Could it really be true? Could so much talent, intelligence and energy end up in a Chicago courtroom, surrounded by a fog of pathos? Had the most remarkable, confident and versatile Canadian of his generation somehow put himself in a position where he could be broken on the wheel of American justice? How could Conrad Black, of all people, have let this happen?
It seemed impossible, some kind of bad dream or weird joke. But yesterday, when Judge Amy St. Eve sentenced him to 6 1/2 penitentiary years (with the possibility of only a 15% parole), the story suddenly acquired the unmistakable contours of harsh reality.
From beginning to end, Lord Black insisted he had done nothing wrong, and certainly he was justified in objecting to the bizarre tactics of the prosecutors, who leaked to the media every morsel of harmful gossip they could uncover, none of it (as things turned out) related to his guilt or innocence.
Ambition-crazed, they even claimed that this criminal they had on the hook had stolen US$500-million. "Enron," the most delightful word in a prosecutor's vocabulary, must have danced through their heads.
The pre-sentencing report to the judge mentioned a rather lower figure, $6.1-million -- serious money, to be sure, but nothing like the figure claimed by the prosecutors.
Yesterday, hoping to increase the length of the jail sentence, a prosecutor read aloud one of Lord Black's glib e-mails. It had nothing to do with the crimes for which he was being sentenced and the judge wouldn't have been fooled. But it must have been satisfying, just to drag out a little longer the pleasure of sending away someone so brilliant and arrogant.
Through the whole process, from the first criminal proceedings to last week, Lord Black reacted with flamboyantly articulate indignation, pouring invective on his tormentors. That only gave them a sense of injured pride, to intensify their already determined plans to bring him down.
This was a Lord Black his friends knew all too well, the one who brought the word "hubris" to their lips. It would never occur to him that denouncing the prosecution won't help you win a criminal trial, even if you happen to believe that every adjective you utter is no more than the simple truth. Anyone who suggested he calm down would have been denounced for gutless poltroonery and maybe pusillanimity as well.
In 62 years, Lord Black has learned nearly everything about politics without ever getting a grip on the public relations part. And in recent years, even his admirers (among whom please include me) realized that he was strangely dense in this one way.
He didn't understand that you stop swaggering like a prince when your army has been defeated and your castle is on fire. He apparently never guessed (so far as his actions demonstrate) that someday he might need the sympathy of the Canadian public, if only to reclaim the Canadian citizenship he so carelessly disowned.
Politics (even corporate politics) requires that you charm your enemies as well as your friends. That was beyond Lord Black's imagination. He didn't realize that unhappy shareholders required tactful handling. He might have avoided most of his legal troubles if he had reacted with calm reassurances to disgruntled investors. Instead he gave them bluster and insults. This made them think that he had something to hide -- and made them decide that even if he were innocent, they would beat him up anyway, for the fun of it.
In the shadow of the Chicago disaster, it's easy to forget what he's done for Canada. In the 1990s, anybody could tell that Canadian journalism was mediocre, but only Conrad Black did anything about it.
Just about everyone who worked for him eventually grasped that he was ambitious in the best sense. Unlike nine out of 10 publishers, he was interested above all in making good newspapers, and he asked of his employees only that they care as much about quality as he did. Many of them, astonished by this unique demand, responded by performing better than they had ever dreamt they could. Buying the Southam chain, he awakened it from a generation of slumber. He started a new daily, the National Post, and I for one (working elsewhere) was astonished to find that from the first day, it was the best Canadian newspaper I had ever read.
That's why so many of his former colleagues across the country hope that, one way or another, he will make his way through this swamp and return, eventually, to our ranks.