Literature, like philosophy, has its consolations for life's trials but it appears Conrad Black isn't getting much from the publication of his mammoth biography of disgraced U.S. president Richard M. Nixon.
Black, who yesterday learned he'll be facing close to seven years in a U.S. prison, saw his 1,100-page biography of America's 37th president published in late October by PublicAffairs Books of New York. The book earned respectful attention when it was published in Canada and Britain earlier this year as The Invincible Quest. However, six weeks after its U.S. publication, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full has failed to garner any substantial reviews in major publications there.
The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, even the two major newspapers in Chicago, site of his trial - none has yet to review Black's biography, which accords a largely sympathetic treatment to the only U.S. executive-in-chief ever to resign while still in office. And it appears unlikely anything is in the works - unless, that is, the infamy of Black's imminent jail term sparks a perverse sort of interest.
Asked yesterday if The New York Times planned to critique the Nixon tome, Sam Tanenhaus, editor-in-chief of the newspaper's influential Book Review and a prominent conservative (who wrote a biography of Nixon associate Whittaker Chambers), said in an e-mail, "We receive a great many books each week, far more than we can possibly make room for in our pages." (Calls and e-mails to The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times were not returned yesterday.)
This is in sharp contrast to The New York Times's response to Black's penultimate book, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. Also published by PublicAffairs, in the fall of 2003, that book scored two lengthy reviews, one by Alan Brinkley, a history professor at New York's Columbia University, and the other by Michael Janeway, a journalism and arts professor also at Columbia. The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The Chicago Sun-Times (which Black purchased from fellow media baron Rupert Murdoch in the early 1990s) ran reviews as well.
A Life in Full has not been entirely neglected. The New Yorker accords it a review in its Dec. 10 issue, but only as a "Briefly Noted" and a critical one at that. Says the magazine: "On Vietnam, [Black's] invocations of 'insolent' Communists, their 'witless dupes,' and 'child grenade carriers' (as he refers to those murdered at My Lai) take on a deranged air; he unwittingly provides an object lesson in the kind of thinking that mired America there. Interestingly, given what Black refers to in the acknowledgments as his own 'serious judicial problems,' he argues that Nixon's best move in Watergate would have been to surreptitiously delete damaging parts of the tapes and then make up a cover story - 'whatever he wanted.' "
Far more sympathetic (but almost as brief) is a pre-publication review found in the Sept. 24 Publishers Weekly - Black, said PW, "is a versatile and thorough biographer who brings not only sympathy but eloquent clarity to his task." But PW is a periodical with a circulation restricted primarily to members of the U.S. book industry, not one with a diverse and wide-ranging readership.
Black's work has also received positive mentions in The New York Sun ("a masterful biography ... of beautifully crafted prose") and The American Spectator, but this isn't terribly surprising given that, in the first instance, Black held a minority ownership stake and, in the second, he was a contributor. Most citations for A Life in Full have been largely en passant: In July, for example, Keith Kelly, writing in the New York Post shortly after Black's conviction, speculated that if the Nixon biography was well-received, it "could help repair [Black's] image ... Black as an acclaimed author would be an odd twist for a man who, along with his wife, Barbara Amiel, has craved to move as easily around New York's media and government elite as he has elsewhere in the world. But despite the couple's glitz and glamour, they've never been accepted by the city."
Black, described in the 2005 Who's Who in America as a "former publishing corporate executive," has indicated he plans to use his downtime in jail to further his writing career. As his U.S. publisher Peter Osnos remarked in the summer: "I think that what [Black] would tell you is that he is no longer a newspaper publisher but he believes his main career going forward is going to be as a biographer." Or autobiographer: Already there are reports that Black has either completed or is close to completing a manuscript on his trial and the events leading up to it. Whether it will earn greater attention than his meditation on Nixon - a man who, in 1973, famously declared: "People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got" - remains, of course, to be determined.