Why the Long Pen?

Why the Long Pen?

You couldn’t make it up. Monday evening, in a dingy warehouse-like book store in downtown Toronto, Conrad Black, under virtual house arrest in Florida, made use of a virtual technology called the LongPen to sign copies of his Nixon bio. He was introduced by the LongPen’s inventor, Margaret Atwood, and subsequently interviewed by CTV’s Seamus O’Regan before “signing” dozens of books for a mostly sympathetic audience. The LongPen allows Black to both sign the book more or less in real time (using a device so precisely calibrated that it replicates the exact pressure exerted by the writer’s hand at the other end) and carry on a two-way videoconference with his interlocutors.

While it wasn’t the first time the LongPen has been used to create a simulacrum of a book signing it was, as Atwood announced from the stage, “the most sensational.” Book signings by their very nature produce an odd assortment of eccentrics and outright wing nuts. These, combined with a smattering of the great and good (entertainment lawyer and agent Michael Levine, Atwood’s hubby Graeme Gibson, former CBC chairman Patrick Watson, the ubiquitous Heather Reisman) and a battery of photographers, print and broadcast journalists, produced more than a hint of sheer weirdness.

Among the former group was a man (much noticed in this morning’s press) dressed in what looked to be a white chef’s suit decorated with prominent red satin maple leaves. He referred to himself as “Mr. Canada.” Several hours before the event, Mr. Canada, whose face is also tattooed with red leaves, could be seen patrolling the aisles of the store, periodically wandering over to where workers were setting up the room and it’s technological doodads. For a while he stood near the rear of the cordoned-off area responding to techies testing the various mikes—“check, check, one two, check”—by shouting in a vaguely Middle Eastern accent, “Mr. Canada can hear you. That’s fine. He can hear you fine.” Later, he took a seat in the front row beside another early arrival, a Toronto Web designer and self-proclaimed “Nixonologist,” William Stratas. Their conversation turned briefly on an effort by Mr. Stratas to disabuse Mr. Canada of his sense that Conrad Black was the victim of a gross injustice. Delivered in a rapid fire staccato, Stratas could be heard saying “This is a guy who could be making license plates for the next 15 to 20 years… He won’t be playing golf, that’s for sure. He’s not headed to Club Fed, etc., etc.” At this news, Mr. Canada seemed somewhat nonplussed, but sat expectantly nonetheless gripping a news clipping and photo of Black’s encounter with Rick Mercer, which he hoped Black would later sign.

As the time for Black’s virtual appearance neared, the seats began to fill, the media arrived in force and the various participants—Atwood, O’Regan, Levine—drifted between air kiss greetings (“Hooray, hooray,” exulted Dame Peggy upon O’Regan’s arrival) and various media moments (at one point Levine leaned into a gaggle of reporters and, in a portentous half-whisper said, “That man I was just speaking to—he produced a television show called The Littlest Hobo”). Atwood danced from interview to interview extolling the virtues of her invention and praising the evening’s subject. “He’s a serious historian,” she repeated several times, emphasizing the word “serious” in a serious tone. She even pimped for one of the more obvious bits of PR bullshit—a sign at the front of the stage announcing that:

“By taking LongPen instead of an airplane to this event Conrad Black will save 1764 lbs of CO2 emissions.”

Eventually, the real show began to take shape. A techie appeared on screen sitting at a desk in Conrad’s Palm Beach study, a variety of thick tomes and the Encyclopaedia Britannica lined up on shelves behind his head. And then, in an instant, Black appeared. He looked fitter and more confident than at any time since the early days of the trial. “He’s our Paris Hilton,” someone said behind me. He parried O’Regan’s lob ball questions, always with a decisive cock of the head and a half smile playing at the corner of his mouth. In response to the one vaguely controversial query concerning Chrétien’s claim that Black had begged the former PM to let him sit in the Senate as a Liberal, Black replied cocksuredly: “On the business of sitting as a senator, I said you could do both, and as to sitting as a Liberal I said I’d consider it.” From there, it was a litany of Black versions of Nixon’s greatest hits: “When I first met him he sounded to me more like Rich Little than Richard Nixon… He was not uniquely sleazy… The country wanted David Frost to prove that they were right in chasing him from office—Nixon was never going to give them that.” In the midst of this impressive but well rehearsed recitation, Black was asked which Canadian prime minister he would chronicle if he had the chance. “Mackenzie King,” he replied without hesitation, and, in elaborating, recited from memory lines of F.R. Scott’s satirical poem W.L.M.K.

Later, a high school history teacher asked Black to sign his book with a greeting that repeated G. Gordon Liddy’s response to his prison sentence for the Watergate crimes. Again Black didn’t miss a beat. “I’m happy to quote Gordon Liddy—and happy to quote Nietzsche, ‘That which does not destroy me makes me stronger.’ Meanwhile, Gordon Liddy is 83, has a huge radio audience and is as fit as a fiddle.”

It was the sort of performance that reminded the room why it was they’d been fascinated with Black in the first place. And as the evening wore down, having genially fended off foes and jocularly made common cause with his friends, Black signed Mr. Canada’s wrinkled photo. Moments later he signed a copy for Heather Reisman, who suggested the book would make a fine seasonal gift with the startling and entirely mischievous proclamation that “Christmas just isn’t Christmas without Richard Nixon.”

Border no barrier for Black’s autograph pen: Source [The Globe and Mail]

LongPen lets Black see fans: Source [Toronto Star]

Conrad Black is back … virtually, at least: Source [National Post]