Black, who ran one of the world’s largest and most influential newspaper empires (the Telegraph
in London, the Jerusalem Post
, the Chicago Sun-Times
), has no assets and faces many civil suits; even the Palm Beach house, which he once owned, is only being loaned to him for a few nights by its present owner.
If I were a novel-writing sort, I would consider Black as a worthy character—not because of his fall, but because, even at 65 (in a sense, because he is only 65), he is bound to start again. Now Black is not a sympathetic figure (he and I have, on occasion, exchanged public insults and invective—without, I assume, actual rancor). Foolish, pompous, comical—even his supporters titter behind his back—he was one of the greatest social climbers of our time. And yet he was curiously sincere. Where Rupert Murdoch, his arch-rival, has always been profoundly cynical, Black is a believer—in his own importance, in the talents of his editors (a hands-off proprietor, his papers were always better than Murdoch’s), even in his own prose style. An autodidact, he wrote biographies of FDR and Nixon.
What happens to a man who has everything taken from him but who utterly continues to believe in himself, no matter how unreasonably? Black will be a Petri dish of the self. He cannot but seek to reclaim and rebuild his reputation. There is no retirement, no retreat, no licking of wounds, no quiescence, or solitude for Black. He is the ultimate public man.
The story will be as much about method as need: Public life, the lesson Black knows better than any other, is about social currency. Not for nothing were Henry Kissinger and Henry Kravis’ wife, Marie-Josée, on the board of his company. So here he is, left only with the small change of that currency—pity—having to figure out how and where to reinvest what miniscule capital he has left. There is his wife, of course, Barbara Amiel, second only to Black himself, one of the great climbers of the epoch. But this is surely subplot: how has this marriage fared after more than two years of prison and the loss of all wealth and standing?
This is not an existential plot. That’s its appeal. Not being is not an alternative. Murdoch, were he to lose everything, would be reduced to mere normal—as pathetic and inauspicious as you and I. Black is entirely self-created, an illusion he has always willed into being. His desire is stronger than his humiliation. The comical weaknesses that helped bring him low—his desperate need to uphold his lifestyle and persona—become, in my story, the strengths, no less comical, that help revivify him. The once and future Conrad, played to his fullest dramatic potential, is a worthy figure for our excessive, incorrigible, doomed but, somehow, indomitable times.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
Conrad Black is out of jail. He’s back in Palm Beach, out on bail—paid for by his friend and fellow conservative Roger Hertog—because the Supreme Court has ruled that he, along with other various abominated businessmen (including former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling), was convicted under a way-too-vague law.