He walked into the packed Grand Ballroom, at the end of a procession of Empire Club guests and bigwigs, with his head sailing steady above great rolling shoulders, a gait that suggests Conrad Black moves through a different medium than the rest of us, and that his contemplative faculties are buffered from the vicissitudes of fortune by a physical presence more than capable of taking some punches.
Black, here at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto for his first public address since his return from what he dubbed simply “an absence of five years,” attacked the room, a thousand strong, like a fighter whose arena has suddenly been transformed into a place to win love, not glory.
At the first welcoming applause of the audience Lord Black, as he was called, nodded beneficently; then a prayer was said, the Queen was toasted, and the room got down to the business at hand.
That business was Black starting on the work of ingratiating himself with a country he very publicly left behind. He worried he’d be “laborious,” called his chitchat at mid-speech a “lugubrious recitation of facts,” and he was right on both counts. But he cared little for either sin, and told it like Moses come from the mountain.
“It is Canada’s turn to speak and it will not have to shout to be heard,” he said, concluding a 25-minute speech that extolled the country of his birth as the nation of the future. “These were my thoughts in my recent sojourn with the Americans that have been confirmed by my grateful return to this country.”
But of course Black’s Sinai was the Federal Correctional Institution in Miami (his prison at the time of his release), and his commandments–that Canada agitate for NATO to be refashioned as a “defensive alliance of all reasonably democratic countries,” to reform voting procedures at the United Nations and to peg currencies “mixed standards of gold, oil and consumer prices”–came to him during his time as inmate #18330-424.
“Now it may seem to you implausible that I was actually thinking about such things as this in my previous residence,” Black told his audience, which sat largely in rapt silence during the address, a great vista of baldness, tastefully dark suits and grey. “But anyone familiar with the intellectual life of a U.S. federal prison could confirm that this kind of reflection is the only practical form of partial escape that is available.”
Black himself introduced such back-from-the-mountaintop rhetoric, acknowledging that “Canadians are notoriously not messianic or self-important, and have no illusions about being a light unto the world.” Put that aside, he seemed to be saying; I am come.
Or maybe he was Jonah, as re-imagined by Northrop Frye as a man consumed by the leviathan to the south : “Living in the belly of the great American beast as I did, and having seen the underside of Norman Rockwell’s and even Bill Buckley’s America in these times gave me a refreshed perspective on Canada and its evolution and distinction from the United States.”
It was only in such oblique terms that he acknowledged his plight as an ex-con–his book, A Matter of Principle, he said “is largely concerned with those travails, so you will be relieved to hear that I have not come here to talk about any of that and I will speak no more of any of it today.”
Instead he launched into a potted history of the symbiotic inter-relationships of Canada and the U.S., one that he suggested split sometime after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. “Then astonishingly having fulfilled its early promise and long determination to lead and over-awe the world, the United States has seemed to lose its talent not only at official strategic thinking, but even at times at self-government.”
From then, offering his audience a litany of American troubles, he spit out the details: “A vaunted Wall Street, which had ruled the world’s finances since the times of J.P. Morgan, issued trillions of dollars of worthless real estate-backed assets that were certified by the rating agencies before whom the greatest national treasuries and international corporations quail, as investment grade.”
His sins, he seemed to be saying–whatever they might be, and he was convicted and jailed for them–pale against that grander and more odious crime.
And in this new world, a universe of rising Chinas and Indias and a North America neutered of manufacturing, “it is the multiple resource exporters among advanced countries, especially Canada and Australia, that are advantaged.”
Yea, and the meek shall inherit the earth.
Yet still, in his preamble and elsewhere, Black sized himself up, and laughed. “A friend generously sent me last night the predictions of a Maclean’s blogger, that my comments today would be laborious and that the only interesting thing would be the identity of those who attended,” he said. “The absence of–no applause on that one–the absence of my wife today may indicate that she had similar premonitions. And they may be correct.
“But I do promise an earnest effort to be sufficiently brief not to exterminate for you as a summer weekend begins the prospect of a sleepless afternoon.
He sure can talk and, when he wasn’t being laborious or lugubrious, it was lovely language to listen to.