A Matter of Principle
McClelland & Stewart (2011) 532pages
Reviewed by Bob Tarantino
Chronicle, affirmation, and cri de coeur, A Matter of Principle is Conrad Black’s most personal and gripping book – while also, at times, his most frustrating. It takes skill to create dramatic tension in a narrative whose outcome is already known, but Black achieves it with a remarkably finely-tuned use of pathos. At its best, the book is testament to the literary power of the disciplined application of rage to prose. Regrettably, only the patient and persevering reader will be rewarded.
Written largely from Black’s prison lodgings in Florida, the first third of the book betrays an authorial struggle to find an appropriate voice. One of the few autobiographies to include a corporate organization chart, early chapters risk disclosure without revelation. The conversational tone hints at intimacy but often reads as oddly detached. The narrative breezily dashes from Black’s university days to advising Margaret Thatcher without taking a breath; the deaths of his parents ten days apart merits only a sentence fragment; and the 1996terrorist bombing of the London offices of his Daily Telegraph warrants nothing more than a passing reference to the consequent murder of the “pleasant East Indian” who sold him newspapers in the lobby. Amidst his recollections of dinners with popes and ambassadors, he skips across such weighty socio-political issues asNorthern Ireland, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict andEurope’s demographic “slow suicide”. Though entertaining, these stations on the way to the heart of Black’s travails read more as the wistful and haphazard recollections of an imprisoned man than vital elements of the tale which Black spends the balance of the book telling.
That said, isolated irrelevancies are much more welcome than Rube Goldberg details of corporate machinations which dominate the remainder of A Matter of Principle’s first two hundred pages. Corporate debt reorganizations and share buy-backs are boring and confusing whether they are lived through or merely recounted. The narrative, a “fast-moving kaleidoscope of men and events” as Black describes it, remains almost impenetrable until Black is removed from his executive position with Hollinger International. From that point, the agonizing and relentless tale of his personal near-destruction provides a crucible which focuses his writing and his ardour. It facilitates a recounting which finally begins to hurtle along.
Indeed, the story of Black’s clash with, among others, Richard Breeden, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, various corporate governance advocates, former friends and allies turned into enemies (or at least into self-preserving neutral non-combatants), crusading judges, hyper-aggressive prosecutors and police agencies is not Shakespearean so much as Lee & Kirby: physically grotesque and cosmically-evil villains, florid denunciations, lone heroes battling valiantly against seemingly insurmountable odds amidst a sea of treachery. In the hands of a less assured writer, it would be an unpleasant mess, but after his initial stumbles Black crafts a compelling chronicle of his tribulations. When Black’s passion for defending his reputation is marshalled to his command of the language, the book can be stirring.
The passages in which he expresses his love and fidelity, whether for his wife, his late brother or even deceased friends such as Emmett Cardinal Carter, are quite affecting, as he displays an instinct for powerful and direct prose. It’s a shame that to find such passages readers need to wade through almost two hundred pages and thousands of words which would bore an accountancy fetishist. (It is not until page269that we finally get an indication of the principles being defended and which are referred to in the title.)
The quip that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged finds its counterpart in the notion that a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested. While calling Conrad Black a liberal is far too reductionist a label for Conrad Black, even he writes that A Matter of Principle is, as much as anything else, the story of how the United States broke his heart (in the process of attempting more literally to break everything else about him).
As demonstrated by comments on various topics interspersed throughout the book, he appears to retain much of his previous rock-ribbed conservatism when it comes to economic and foreign-affairs matters. That makes his ruminations on the “prison-industrial complex” all the more jarring. At points, they devolve into something just barely distinguishable from conspiracy theory (evidently the US stuffs unemployed visible minorities into the maw of the prison system in order to keep down the unemployment rate and to spread government largesse in the form of kickbacks – or something like that). Understandable as the focus of his ire is, it does not mitigate shoddy reportage such as his assertion that twenty percent of the prisoners in his facility were entirely innocent. (The number is seemingly plucked from thin air and based on nothing more than his conversations with his fellow inmates.) Nor does his anger excuse his mangling of crime statistics or his reprehensible statement that it is not his place to “judge” those convicted of physical assaults against children.
The prosecution and conviction of Black is obviously the main vector along which A Matter of Principle is told, but it can become an oppressive prism through which to behold events. The story risks becoming Manichean: individuals are introduced and then tagged with reference their stance regarding his guilt or innocence; for Black, standing at the centre of a maelstrom of persecution, there are no blameless roles. As Black states, “no one except me was telling the truth, but it wasn’t clear who was lying and who was merely mistaken.” Readers could be forgiven for wondering whether it’s possible for anybody or anything to interact with Black and not be adjudged to be either with him or against him.
While he saves most of his firepower for the U.S. criminal “prosecutocracy”, it seems somewhat misallocated. Even though the criminal justice system deprived him of his freedom, it was the Delaware and Ontario civil courts and securities regulators who destroyed his businesses. He offers powerful evidence of the failings he identifies in the U.S. criminal justice system: perjury wrought by intimidating plea-bargaining; abuse of obstruction of justice charges; planted defamations; threatened invocation of “racketeering” amongst other over-charging; illegal communications intercepts; financial strangulation by means asset freezes, fake tax liens and threats of prosecution against third parties.
As a category, no one fares worse from A Matter of Principle than lawyers. Unable or unwilling to reform the system of which they are a part, Black describes the profession as a back-scratching cartel, enriched beyond dreams of avarice as they shepherd unwitting clients through the grinding system. (One lawyer, who didn’t even represent Black at trial, was paid more than $9 million by him.) But the vigour with which Black makes his case and denounces his opponents sometimes leaves him stuck in rhetorical cul-de-sacs: when court decisions go against him they are irredeemably wrong and indicative of the cancerous rot afflicting the entire judicial system; but when a decision vindicates his position, it is irrefutably correct and beyond question.
To what extent might Black succeed in persuading open-minded readers about both his personal qualities and the charges against him? It is not entirely clear that he much cares about swaying opinions – the book certainly is not a confession or a lament. He achieves the moral elevation he claims to desire. The viciousness of the prosecutorial efforts and the obtuseness of regulatory and judicial decisions against him are occasionally breathtaking: an Ontario Securities Commission decision which effectively detonates his business holdings is shocking, particularly in light of the fact that it went against the Commission’s own staff recommendations.
A Matter of Principle is even—surprisingly enough—inspirational. Black’s insistence on his honesty and innocence never shade into, as he feared it might, a “fantasyland of denial”. At times his struggle, while gently informed by his religious faith, resembles a secular destiny: as he described it, he had no moral or practical choice but to fight for his reputation. Would that, in our hour of testing, we all demonstrate such fortitude.
It is a despicable thing for a person to have their life unjustly wrenched away from them and a new “purpose” imposed on them by virtue of government fiat. But Conrad Black has done not just better than could be expected, but better than could have been imagined. The role of insurrectionist isn’t one which comes naturally to Black, but he does the best one could reasonably expect. It is difficult to imagine reading A Matter of Principle and not coming away liking Black more than when you started it – or at the very least being deeply impressed by the man.
In the end, it seems almost besides the point to ask whether he was “really” guilty of the crimes for which he was finally convicted. The book is not a lament but a settling of accounts (or at least the literary preface to such a settling). He seems ennobled by the figurative and literal trials to which he has been subjected. One is left suspecting that the best part of this story is yet to come. Then, Conrad Black, freed from prison and unshackled from the immediacy of the impositions on him, can turn his prodigious energies and appetites for knowledge and acquaintances to righting the wrongs levied against him.
Bob Tarantino is a Toronto-based lawyer and writer. Both of the firms at which Bob has practiced law are mentioned in A Matter of Principle – and they don’t come off too badly.