Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Farewell to Conrad

There will be appeals and the civil cases will continue for a few years, but the conviction of Conrad Black marks then end of his era.

Like him or hate him (and admit it, most of vacillated on this one) since his rise to power in the 1970's Conrad's time marked an era here in Canada. He was in many ways the conservative answer to Pierre Trudeau -- just slightly out of synch in terms of timing. He was unafraid of his convictions and unafraid to articulate them (and articulate them and articulate them) and do to so not just in his words but in the way he lived his life and carried out his business. He stood for an old world, one in which there was a different set of the rules for the rich and privileged and he could not understand why there would not be.

In a coldly analytical way his fall is righteous: he not only broke the law he fundamentally failed many of his own principles which supposedly placed realism and sensible assessment of facts-on-the ground over starry-eyed wishfull thinking. Nevertheless, I feel a sadness in watching the colour drain out of Conrad's life as it marks the loss of loss of one of the few bits of colour left on our public stage. Who do we have today in a real leadership role (it is easy to be colourful if you are just one of the many court jesters our society has) in Canada (or the West generally for that matter) who fascinates the way that Conrad (whose court jester, Barbara Amiel is amusing in her own strident way) has for the last thirty years? Stephen Harper? We know he is eating his Wheatabix this morning with his warm cup of decaf. M. Stefan Dion? How much excitement can there be in spandex bicycling pants and walking that bloody great husky of his? Our business leaders are mostly ex-bureaucrats as best I can see and that just about says it all.

The commentators have focused on his defiance of the shareholders' rights crowd as the beginning of his fall. I actually think it was the renunciation of his Canadian citizenship over the foolishness of a few baubles and a place in the House of Lords that marked the beginning of the end. It was about then that he started to quit the stage of Canada and also to quit the stage of his press empire in a serious way. He suddenly seemed not so much the swashbuckler as the petulant spoiled child caught in a sandbox war with a thuggish bully. The sale of his papers suggested the abandonment of public square and its battle of ideas for a more self-indulgent private life. It was also the sale of his papers that led directly to the actions for which he now stands convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice.

When Pierre Trudeau left the stage (leaving aside his short encore at the time of Meech Lake) he sadly tarnished his image (and destroyed John Turner) with a spurt of patronage appointments that could not really be explained by any public interest need. He was planning no third act then and seemed to want to leave the stage now that he (rather than Joe Clark) had chosen the time and retire into the peace of a private life of Montreal. The tarnish would be little visible and was obviously forgotten by the time of his death.

Conrad leaves the stage pushed by his own personal Joe Clarks (quick name some of those shareholder rights activists or prosecutors) and there will be no surprise election to restore him to power. There will be a few years of gossip and legal news and -- barring an early demise -- and then a fade into obscurity in a nasty prison cell in the United States. He will be cut-off forever from the country that made him and, despite his harsh words, that he seems to love and his disgrace will be complete. Unlike Lord Archer whose plays and novels can sell regardless of his character, Conrad's books, essays and diatribes will find little audience coming from a man with a prison pallor and an orange jumpsuit. In due course the media attention will fade and in five to fifteen years we will read a small article on his release from prison and then, some years later, a somewhat longer, nostaglic obituary in the Globe and perhaps a few British papers.

This will be a small end to a large personality.

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