“Buffoons in Love” could be the title. A movie about Donald Trump and Conrad Black’s crazy, rollicking friendship would be absolute box office gold, right up there with Dumb and Dumber. Admittedly, it’s — as they say in the business — ‘high concept’, but when you consider the rather implausible idea of a Reality TV Star becoming president of the US, the concept isn’t that stratospheric. It has everything a breakout hit requires: money, corruption, court room drama, and of course Palm Beach mansions.
The proposition that Trump is a buffoon hardly needs explication. But Conrad Black? Well, he is by all accounts a highly intelligent, engaging companion and a best-selling non-academic historian. He is also much loved by the journalistic community, at least by those with an affection for Macauleyesque locutions and big words that long ago fell into disuse.
But why he has pursued a public career as a purveyor of preposterously inane ideas is a puzzle. The only equivalent figure resides at the far end of the political spectrum. Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm whose opinions were clearly utterly bonkers managed to retain his aura of academic respectability until his death at 95. He held to his defense of Stalinism with unshakeable conviction, even in the face of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, even after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Abandoned by most of his British party comrades after the post-Khrushchev revelations he remained infatuated to the end. It’s a mystery.
Why Conrad Black holds to opinions that are equally easily and convincingly disproved is similarly mystifying. Martin Amis has a couple of handy terms for people like these: “high IQ cretins, Mensa morons”.
If you think this judgement harsh, consider some of the positions he has held over the last half century. In the early 1970’s he was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the war in Vietnam. So fervent was he that when Richard Nixon read his pieces in the Sherbrooke Record he sent him on a junket to South East Asia. His reports were odious agit-prop of the kind one associates with the Webbs’ rhapsodic reporting on the Soviet Union in the 30’s.
In the 1980’s he wrote regularly about the terrific things the Contras and paramilitary units were doing in Central America, ignoring of course the dirty money, the shooting up of operating rooms and the murder of nuns.
Most recently he has written about climate change. True to form, it’s all a myth, fake news. Jim Hansen, the first scientist to draw the world’s attention to this looming existential catastrophe, comes in for particular condemnation. The piece is so rife with factual errors that are so easily repudiated you wonder whether he has an internet connection.
Do these opinions (and many others) make Conrad a buffoon? Not quite. The clincher is the ‘guilty’ verdict in that Chicago court room in 2007.
After the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008 the US legal system couldn’t convict a single Wall Street scammer or manipulator, but Conrad ended up getting a three-year residency in a Florida prison after smuggling financial records out the back door of his office.
The Wall Street guys stole billions. Conrad just fiddled with the books. All that money, all those connections, all those expensive high-profile lawyers and still Conrad still couldn’t beat the charge?
But perhaps the worst thing to happen to Black has been his slide into irrelevancy. When he was pardoned by Trump last week hardly any Canadian news outlets took notice. The one newspaper that did was the The Guardian in the UK whose headline, ”Trump pardons fraudster Conrad Black after glowing biography” pretty much nailed it.
His only public outlet now is a Saturday column in The National Post where last week, in response to his pardon, he bleated about how the American judicial system is terribly unfair. Only to someone who has lived an entire life in a bubble of privilege and exclusion would this come as a surprise.
The US legal system has serious enforcement, judicial and incarceration problems. But not normally for rich white guys. To read Black conflating his situation with those who are genuine victims of a cruel, profoundly inequitable system is enough make one hope that right now, in a studio in California, a producer is packaging a comedy about a couple of rich, powerful men with “Buffoon” somewhere in the title.