Flames grow hot but he stays cool: A tad late for lunch, Black says, 'I had to stamp out some fires'
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 18 November 2003)

Even as mobs of enraged shareholders were burning his corporation to the ground, metaphorically speaking, Conrad Black yesterday sat quietly in Bymark, an elegant off-Bay-Street restaurant in Toronto, drinking Chardonnay with his cheese-and-lobster sandwich and talking not business but literature, specifically his new book, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom.

Only hours earlier he had surrendered his position as head of Hollinger International, and as we spoke platoons of lawyers in several cities were plotting ingenious lawsuits to relieve him of what their clients consider his ill-gotten gains. But he's an author, after all, with a big book in the stores: He's on a book tour, and first things come first. Nothing, not even the loss of a personal empire that once circled the globe, matters more to an author than chatting about his book, its genesis, its early reviews (remarkably good), and its potential impact on the world.

The fact that this particular book describes a flamboyant, stylish and imaginative politician, a world leader with whom Lord Black might well sympathize and even at times identify, added a piquant flavour to the occasion.

In the restaurant no innocent observer could have suspected that this man was in the tightest spot of a long, turbulent career. The business calamities of the last few days had not visibly ruffled him.

He talked with a happy passion about his subject, chatting and laughing, a demonstration of sang-froid in its purest form. That's a word he likes, and applies admiringly to Roosevelt's demeanour in moments of crisis. Put another way, Lord Black was totally cool.

I had guessed that pressing financial affairs might prevent our meeting but in fact he arrived only 10 minutes late. "Sorry to be held up," he said. "I had to stamp out some fires." He paused to let me imagine the flames rising around him, then added: "All in a day's work."

He noted that recent developments in his career might be said to give new meaning to the phrase "struggling writer."

And he is, very much, a writer, more than he has ever been before. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom works through one of the great subjects of the last century in an organized, lively, and persuasive way.

Lord Black started thinking about it some 25 years ago. He collected books connected with Roosevelt and over the years often wrote lengthy notes in them. Five years ago he started writing in earnest, with the help of five researchers, two of them at the Roosevelt library in Hyde Park, N.Y.

At the beginning he had in mind a contribution to the series of short biographies that George Weidenfeld commissioned for his British publishing company. But his book as finished is far from short.

It's easily the thickest new book in the stores this season: 500,000 words, plus illustrations, in 1,280 pages. At that it's 75,000 words shorter than the original draft. And Lord Black claims that for what he wanted to do, define a man and the era he dominated, it's not excessively long.

He sent the manuscript off in five sections to his editor in New York, William Whitworth, who used to edit the Atlantic Monthly. Each section would come back to him with 150 or so suggestions for changes. Over a year or so, he and Whitworth went through this process three times until a final text emerged. Others read parts of the manuscript and offered their advice -- Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Henry Kissinger, George Will, Tom Wolfe, and George Jonas, as well as Barbara Amiel, Lady Black.

It's hard to imagine combining a monumental piece of work like this with a business career that's studded with conflict and controversy. He worked it out by writing late at night. He would begin at 11 if the Blacks had been out, at 10 if they had spent the evening at home. He would write or edit until two or three in the morning.

"The hours I devoted to it are the time other people devote to playing tennis or golf, watching television, or reading books that aren't about Roosevelt."

Several friends of mine reacted with goggle-eyed astonishment when they heard that Conrad Black, of all people, had written a sympathetic biography of Franklin Roosevelt. Lord Black, after all, is a conservative and FDR remains the chief god of American liberalism. Moreover, he was adored by just the kind of politicos Black despises -- taxing, spending, regulating, price-setting near-socialists who always urged FDR to go farther, faster.

Not surprisingly, Lord Black brings to this subject his own political agenda. "I'm challenging the Left's ownership of Roosevelt. He wasn't on the Left, he was a centrist. He didn't even like the Left. He manipulated them, but he didn't like them, the labour leaders and the rest. He thought them tedious zealots. He wanted a just society but not a socialist one."

In the Black view, Roosevelt saved market capitalism because he understood that the U.S. had to have a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth or face social disaster. He was offended that the rich, "his natural peers," called him a traitor to his class even as he was safeguarding their sheltered world. As a rich man he had his own selfish reasons.

"He didn't want mobs storming the driveway at Hyde Park and burning down his house."

Lord Black argues that Roosevelt was not only the greatest of all American presidents but also the most important person of the twentieth century.

He was an almost uniformly successful war leader, far more so than Washington or Lincoln. "Roosevelt created the circumstances in which America and the other democracies could win the peace and lead the world to a happier time than it had ever known before."

FDR advanced his various causes, whether the Tennessee Valley Authority or the supremacy of the Democratic Party or the defeat of Hitler, with infinite cunning and guile.

"Even I had not realized how devious he was," Lord Black said. "He was not Machiavellian -- he made Machiavelli look like a Sunday School teacher."

What he said rarely had any direct relationship with what he planned to do. In 1940 he ran for a third term as president on the promise of keeping America out of the war. Soon he was providing help to Britain. He promised neutrality, but defined it as neutrality on the British side.

In his conversation or his letters, the word "friend" was a highly dubious term, often enthusiastically applied to those who were about to feel a knife in their backs.

The Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King, was apparently the only statesman who was impressed enough by his use of this word to write about it. He noted in his diary that FDR used "friend" in relation to anyone on the scene -- King George VI, Churchill, Mackenzie King himself, even the Canadian governor general. "Rather a lack of discrimination," King wrote.

In 1921 polio sentenced Roosevelt to life in a wheelchair, but after about 1923 he never spoke of his feelings about it to anyone, not even his wife. "No one knew him. He was the complete loner," Black remarked. Roosevelt would make deliberately incongruous remarks, like "funny as a crutch" or "I've got to run," as if to prove he had so completely surmounted his condition he no longer worried about it. Lord Black accepts the traditional view that FDR interpreted the onset of polio as a supreme test of his ability to achieve his ambition, which was to lead the country. "And his ability to function normally demonstrated to him that everything was possible. If he could do this, what could he not do?"

It was clear from our conversation that Lord Black sees Roosevelt as an inspiring figure, a great if not always honest man who did more for the world and his country than anyone else in his time -- and someone who should not be forgotten. In print or in conversation, he makes the case for FDR extremely well.

Yesterday he was, as always, charming and erudite and amusing, perfect company in fact. And I know that as a connoisseur of all things Napoleonic he will understand that the experience was just slightly like having a conversation with Napoleon about his art collection on the day after Waterloo.

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