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Sunday 25 January 2009

Bush 'a cocky, locker-room fraternity boy' 

Despite failing to gain a presidential pardon Conrad Black is as upfront as ever, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

A MUTUAL friend warned me a few months ago that George W Bush was unlikely to grant Conrad Black a presidential pardon. "George W doesn't look after his friends," he said.

Well, he was right. Bush was as parsimonious when it came to pardons or commutations of sentences as Clinton had been profligate: over his whole period as president, he granted only 189 pardons -- all to people who had served their entire sentence -- and he commuted the sentences of just 11. He refused to pardon even candidates championed by his father and his vice-president.

With the background of the present financial blizzard and the reputation of capitalists close to zero, despite the harshness of Black's sentence, his fine biographies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon and pleas from innumerable distinguished people, Bush did not relent. There was certainly a flinty integrity about that, but it was tough on some deserving people.

I emailed Black to sympathise after the last vestige of hope was extinguished and had a vintage response: "I have been something of a supporter of GWB because I think he was basically right about Iraq, stuck with it, and did well with the terrorists.

"But I know him a little and was always afraid that he was as he seemed, an ignorant, cocky, superannuated, locker room, towel-snapping frat-boy, who traded in alcoholism for low Protestant fervour, and got where he is by surviving childbirth."

Black was now, he added, almost impervious to disappointments but was ploughing on. While he didn't hold out "excessive hope" for the Supreme Court, despite the "magnificent argument" being presented to it by his lawyers, he had confidence in two subsequent actions he is planning. "In this madly litigious society, where legal bills are $1 trillion a year, the sun never sets on the process server, unless you are one of the huge throng on death row, and even then it goes on for 10 years."

Black's book about his last few years will be published in a few months and he promises "a lively read". I believe him. Liveliness certainly characterises the journalism emanating from Coleman Federal Correctional Complex. Black now blogs for Tina Brown's Daily Beast, where he recently had a splendidly acrimonious exchange with Michael Wolff over his biography Rupert Murdoch: The Man Who Owns the News.

Murdoch, said Black, "is the greatest media owner in history because he built a little company into a huge one, cracked the outrageous London print unions, broke up the three-network US television cartel, pioneered the vertically integrated media conglomerate and satellite television, and created the multi-continental media company." And no, he wasn't currying favour with Rupert Murdoch, whom he went on to add fitted "Clarendon's description of Cromwell as 'a great, bad man'".

To Black's description of his book as "confusing, cliched, replete with factual errors, and serious omissions, mind-reading suppositions and extreme psychological liberties," Wolff responded furiously on another blog to "my first jailhouse book review", and rather than answer the criticisms from the "discredited" Black, attacked him.

He has "clearly lost his mind. This, of course, is not a surprising effect of a fall from the heights to the depths, from luxury into squalor, from being endlessly stroked to being constantly mocked".

It had "undoubtedly been a challenge to go from 16 years as chairman of the Daily Telegraph and other fine newspapers, to prison", responded Black. "But imprisonment becomes a useful tool both to enhance credibility in arguing the case for vitally needed reforms and to understand the full consequence of what happens to those who are innocent and those whose punishment far exceeds their crime. This prison is strict and Spartan, as prisons generally should be, but not oppressive, dangerous, or even uninteresting. I am content -- as long as my confinement is not overly prolonged -- and in fact very proud to be in a US prison sharing the fate of hundreds of thousands of other wrongfully convicted or grossly over-sentenced people, and to be surviving it quite well. Only separation from my magnificent wife is intolerable."

Now if only this "syntactically challenged, scatologically obsessed myth-maker" who is disseminating "pelagic [oceanic] incontinences of drivel" would defend his book rather than "trumpeting the affected snobberies of a Park Avenue dowager about my current residential arrangements, it will be my pleasure to expose his book once again as the farrago of poorly written nonsense that it is".

"It was a real delight to wipe the floor with him," said Black to me in his email. "Life still has its amusements. Even if I have to serve most of this unspeakable sentence, I will come through it all right."

I can't wait for the book.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards