The unsinkable Tubby Black

This column is about Conrad Moffat Black, OK, KCSG, PC. AKA Lord Black of Crossharbour, not to mention Mogul, Tycoon, Poobah, Master of the Universe and Convicted Felon. This man is no relation to A. Black, Esq.

The scribbler of this column is perfectly okay with that.

I do not care for Conrad Black for a multitude of reasons but chief among them stems from a conversation I had years ago with a Quebec journalist. At the time Conrad was acquiring small Canadian dailies and weeklies like a Monopoly player on coke. My friend was a columnist and a veteran of two Conradian takeovers. He told me the phrase Conrad Black used to describe the inevitable flurry of firings and dismissals that occurred whenever Conrad assumed control of a newspaper. Black, smiling, called the procedure ‘drowning the puppies’. As a newspaper lover and a dog fancier, that humour was just a little too Black, even for me.

Conrad Black is easy to dislike. He is arrogant, boastful, pompous and utterly contemptuous of all lesser beings, which is pretty well everyone this side of the Pope. As a newspaper proprietor he even sneered at newspaper people. In a submission to a Canadian Senate committee, Black, characteristically employing the royal ‘we’, sniffed:

“We must express the view, based on our empirical observations, that a substantial number of journalists are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, and intellectually dishonest. The profession is heavily cluttered with aged hacks toiling through a miasma of mounting decrepitude and often alcoholism, and even more so with arrogant and abrasive youngsters who substitute ‘commitment’ for insight.”

So much for his colleagues.

His enemies fared worse.

He called the Bishop of Calgary ‘a jumped up twerp’, and his business partner David Ratner ‘the rat’.

He dismissed a U.S. Vice President as a ‘mendacious hypocrite’.

He belittled his own investors as “a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites and ingrates.”

Mister Black is fond of calling people hypocrites. Interesting, coming from a man who tossed off his Canadian citizenship like a used Kleenex when a British knighthood winked in his direction.

Not surprisingly, Conrad Black became a giant neocon pinata for legions of journalists who didn’t have to work for him — and for many who did.

The now-defunct Canadian satirical magazine Frank dubbed him ‘Tubby’ after Tubby Tompkins, a character in the Little Lulu comic strip. Tubby Tompkins was a rotund and nasty, scheming child of privilege who often became a victim of his own shortcomings.

The analogy stuck.

Not that Conrad ever gave a rap. He was mega-bright, he was filthy rich and he was utterly impervious.

And then the roof fell in.

Lord Black of Crossharbour ended up swatting mosquitoes in a cell in a Florida jail.

Never in my lifetime has any mortal fallen so far and so utterly.

But here’s the thing.

Conrad Black was not beaten.

He served his time like a pro. He never cried the blues or begged for mercy or murmured contrition. He spent $100 million on his defence; still faces over $1 billion in civil suits — and yet the man is unbowed.

Is he magnificent — Or deluded?

Maybe he just has sisu in spades. Sisu is a Finnish word that means, roughly, extraordinary bravery and tenacity. The Finns showed sisu when they fought the militarily superior Russians to a standstill in the Second World War. I once asked a Finlander to explain sisu to me.

“It means having the hide of a rhinoceros,” he told me.  Then, after a pause he added, “and perhaps the brain of one too.”


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