Last week, Conrad Black made his first public appearance since returning to Canada after being released as (to quote him) a "guest" of the American prison system.
The occasion was the first anniversary party thrown by Huffington Post Canada, for which he has been a marquee blogger during the past year -- a party that was better than most such affairs, complete with a juggler and lady who makes animals and funny hats out of balloons, to compliment the booze, canapés and irreverent conversation.
One hesitates to guess what was on Black's mind as he walked up Spadina Avenue to the journalistic offices of HuffPost and AOL, but he must have been slightly uneasy or wary of his reception -- would he be shunned, or welcomed or ignored?
Only the Sun's indomitable Joe Warmington was astute enough to catch and videotape his entrance, with other T.V. outlets asleep at the switch.
It was Black's first encounter with what could be called "real people." Up to now, his contact has been mostly with fellow prisoners, or those who came to visit him in prison or, in Toronto, with the social elite he mixed with before his legal troubles.
I watched as Black entered the HuffPost offices, and it seemed to be he was uncertain of his reception, and was braced for whatever it might be. His wife, Barbara Amiel, was not with him.
Whatever concerns he may have had evaporated immediately. He was an instant rock star -- greeted and hugged by Arianna Huffington who came to Toronto for the anniversary, and surrounded by people who were curious, friendly, non-judgmental and eager to both chat with him and be photographed with him.
Black, visibly relaxed, treated everyone with courtesy and interest. It must have been reassuring to him, because those in attendance were ordinary folk -- a mixture of journalists, artists, advertisers, working people.
Fussed over as he was, I quipped that he was now entering the "rock star phase of his life, so get used to it."
He recalled that when I visited him in his prison in Florida I'd mentioned that he was more popular now that he had been before his travails -- "and it seems you were right."
I don't know if "popular" is the right word, but certainly he is better known and ordinary folk seem friendly, as if they realize that the initial 17 charges involving something like $300 million had disintegrated to one questionable issue of removing boxes from the Toronto office from which he'd been kicked out, resulting in the "obstruction of justice" conviction. The $300 million had shrunk to $600,000 and even that was disputed.
Black is not stupid and it must have been reassuring to realize that there was little of the resentment towards him that the Toronto Star is busy generating. When I suggested he was probably a better person in light of his prison experience, Black cocked a quizzical eye. But it's true. I think he's more human, more generous, even wiser.
The day after the HuffPost anniversary party (step-daughter Danielle Crittenden is the managing editor for the blogs), The Star's Bob Hepbrun lashed out at Black and piously indicated that he should not get his citizenship back. He cited Black's interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge, in which Black "showed no remorse, was unrepentant and unapologetic."
One wonders why Black would "show" these qualities when from day one he has insisted he did nothing illegal -- supported by the fact that 14 of the initial charges vanished or he was found not guilty. People who claim innocence have little reason to "show remorse" unless they are hypocrites, which isn't one of Black's failings.
In support of his and the Star's "get Conrad" vendetta, Hepburn cites a Toronto Sun editorial that pledged to take the lead in opposing Black regaining citizenship. He also quoted columnist Lorrie Goldstein's rather precious (sanctimonious?) view that "we don't grant citizenship to non-citizens convicted of substantial crimes."
Strange allies indeed, if Hepburn gets his way.
So Black is back. Battle lines are drawn with the Star echoing, as it always did, former PM Jean Chretien's unseemly hostility against Black because of his founding the National Post which criticized Chretien on various fronts.
Black is understandably and sensibly keeping a low profile (difficult for him), but he must feel a weight has been lifted in light of his experience in having a mixed bag of ordinary working Canadians pleased to meet him, and taking him at face value.