There are two reasons to buy and read this book. One is its entertainment value, which is high. Black is a masterly stylist and engaging narrative historian. He sets out to tell his story and winds up telling the story of his, and our, times. The book bristles with illuminating anecdotes and character sketches, not to mention intelligent asides on matters historical and political. When the U.S. responded with military action to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, it was widely criticized by testosterone-challenged wets who insisted it seek “permission” from the U.N. But whence, Lord Black wonders, did the idea arise “that the armed forces of the United States could be deployed in response to successive acts of war against the United States only with the permission of the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council”? I’ve often wondered that myself.
The book is also a gratifying trove of gossip. Did you know, for example, that the newspaper editor Max Hastings put it about that British prime minister John Major tucked his shirt inside his underpants? From his position as proprietor of the Telegraph, Lord Black knew, well, everyone. He was close to Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, and WFB, for starters. London and New York society was at his beck and call. (Speaking of knowing people, perhaps this is the place to note that I know and greatly admire Lord Black. I will not, however, let that deter me from praising his book. Even the picture captions are brilliant. I particularly liked the one about Judge Richard Posner. Of course, quandoque bonus Homerus dormitat: There are a few slips that will doubtless be corrected in one of the many future editions of this book. The Waugh who wrote Scoop was Evelyn, not Auberon; the Conservative leader was Alec Douglas-Home, not “Alec-Douglas,” etc.)
But what ensures A Matter of Principle an important place in the library of liberty is not its entertainment value but its careful anatomy of prosecutorial abuse, that triumphalist system whose end is not justice but intimidation (of us) and aggrandizement (of the government). File under the venerable principle: “Innocent until investigated.” “For the last six and a half years,” Lord Black writes, “I have been fighting for my financial life, physical freedom, and what remains of my reputation against the most powerful organization in the world, the U.S. government.”
A word about reputations and their fragility. A year or so ago, I was proud to publish in The New Criterion a long essay by Lord Black about the fate of newspapers in a digital world. I was at a party in upstate Connecticut with some early copies of the issue and, ever alert to enlist support for The New Criterion, I gave a copy to someone identified as a likely prospect. As he scanned the table of contents, his benevolent expression dissolved into one of glowering contempt. “Conrad Black! He’s a thief and a blackguard.” Really? I asked him what he knew about the case against Lord Black, which turned out to be what he’d read in organs such as the New York Times, i.e., nothing, or near enough for government work. The truth of the case didn’t matter, only the publicity, which I suppose is what reputation is all about.
Lord Black was not without resources; how would ordinary folk fare under such an onslaught? In part, the book is an admonitory tale about the nearly unfettered deployment of state power against individuals. When Lord Black sought to defend himself by engaging the storied Brendan Sullivan of Williams & Connolly, the government froze a large portion of his assets so he could not supply the required $25 million retainer. Deprive a chap of expert legal counsel, you deprive him of justice. It is a story of threats and harassment of Lord Black’s friends and associates by various government agencies from the FBI on down: Testify against Conrad Black, they insisted, so we can win a high-profile conviction, or else we’ll indict you, too. It’s a story of what Mark Steyn, who wrote a brilliant, near-daily account of Lord Black’s trial for the Canadian magazine Maclean’s, called “statute creep”: Take a law designed to combat racketeering, say, and apply it to a businessman who, whatever he may have done, has not engaged in racketeering. It’s the story, too, of a U.S. Attorney — the egregious Patrick Fitzgerald — run amok, and of a “special monitor,” former SEC chairman Richard Breeden, who began by claiming that Conrad Black was guilty of a “$500 million kleptocracy” but who went on to pocket over $25 million for his own “services” to Hollinger. When the case against Black began, Patrick Fitzgerald got up on his highest horse and declared that this was a case of “a systematic fraud of the shareholders.” His concern for Hollinger’s “shareholders” is rich: When Black was booted out of Hollinger in 2004, the stock was trading in the neighborhood of $18. It quickly collapsed, and now the company is no more. It was picked clean by those appointed to rescue it before being absorbed into the Sun-Times Media Group. How’s that for the shareholders?