'n Chips snack packs (which I do), but because train passengers are unfailingly convivial during the Happy Hour Express. I'm not sure why they are friendlier than their air-bound counterparts; plane passengers at any time of day tend to be as friendly as people stuffed into an overcrowded elevator in July. Perhaps trains trigger some deeply embedded memory of civilized travel past (despite their worn, crumb-strewn seats); or maybe they are just that much more pleasant and less-stressful than planes.
In any case, the two businessmen sitting opposite me -- armed with two cans of beer a piece -- immediately launched into the topic of the day, which was Conrad. I kept silent about my own association with Lord Black, curious to discover whether populist resentment against him burned quite as forcefully as the Toronto Star and Thomas Mulcair said it did. The first man boldly announced that he thought Conrad had every right to return to Canada. When he met no resistance on this point, he continued: He thought Conrad had been treated shabbily by the American justice system; and further, whatever Conrad might have done, which was unclear, he had certainly served his time and then some. He and his friend then went on to debate what those "might have dones" might have been, in impressive and knowledgeable detail, gleaned obviously from years of following the case in the media.
The woman next to me, meanwhile, took a less charitable view of Conrad's situation. She seemed more agitated that he might still have some money left -- so screw him, let him go back to England. One of the men pointed out that his wife was in Toronto, as was his last remaining house (the others having been sold off to pay the legal bills). In the end, the woman grudgingly conceded that Conrad had a right to return, but didn't like him doing so.
I recount this conversation because I was struck, above all, how large Conrad remains in public opinion. It was nearly seven years ago -- or a century in internet time -- that Conrad Black first became embroiled in the legal troubles that would see him serve, in the end, some 38 months in prison. Having faced 17 charges of assorted misconduct and fraud, all but one was eventually thrown out, and by the United States Supreme Court no less. Even this remaining charge was specious, as Conrad himself might say. But the upshot is, he was made into a symbol of pre-recession corporate excess, and punished excessively for it. It is worth noting that no corporate executive directly responsible for the massive bank failures that led to the current great recession has served any time -- or even been charged. If I were Conrad, would I be bitter? Yes, I would be bitter.
But that, in a nutshell, is the amazing thing about Conrad Black. While he has written at great length about the legal injustices served upon him, and upon the public in general, by the overreaches of the American prosecutorial system, in person he exhibits not an iota of resentment or defeat.
Over the past eight months, I have had the pleasure of being one of his editors. His blogs have arrived weekly from prison like clockwork. He has also been writing blogs for the National Post and the National Review.
For us he wrote a blog suitable for Canadian and American audiences (as they were and are simultaneously published here and on the U.S. Huffpost sites); for the National Post he occupied himself primarily with Canadian matters, and for the National Review, he targeted his blogs to a more conservative audience.
Often I wondered how he wrote these from prison. I don't just mean the mechanics (because those were obviously an issue: How do you get access to a computer? Do you have Internet?). But how did he manage to keep up on everything? Reading his highly informed and topical blogs you would never know this was a man almost entirely cut off from the information sources we take for granted. And as I gradually learned, his TV was limited to what the common room was watching (hint: rarely CNN and the Sunday morning political shows). His internet access was severely limited, basically to sending and receiving emails -- but no surfing, no Googling, no following news web sites.
As I came to learn, Conrad was allowed some 30 minutes at a time to gain access to a prison computer. He wrote at night, in longhand and in his cell, the column he would send the next day. Let's not romanticize these cells either as "country club prisons." He was crammed into the classic barred cubicle originally designed for one person that actually housed three cellmates. His bunk was such he could not sit up without banging his head. There was one crappy chair in the cell, jammed up against the toilet. So he wrote sitting on this chair, on a notepad in his lap. The next day he would wait his turn for the computer, and enter it as fast as he could before his time ran out. "For the Huffington Post," would be at the top of the blog I would receive in my inbox.
Last January, my husband and I went to visit him in the Florida prison, which was located on the outskirts of Miami. When we pulled up in our rental car at the facility, I said it looked like a La Quinta motel, if La Quinta motels were surrounded by barbed wire. Soviet Tropical. We were subjected to a physical inspection which was only a tenth humiliating of the inspections Conrad faced daily -- and it was humiliating enough. After a long wait, we were led to a cavernous meeting hall/cafeteria, in to which inmates were led one by one to meet their families and friends.
The hall resembled an airport waiting lounge. Rows of plastic seats were bolted to the floor. There was an outside area with picnic tables, but these were considered "prime" spots and allotted at the whim of the supervising guard. We were assigned to one of the uncomfortable bolted rows of chairs.
After a spell, Conrad emerged, dressed in the inmate uniform of khaki pants and shirt. The supervising guard had already chatted us up -- he was always curious about Conrad's visitors, and marveled at the celebrity roll of visitors Conrad attracted. "Next week Kissinger is coming! Kissinger!" he exclaimed.
Somehow we were able to negotiate ourselves out of the bolted chairs to an empty picnic table outside. And there we stayed for three hours, talking and utterly mesmerized by Conrad's company.
Because here's the bottom line: The key to Conrad's survival has been his mind. After a few minutes in his company, the weirdness and awkwardness of being in a prison visiting area melted away; the surroundings no longer mattered. He spoke as easily of current events, history, etc. as if he were at a cafe table in the Sixth Arrondissment, yakking away as expansively as he might over an absinthe. You ceased to notice the guy with the really scary scar, and that other guy over there surreptitiously gripping the chunky ass of his visiting girlfriend. Stepping into Conrad's mind was like stepping into a beautifully furnished room. And it was here -- not in the horrible crammed cell with the crappy chair, nor among the sterile benches and vending machines of the visitor's area -- that he lived and he survived.
At one point, I went to the vending machines to fetch snacks. There were not a lot of choices. I returned with some packages of salted nuts and cheese crackers (the healthiest options), and arranged them as nicely as I could on top of the metal picnic table.
Conrad graciously thanked me, as if I'd presented him with a platter of elegant hors d'oeuvres, and continued to mesmerize us with stories of his incarceration, interspersed with observations and queries about the American election, recent books, and mutual acquaintances.
But to return to his mind. Over the months I'd asked him, as editor, if he wanted to write about his prison experiences. He had so many good and even "heartwarming" stories about his teaching encounters with inmates; he'd developed an impressive lecture series on American history that even the guards would attend ("You could be like Johnny Cash," I told him. "You could publish them as 'Conrad Black: The Prison Lectures.'"). But in the end, he did not wish to write about prison.
And I got -- get -- this. To write about it would be to acknowledge it -- to "let it into the room." Days before his release, I asked him if he wanted to be interviewed by one of our reporters once he got out. He wrote back no, he didn't. He was moving on. And I got that too. Then as now, he will not be defined by prison. He will be defined by his writings, his books, and by whatever new business ventures he will surely pursue. And to those lucky enough to know him, he will be further defined by his magnificent company, generous nature and good humour.
Welcome home, Lord Black.
In other Huffpost news, some great blogs to read from this week if you missed them:
As always, our news and blog teams were all over the Quebec student protests, with notable commentary by our media critic J.J. McCullough, asking "Why the media hate-on for the protestors?"
My personal favorite news story of the week was Toronto mayor Rob Ford's rhino charge at Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, whom the mayor caught skulking around his home. Veteran reporter Peter Worthington captured the snickering sentiments of Dale's media colleagues in his take on the incident:
Even in Dale's own account, published in the Star, he says "I began pleading with him as loud as I could," and admits "I became more frightened than I can remember; after two or three attempts to dart away, I threw my phone and my recorder down on the grass, yelled that he could take them, and ran."
Gracious! I guess they don't make reporters like they used to... When confronted, journalists don't usually yell for help, drop their camera and recorder, and run away. Maybe when facing a mob in Somalia, but not when a Toronto mayor catches you snooping. Unless you're a Star guy, that is. Star icons like Bob Reguly, Jocko Thomas and Ray Timson must be rolling in their graves.
Ouch. Time to re-assign that guy to Lifestyle.
And for the history books, readers who wish to read Conrad Black's last official column from prison this past week, you can read it here. I'm told his Lordship is taking a two week holiday from blogging. Fair enough.
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