Lord Conrad Black: Arrogance, Pretense and Sleaze

In his tumescent 1,280-page doorstop-worthy biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lord Black, a.k.a. Conrad Black, the former Canadian press magnate, member of the House of Lords and recent C.E.O. of Hollinger International, the disintegrating newspaper conglomerate, gives a little less than one page to the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“The securities bill,” writes Lord Black of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, required “timely reporting on financial performance of listed companies, and prohibited dubious stock market practices that enabled insiders to swindle good-faith public investors.”

Perhaps the biographer should be asked to scrawl the lesson of the law 1,000 times on the blackboard. Certainly his hero, President Roosevelt, would not have been sympathetic to the oily escapades of the pretentious windbag and blustering press lord who, rather than being in the position of becoming the new Lord Beaverbrook, will now be defending himself from stockholder suits well into the 21st century, as he is reminded of his international path of corporate miscreancy in the places he littered with deception and greed-New York, London, Toronto, Chicago-and where they have a word for men who swindle, hondle, cadge and cunningly deceive: goniff .

On the surface, Lord Black turned his press holdings into something of an empire in the past decade, controlling London’s Daily Telegraph, the Chicago Sun-Times , the Jerusalem Post and The Spectator, as well as an asteroid belt of media debris that included a rabble of Chicago-area weeklies. He packed his board with chi-chi celebrities, like Henry Kissinger and the right-wing defense expert Richard Perle-the kind of association, one might note, that would have struck President Roosevelt with a kind of horror-on whose ideological escapades, such as Mr. Perle’s venture-capital fund Trireme Partners, he allowed Hollinger to shower its financial favors. Indeed, Lord Black was never shy about exploiting Hollinger for his own ends: He used the company’s money to acquire the Roosevelt papers for $8 million, providing a handy resource for his long-winded, rehashed biography of F.D.R.

But it was the gnarled network of his finances that was particularly slimy: siphoned millions from the public company, greased favors-all while the company whose figurehead he became buckled under the bulky weight of his preternaturally bloated ego. Lord Black’s grotesque, sleazy self-indulgence continued to bilk the shareholders while the price of his debt-ridden corporation plummeted to levels significantly below its initial public offering in 1994. He insulted the very tenets of corporate democracy, mocking and assaulting investors and critics, name-calling his dissident capitalizers as “corporate-governance terrorists.”

Yet who, one might ask, was the corporate terrorizer in this case? Lord Black’s diverting of funds to the bogus holding company Ravelston Management Inc.-Hollinger paid Ravelston $24 million last year-is a fiscal obscenity. His bluster upon being challenged embodies not just arrogance, but the suspicion of something far more venal. In 2000 and 2001, when Hollinger sold assets for $2.3 billion, Lord Black and his associates were personally given $48 million for non-compete clauses: a proposition ludicrous in function but perplexingly near graft in terms of standard corporate practice. “It’s never happened at any large public company that I’m aware of,” one Bear Stearns analyst told Fortune .

But that’s just the tip of the Hollinger debacle. As board members fled, the pompous Lord Black’s darkly threatening rebukes to his critics put him into a corner from which he may not escape, and where his dubious peerage will be of little use. Incensed partners at Tweedy Browne, the investment firm that is Hollinger’s second-largest institutional investor, suggest that they will chase Lord Black in court for years to come, while at the same time the S.E.C. has issued subpoenas to Lord Black and Hollinger’s other officers and directors. This is not the first time the S.E.C. has shed light on Mr. Black’s shady character: The commission charged him with securities fraud in 1982.

If Lord Black is pursued in court by stockholders and the government, it will satisfy the hovering ghost of a biographical subject whose immensity may have inspired him, but whose huge legacy remains far too great and noble for him to comprehend: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for all his aristocratic lineage, was neither a very rich man nor arrogant when it came to money itself, but rather driven, ethical, democratized, frugal and socially justice-minded-all of which seems to irritate his slippery biographer.

Lord Black skews Franklin Roosevelt’s beliefs for his own conservative purposes-there’s one ex-President rolling in his Hyde Park grave!-condescending to F.D.R.’s “rather quaint, pseudo-religious notions of the moral duty of tax paying,” although they were a central tenet of his convictions. Lord Black stunningly mocks Roosevelt’s determination to make the rich pay their taxes as a combination of “naïveté, sanctimony, and political posturing.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a response to this kind of plutocratic self-selection, and it may be instructive to Lord Black to remember it at some point. Look for arrogant evaders of the fiscal law, Roosevelt told his Attorney General, and prosecute “one son of a bitch.”

You’ll find it on page 420 of Lord Black’s book. It’s for sale at half-price on the discount table at the Strand Book Store.

Happy Days Aren’t Here Again

How’s life?

It’s a question which is often answered with everything from a shrug of the shoulders to a laundry list of complaints. Depression has been on the rise in America, spawning a multibillion-dollar industry of psychopharmaceutical solutions. Many New Yorkers spend a significant portion of their week just trying to “feel better,” shuttling between therapist and gym and acupuncturist and yoga class. And yet, as Gregg Easterbrook documents in his new book, The Progress Paradox , life in the Western world has been steadily improving over the past 50 years. For instance, 70 percent of Americans are now homeowners; 100 years ago, fewer than 20 percent owned a home. Americans in 2003 can expect to live nearly twice as long as they would have in 1900. With longevity has come prosperity: Real income in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1960. And Mr. Easterbrook points out the very obvious-and troubling-fact that Americans are hardly going hungry, but are rather gorging themselves into obesity.

So, with such proof of increased abundance, why aren’t people happier? Just 6 percent of Americans call themselves “very happy”; only 60 percent grudgingly admit to being “happy.” Mr. Easterbrook concludes that the true causes of inner well-being are to be found in the experiences of generosity, gratitude, forgiveness and positive thinking. Only by helping others, he suggests, can we begin to feel better ourselves.

So the next time you feel like whining about your life, just be happy it’s not 1900: You’d likely be poorer and hungrier. Then again, you might be happier.