Conrad Black: His apologia for Richard Nixon in new bio

Historians in the News

... As a follow-up to Black’s hefty biography of his acknowledged hero, F. D. Roosevelt (2003), what other American President would he choose but the only one to have resigned his high office in disgrace? How not to read more than coincidence into the fact that Black – no ordinary biographer, but a press baron with time on his hands since being obliged to resign from his own public position in 2003 – is also disgraced, in the eyes of a world seen by both as malicious, just as his book appears?

The degree of Schadenfreude common to both cases further suggests the notion of one guilty man attempting to rehabilitate another – and so, in the process, himself. Apparently confident of his own acquittal, Lord Black of Crossharbour perhaps intended it to coincide with his impassioned vindication of Nixon as “one of America’s greatest political leaders”, cruelly maligned by his unworthy contemporaries. Unfortunately for the author, he has no successor with the power to grant him, too, a pardon, thus avoiding the public washing of dirty linen attendant upon a lengthy trial – whose details we literary jurors are required by the supreme court of impartiality to attempt to ignore.

It is no easy task, although Black’s skills as a historian are not to be underestimated. He marshals evidence persuasively, tells a story well, is a knowledgeable student of American history. But he keeps undermining these virtues with his self-important use (and misuse) of quirky, overwrought language, too often stooping (like Nixon) to mere abuse when dismissing contemporary judgements in favour of his own, based on a sense of right and wrong as questionable as his subject’s. Throughout the Watergate affair, for instance, the author is constantly urging Nixon to doctor, withhold, or destroy the White House tapes which proved his undoing.

From the outset, Black makes it quite clear whose side he is on. Impartiality may not be a prerequisite of an effective biographer – quite the opposite, in my view – but a sense of balance surely is. As Black rehashes the familiar details of the many crises in Nixon’s long career, he is not merely reinterpreting events with the benign spin of like-minded hindsight; he is saying: this is how I would have handled it myself. He is identifying with his subject – a fellow Machiavel with the same self-righteous hostility to his critics – to the point of indistinguishability. ...
Read entire article at Anthony Holden in the Times Literary Supplement

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