Spin Report: Operation Charm, Day 10
In 1976, McClelland & Stewart released Conrad Black’s book version of his McGill thesis, Render Unto Caesar: The Life and Legacy of Maurice Duplessis, a sometimes flattering probing of the legacy of the infamous Quebec premier. Young and attractive, the then proprietor of the Sherbrooke Record was of course available for interviews, and as the producer of a Montreal-based CBC evening show, we booked him. He was thoroughly engaging, and as an intellectual, historian and social animal, obviously remains so today.
During a break in the trial last week, he was ably showing the amiable side of his character at a Toronto book launch party for Barbara Amiel’s former husband, George Jonas, at Massey College. The college is the domain of another thoroughly charming and well-connected man about town, John Fraser, himself a former journalist and Black friend.
Black’s willingness to pose with Jonas and his wife for a party-crashing Sun reporter won him a glowing front photo and inside full page. Joe Warmington, the scribe in question, was over the moon: “[Black’s] got a great sense of humour and really doesn’t come across in person how he seems when in media scrums.”
Seems even in Chicago, where the media is starting to report the prosecution’s lack of traction, Black is more relaxed and accessible, chatting with reporters and inviting Dominick Dunne of Vanity Fair to dinner.
In a lifetime of handling pretentious and difficult people, I’ve learned that most are just fine in positive situations, in small groups, with friends or family, but are almost invariably edgy, impatient and snappy when under pressure, especially from shouting journalists. Put just about anyone in trouble in a scrum and you’ll get the worst of them. Put them in relaxed situations where reporters are being human and the chemistry improves.
I last met Conrad a few weeks ago at the Grano lecture series, an irregular gathering of a veritable who’s who of Toronto’s lovely and powerful, to hear a learned lecture by Anne Applebaum. We talked warmly about his wife, whom I had worked with at the CBC so long ago, and he promised to pass on my best. I told him how I had lost a coin toss with another young producer to see who would ask Barbara on a date.
So how would I advise this approachable, sometimes gentle man with the huge brain as he faces weeks of ugly accusations, potentially nasty scrums and a possible jail term?
This becomes more of a challenge since 12 very ordinary Chicagoans, not old friends or elite Torontonians or Vanity Fair reporters, hold his fate in their hands. His literary accomplishments and undeniable social graces will mean nothing to them.
And yet, he’s clearly got it in him. And to continue to display it is how I would advise him. Be accessible, seduce with words, exhibit an articulated confidence, moderated with a degree of humility. This presentation of himself could make him far more powerful in his own defence than is generally conceded. Operation Charm could just work.