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My dinner with Conrad

All in an evening's dinner, Patricia Best hears of persecution, revenge and the growing 'Conrad Black Movement'

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

TORONTO — Conrad Black appears at the midtown Toronto restaurant Scaramouche almost on time and not much later than me, on a snowy night. The dinner is at my invitation. He has already left word he will be running late. This is very flattering. Last time we had dinner — and I don't want to give the impression we dine together regularly — he had appeared 40 minutes late, exactly as I had expected, given his reputation for fashionable tardiness.

He looks better than ever. Trimmer than in previous times. Younger seeming and certainly handsome. He is energetic, engaged, relaxed. He grins, he charms, he appears genuinely happy — an extraordinary thing for a man in his position.

His position is that of Celebrity Accused. In two weeks, he will sit in a Chicago courtroom to confront the institutional wrath of the U.S. Department of Justice and to defend himself against charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering. He faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. But he is a man chomping at the bit, eager to engage in the battle to come very shortly, stimulated at the prospect of having to fight for his life.

To say Lord Black is of interest to people is to say the foie gras at Scaramouche is tasty. There has been a crescendo of fascination building ahead of his trial. Tom Bower's recently published book Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge — the subject of an $11-million libel suit launched by Conrad two weeks ago — fed the appetite.

His perhaps deliberately lively social calendar in Toronto during the past year or two has effectively sent the message that he was neither hiding in shame nor cowering in fear of his accusers. His wife, Barbara Amiel-Black, in her columns in Macleans magazine on such subjects as material extravagance and men who steal for their women, has been calculatingly provocative. And now, in recent weeks, there has been a possibly orchestrated but growing swell of support for Conrad in various quarters of public opinion.

There is no denying the case has touched a nerve with many people completely unassociated with Conrad Black. “I receive e-mails every day from people expressing their support for me,” he tells me, adding in an e-mail later, “The Conrad Black Movement is growing and ramifying exponentially.” And while Mr. Bower's book or general gossip would have one believe the A-list that Conrad and his wife socialized with in their Hollinger heyday has dropped them as pariahs, that is not at all what Conrad says, mentioning an invitation he and his wife have to a coming party for Elton John.

At this moment he seems more Celebrity than Accused.

He strides over to the table. Heads turn in the room. He is accustomed to this. At the events he attends in Toronto, there is an invisible space around him. Not many people in the chattering class of Toronto actually know an Accused who faces the possibility of a prison sentence. People stop conversation to observe him and then to whisper to each other. Lord Black never gives the impression of noticing this.

The world of Conrad watchers has fallen into two sects: those who support him and those passionately against him. They are the ones who snub him in public and the ones who, in their e-mails to me, for example, call him a criminal, although of course he is convicted of nothing.

At a cachet-heavy dinner series held in Toronto every winter, Lord Black is a regular attendee and ardent supporter. Called the Grano speakers series, it brings in noted writers and intellectuals from outside Canada, throws 100-plus of the business, academic and media “elite” into a trattoria and pours copious amounts of wine into them. It is a crowded, electric scene and, when Conrad enters the room, I have seen the voltage go up.

In that milieu, he is intimately known. Business partners such as Peter White, friendly antagonists such as old-guard Establishment man Hal Jackman, friends whom he considers to have turned on him like Allan Gottlieb, ideological comrades such as George Jonas and Ken Whyte, historians he considers his fellows, like Margaret MacMillan.

Mr. Jackman caused a stir at one dinner recently by theatrically kissing the hand of Conrad, and Gerry Schwartz of Onex Corp. created buzz by pointedly standing at the bar with him in close and lengthy conversation. Tea leaves are read from this sort of thing. I have heard the gossip that there are Grano dinner attendees who will not sit at the same table as Conrad. When I ask him about this over dinner this week, he says, “I can't think of anyone in particular who has snubbed me,” although in his mental ledger book (my term, not his) certain names such as Mr. Gottlieb's prompt a vitriolic outburst.

As Celebrity Accused, Lord Black seems to have also become something of a babe magnet. At social gatherings, young women (and middle-aged ones) sidle up for a chat, a frisson of notoriety in the air. Friends of his tell tales of having to shield him from unwanted female attention. At dinner last June, just before Toronto broadcasting owner Alan Slaight dropped by the table to bow deeply and offer a cheeky “Lord Black” in greeting, the waitress was doing her very best to flirt with him.

For a time, those he encountered at social gatherings felt awkward about bringing up the very subject on their minds, his criminal charges. But they soon learned that he was eager to talk at length about it. He takes every opportunity to declare his innocence, he wants to have his say and to persuade anyone who will listen of the injustice and absurdity of the charges, “this dreadful persecution.”

He also vows revenge and has a very clear plan on how he will exact it. He will, he says to me as he says to everyone, “almost certainly” be cleared of the charges, the word “almost” incorporating judicious amounts of humility and conviction. In the scenario he paints, once he is found not guilty, he plans to sue everyone who defamed him in the past few years in an international spray of libel notices that will demand millions and millions of dollars in damages.

“They will not be able to endure as philosophically as I have the gauntlet they have put me through,” he said to me at dinner last June and has been saying to many others since.

At the same time, he is preparing a literary payback — his memoirs.

The way Lord Black sees the past three years and the immediate future, it is a drama in three acts. Act One was his vilification, with the building storm of accusations, civil suits, criminal charges and public piling on. “The putsch against me,” he says, and he explains to me at dinner that he understood that the forces arrayed against him had to play out.

But once that had happened, Conrad could assume the role of underdog in the drama. That he has. Where once he seemed more inclined to be pompous, scoring conversational points with multisyllabic reference-heavy snowplows of sentences, now he is assiduously humble and disarming and unpretentious — although the righteous indignation at his treatment by his persecutors is always bubbling.

Where once his social life revolved around events in London and New York and Palm Beach, for the past two years it has largely been in Toronto. A veritable house arrest. Because of his criminal charges, travel outside of Canada and the United States requires him to apply to the court in Chicago for permission, something that must be unappetizing.

And when he travels from his home in Toronto to the United States, his name is flagged on U.S. Immigration computer screens, requiring hours of extra time and explanation. “Even,” he says, “leaving three hours early for the airport doesn't help.” For the duration of the trial, he plans to avoid the cross-border hassle by using his Palm Beach house on the weekends.

Still, he is buoyed by quotidian encounters, such as the one with an African-American U.S. immigration officer who looked at his file and then said, perplexed by the fuss it was causing, “But you haven't been convicted of anything!” Conrad tells me this at dinner and later I hear that he has retailed the yarn to others, and perhaps it has assumed the importance of a leading indicator.

Over lobster and ice cream and successive glasses of his chardonnay, he notes with satisfaction that he has sent off the last (he hopes) of the revisions to his manuscript on former U.S. president Richard Nixon. Always known to be a night owl, he has kept busy during Act One working into the small hours on his writing, producing thousands of words. In one memorable 14-hour day, he says, he wrote 6,000 words, pausing only for bathroom breaks and two 15-minute meals.

He gives the impression also of working ceaselessly on his legal case. At dinner, he notes, his fellow defendants Jack Boultbee, Mark Kipnis and Peter Atkinson have not as widely predicted pleaded guilty in exchange for maximum leniency. David Radler, his former business partner for nearly 30 years, is another matter, however, and Conrad is openly looking forward to what he anticipates will be a three-day cross-examination of Mr. Radler during the coming trial by jury, “after which there will be nothing left of him.” This is Act Two — the “big battle.” Now, he says, “they have to prove innocent men guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Very unlikely.”

With a flurry of supportive articles and websites — the National Review's David Frum recently posted an essay on his friend entitled Think Again — as the interlude before Act Two begins in Chicago, Conrad resolutely believes the tide of public opinion is turning in his favour. One evening next week, as he prepares to leave Toronto for Chicago, Lord Black will be a guest of honour at a small dinner at University of Toronto's Massey College hosted by his chum John Fraser. “It's going well now,” he says, already looking past his vindication at the trial to Act Three — which will be “my turn.”

A trial primer

The trial: It is expected to last three months. Jury selection starts March 14.

The judge: Amy St. Eve is one of the youngest federal judges in the United States. A former prosecutor who worked on gang-violence cases, Judge St. Eve was appointed in September of 2002, at age of 36. “You'd never guess that out of this little squirt comes a fistful of dynamite,” her father, Raymond St. Eve, told The Globe and Mail in 2005.

The defence team: It is led by Edward Greenspan, one of Canada's top defence lawyers. Joining him are Chicago lawyers Edward Genson and Marc Martin, considered two of the best in the city. Mr. Greenspan's lawyer daughter, Julianna, has also been working on the case.

The prosecution: It is led by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who has taken on terrorists, mobsters and politicians. He gained national fame recently by prosecuting Lewis (Scooter ) Libby, a former top aide to Vice-President Dick Cheney. Also on the team are assistant U.S. Attorneys Eric Sussman and Jeffrey Cramer.

The expected witnesses: David Radler, Lord Black's former right-hand man, who has pleaded guilty; former U.S. diplomats Raymond Seitz and Richard Burt; former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger; former Illinois governor James Thompson; conservative economist Marie-Josée Kravis; and former Bush administration defence adviser Richard Perle. All are former Hollinger directors.

The charges: Racketeering, obstruction of justice, money-laundering, wire fraud and tax evasion.

The other defendants: John A. Boultbee, former chief financial officer of Hollinger Inc. and Hollinger International; Peter Y. Atkinson, former vice-president of the same companies; and Mark S. Kipnis, former vice-president at Hollinger International and the only American on trial. They face fewer charges than Lord Black.

--Paul Waldie/The Globe and Mail

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