“If you have nothing else, you have your principles,” Lady Margaret Thatcher told me when things were pretty tough at the American Spectator in the late 1990s. Sharks were circling the ship, and there was blood in the water, and I was getting anxious. She was serene, having just flown back from Beijing, but she was adamant. “You have your principles.” They endure and fortify you when things are dire.
Doubtless, Conrad Black has had his principles too, and they are not much different from mine, though he is Canadian. For that matter, if you are reading this, they are not much different from yours: the sanctity of the individual, individual liberty, limited government, the rule of law. Now, because he has resisted being put away in a dark place for 6 1/2 years, the rule of law is more secure. Last Thursday, all nine Supreme Court justices sided with him. They found that the “honest services” statute of a 1988 law that has been used ever since to prosecute white-collar crime is too vague and unconstitutional. The court has remanded Conrad’s conviction back to a lower court for reconsideration. I hope it is just a matter of time before his long ordeal is over.
He has lost his company, Hollister International, which provided an alternative to the mainstream media around the English-speaking world. He lost his fortune, and many friends. To the friends, I would say, au revoir. They were not much anyway, and besides, he has Seth Lipsky, Ira Stoll, Roger Hertog and thousands of others who have proved their mettle by sticking with him. And most emphatically, he has his principles.
Through the years, he has fought for his freedom, and during the 27 months he has spent in prison, I have never seen him waver in his confidence in eventual vindication. Nor have I seen him lose faith in the American rule of law or the Constitution. He got a bad break, but he recognized that in the American system of justice, he still had a chance. Nine justices have spoken. He has his chance. Now let us hope the lower court does the decent thing and lets him go. He has had one of the most brilliant constitutional lawyers of his generation, Miguel Estrada, who himself might have been on the Supreme Court were it not for the partisan poisons out there. Mr. Estrada will be hustling to get him out on bail while he awaits reconsideration.
I had the opportunity - it would be a stretch to call it a pleasure - to visit Conrad at a low-security prison in Coleman, Fla. I was not the only one. Mr. Hertog has visited him regularly, sometimes under very unpleasant circumstances. And the excellent Mr. Lipsky put in an appearance. Mr. Lipsky was like me: “What the hell am I doing here?” But it was the least we could do. We were paying our respects to a great newspaperman, and he was full of fight.
Prison is no place to be. If people talked more about it, not so many people would be trifling with such places today. Conrad did not belong there, but that was beside the point. He wanted to talk about the things we always talked about in the past, but first, he directed me from the sun court. I thought I could at least get some sun. He directed me from the heat and saved my hide. He talked about elections, great people and great issues from the present and the past. He speculated on the future and talked about economics, and the sorry state of American industrial output. He never dwelt on his own condition. That was the great war of the lawyers.
Through the past few years, he had time on his hands, and seeing an opportunity, I asked him to write for the American Spectator. He is not only a gifted publisher but also a very energetic student of history - and a noted biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon. He did a long essay on George W. Bush, FDR and the consequences of Mr. Bush’s re-election. Later, he wrote about Sean Wilentz’s book “The Rise of American Democracy,” Martin and Annelise Anderson’s “Reagan’s Secret War,” and my own book on Bill Clinton in retirement, “The Clinton Crack-Up.” The latter review was favorable, but I would not say it glowed. Conrad is his own man. Look for our September issue (the piece is already online at Spectator.org), in which he reviews Theodore Roosevelt’s visions of America. He liked Teddy. They are two of a kind.
Now he sits in prison, awaiting a lower court’s orders. He was tried on 13 counts and he beat nine of them. He was convicted of three counts of fraud and one of obstruction of justice - he had agreed to his former company’s request that he empty his office. That was construed by our government as obstruction. The hope here is that he will be cleared on all counts.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is the founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. His new book is “After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery” (Thomas Nelson, 2010).