Cover

The Retreat of an Emperor

Peter C. Newman August 14 2000
Cover

The Retreat of an Emperor

Peter C. Newman August 14 2000

The Retreat of an Emperor

Cover Essay

Peter C. Newman

In the fall of 1997, when the Rev. Bill Phipps, moderator of the United Church of Canada, questioned Jesus Christ’s divinity, comics Linda Cullen and Bob Robertson immediately picked up the cue. “Great news,” they chuckled,” Conrad’s back in the running.” Not anymore.

Last week’s stunning sale of the bulk of his Canadian newspaper empire downgraded Black’s imperial status and burst his napoleonic pretensions. So recently the dean of Canada’s business elite, he now ranks a distant also-ran to Izzy Asper, the Jewish kid from Minnedosa, Man., who has never paid much attention to the rites of the Canadian Establishment, which returned the favour by ignoring him and his impressive heir, Leonard.

While Conrad can recite the latest ranking of cardinals in the Vatican’s byzantine pecking order, it’s the Aspers who are riding the wave of the future. It’s called convergence and it will dramatically alter Canada’s reading and viewing habits. The ascendancy of an unpretentious Winnipeg-based family as the overlords of this new media mix also marks a defining geographical shift in power. The New Economy thrives where its most creative ideas take root—Bay Street no longer has an economic monopoly.

What better evidence than the sudden downgrading of Conrad Black’s clout and editorial dominance. This has nothing to do with money. The fact that the business empire he launched in 1978 with the estimated $7 million and change that he inherited from his father has now been sold for $3.5 billion—leaving valuable newspaper properties in London, Jerusalem and Chicago still on the table—is an impressive achievement. But Black is proud and impudent enough not to have wanted the yet-to-be-written second volume of his autobiography to end in such inglorious fashion.

I have interviewed Black off and on over the past quarter century. What struck me most forcefully was his lust for power; he basked in its afterglow like a lover. “He has a natural knack of demonstrating personal power,” noted the late Igor Kaplan, one of his early lawyers. “People in negotiating situations pick up the vibrations of that power subconsciously from the way he moves and listens.” Whether he was buying a newspaper chain or selling an energy conglomerate, he brought to the corporate wars a highly developed sense of the dramatic and a barely suppressed instinct for mischief. He rationalized his ceaseless grab for power with brash certainty

‘This is the time to build up one’s reserves’

that he was somehow exempt from evil intent, assuming that any corporate behaviour that ran counter to his convenience constituted a wilful denial of his due.

Black’s main weapons are remarkable intelligence and a mastery of multitudinous words that never made it into any thesaurus. (He once described his wife, Barbara Amiel, as being “pretematurally” sexy, which means “something above and beyond nature.”) In all his writings and business endeavours, he is attentive to detail. (That tendency was first manifested I in his biography of Maurice Duplessis, ¡1 where he noted that the former Quebec premier’s urethral aperture was an inch removed from the head of his penis.)

His flight from Canadian investment reflects Black’s strong feeling that while he is honoured elsewhere (i.e., being offered a British title), the one audience whose applause has so far eluded him is from his own country. (There is some disagreement among Conrad-watchers as to whether Black likes to think of himself as the unrecognized embodiment of what’s best about Canada. I’ve never subscribed to this view because if he decided to personify any country, it would be a far grander, better managed and less untidy nation than ours.) “Canada functions awkwardly,” he once told me, “because it is an accidental country. We did not arise from any heroic revolution or statesmanship of our own.”

It’s difficult to divine Conrad Black’s future. But I remember asking him about his prospects at the end of a lengthy interview in 1982, when his direction lacked focus, as it does now. “I act from intuition,” he told me, “and my intuition tells me at the moment that, just as a squirrel is good at putting up acorns, or whatever the hell squirrels collect, this is the time to build up one’s reserves and get into a solid material condition.” “I don’t want to sound pseudo-biblical,” he added, “but there is a time to assemble and organize your assets, if you are a so-called man of means, as I am judged to be.”

The fact that his strategy was not producing maximum shareholder benefits prompted Black to sell. But the move was characteristic of past strategic retreats. “I’m a great believer in not becoming hypnotized by the rhythm of one’s own advancement,” he once confided to me. “I have always felt it was the compulsive element in Napoleon that drew him into greater and greater undertakings, until he was bound to fail.”

Like Napoleon, Conrad Black will now be watching the shifting winds of media power, in exile, from his own Elba.