Politics & Policy

Back to Prison

One does what one must.


Though I suspect many readers are as bored with the subject as I am, I yield to a commissioning editor’s request for some reflections on returning to prison. Having spent 29 months in a federal prison already, I know what to expect. I have seen the immediate future, and it doesn’t work very well; but it is survivable. Like any trip of any duration, it requires a lot of wrapping up of pending matters. Packing is not a problem, since I am not allowed to bring anything in except eyeglasses and a small religious object. As soon as I kiss my wife goodbye, I will be meticulously strip-searched and my clothes sent back to her in a parcel, as I join the sartorial style-setters of the residents of the Bureau of Prisons. I am planning a fierce pursuit of fitness and weight loss, building upon the partial success of my previous sojourn with the same congenial hosts, which has been interrupted by my last four months of rather sumptuous dining in New York.

Hoping that authors still receive some indulgence for crassness as they hustle their books, I do invite anyone with any residual interest in these matters to look at my book about it, A Matter of Principle, which will be published this week (Random House and McClelland & Stewart). I have been pre-recording a good deal of promotional interviews for it in New York, for Canada and the U.S., these past two weeks. I must confess to having made a mistake in yielding to the publisher’s urgings to talk to a writer for Vanity Fair, a slick but vulgar glossy that usually decapitates its subjects. By the standards of that magazine, it was fairly civil and made a number of the points I wanted to make. But about half of it was snide and I was mocked for being talkative, when all I did was answer the writer’s questions. It is the first time, in much and long experience with the media, that I have been raked over the coals on those grounds. Having agreed to be interviewed, it would have been eccentric to reply with nothing but a variant of John Foster Dulles’s immortal response to a press question: “No comment, and that’s off the record.”

Perhaps it will do something for book sales, but I doubt it. I don’t commit crimes, but I frequently make mistakes, and this foray into the U.S. media jungle was one of them. I will not reply to the piece here, or anywhere else, other than a few points. I wish to salve concerns that have been expressed on the Internet that I indicated what my current economic net worth is. I did not, other than that it had appreciably diminished in the last eight years. And, though it speaks only to the author’s thoroughness and doesn’t indicate any malice, I certainly did not say that the chapel at my home in Toronto consecrated by Cardinal Carter and Cardinal Ambrozic dates to when I was two years old. At that time, my family lived in Forest Hill (Toronto), and my parents were, as they remained, rather sketchily practicing Protestants, and they would have been astounded, though not disconcerted, to think that 50 years later a Roman Catholic place of worship would be built at their future home. This only reflects the ease with which the author, surprisingly for a reputable business non-fiction author, engaged in pure, inexplicable invention.

I also resent the underestimation of aspects of my formal education; I was expelled from two private schools, but also quit a third, I suspect, a forenoon before being expelled from it too. I not only failed first year at law school, as was accurately reported, but very nicely managed the more astounding feat of failing my freshman undergraduate year, but did recover to earn both those degrees and a third (despite a minor dust-up over my thesis at the Senate of McGill University, where I was nobly assisted by my former school master, Sen. Laurier Lapierre).

And Barbara is once again the victim in Vanity Fair of completely false imputations of addiction to private jet travel, and the total fiction that she dragged me into a turbo-social life. To the extent we had any such life, it was my fault and responsibility. My distinguished maternal grandfather, after whom I am named because I was born on his birthday, said in the early phase of my school problems, “For some people, experience is a slow teacher.” In my case, it is probably more accurate that I am a slow learner, but I have now learned to stay away from some kinds of journalists.

My only fear for the next seven months is the sadness of being separated from Barbara, although I am also resigned to tedium. I am not returning to custody like one of Santa’s toy-making, happy elves singing “Hi-ho,” but one does what one must: “Ours not to reason why,” and so forth. I will be editing my next book, the Strategic History of the United States, and preparing for the demolition of the spurious civil claims that remain in Canada, plus whatever job I am assigned, and will do what I can to make the time pass quickly.

There will be an e-mail, though not an Internet, connection, so I should be able to continue this and other columns I write, unless the authorities decline to renew my previous arrangements. It is much to the credit of the Bureau of Prisons that it permitted me to file columns when I was last their guest (by agreement, I did not write about the prison I was in and contributed what I was paid to our family’s charitable foundation). I would not rule out that officialdom is shirty about the disintegration of its case and what it might possibly construe as my failure to be adequately chastened by being sent, and sent back, to prison.

If my confinement does anything to encourage any of the other victims of this awful system, it is an honor. And I continue to believe, as I quoted Henry D. Thoreau in this space when I first reported to prison in March 2008, that “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.” I don’t have much choice, as I would never consider fleeing, but in that one sense, I belong there and am happy to return. I do expect I will come back to the United States eventually, but will look forward to meeting my American friends when they come to Canada or Britain.

As I have often said, the United States has certainly not ceased to be a great country just because it has persecuted me; it hasn’t ceased to be a great country at all. Though I go to a place where the avoidance of complete cynicism is a challenge, I will try to make the most of it, and accept my fate focused on the better life beyond the gate and on the encouragement of many kind souls. My plan is to divide the number of days I have to serve by the number of pounds I hope to lose, keep in mind the range of sticks and carrots with which my superhumanly fat-averse wife will reward performance, and downsize myself toward liberty in increments. I will try to gain from the experience, and again fervently thank all those who have been supportive in these prolonged travails. I will be back in the spring, and to a quieter life than I have known for a long time.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com. This column was written for the National Post and National Review Online.


The Latest