In 2001, Queen Elizabeth II conferred a life peerage—Baron Black of Crossharbour—on Conrad Moffat Black, publisher at one time of the London Daily Telegraph and the Chicago Sun-Times, among other papers. Nine years later, he was sentenced to serve what turned out to be three years and two weeks in an American prison for mail fraud and obstruction of justice. He was released just a year ago.
He is, then, a convicted felon and a member (on leave of absence at the moment) of Great Britain's House of Lords.
He is also a writer—a serious and sometimes charming one. His latest book (following publication of biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard M. Nixon; he admires both) is Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies that Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. It might better be titled Conrad Black's Essential Americans, for this prodigiously researched book (when did he find time for that?), in the Great Man tradition, traces the leaders, mostly presidents, who made us what we are today.
Even though Flight of the Eagle is published by Encounter Books, which specializes in tracts with titles such as How Obama Embraces Islam's Sharia Agenda and Why Coolidge Matters, Mr. Black is fair and balanced much of the time. Consider this praise for FDR:
Roosevelt had infused an economically and psychologically depressed nation with his own vitality, had led it with consummate talent and astuteness, step by step, to overwhelming economic, military, moral, and cultural preeminence in the world, and to the brink of victory over every foreign and domestic enemy...President Roosevelt had made it America's world to lead, a world largely safe for democracy, at last, as long as the United States was involved in it.
He is seriously opinionated. The three Founding Fathers that count the most, he argues, are Washington (the general), Franklin (the diplomat) and Jefferson (the propagandist). But he's not really keen on Jefferson and thinks the Declaration of Independence is just a bit of a fraud. It was Jefferson, he writes, who made the case "that this (the Revolution) was not a grubby contest about taxes, colonial ingratitude, and the rights of the martial victor and mother country (all of which it largely was) and to repackage it as an epochal struggle for the rights of man . . . " Moreover, George III wasn't a tyrant, just a "limited, ill-tempered, and intermittently mad young monarch."
He likes Lincoln too (who doesn't?). “So unassuming and free of egotism was he, that like a great circus performer, it was obvious only after he had left the stage how brilliant his strategic conception, command decisions, and tactical initiatives had been. That, coupled to the nobility of his cause, his infallible mastery of English, and his profoundly sympathetic personality, explains and justifies Lincoln's immense and universal prestige."
Eisenhower, writes Black, "beneath his deliberately contorted syntax and generally agreeable exterior, was a very complicated and sophisticated tactician and strategist." Wilson was "desiccated." So was Michael Dukakis. All those pills Kennedy took might have led to satyriasis. (More likely he was simply Joe Kennedy's boy.) Mr. Black believes that if Kennedy had lived he might have pulled us out of Vietnam. Kennedy "was a good and beloved president, who remains yet in the hearts and imaginations of the nation and the world, nearly 50 years after his tragic death." His successor, Lyndon Johnson, "was a large, overpowering, tactile, and crude man, with a tremendously effective way of bringing those he could influence into line.” He used all these powers to push through the Civil Rights Act.