It’s an awkward time to launch a book—a few weeks before being sentenced for fraud and obstruction of justice. Yet it may also be a welcome distraction for Conrad Black, the disgraced former media magnate who has written a nearly 1,200-page biography of Richard M. Nixon, one of America’s most vilified presidents. “Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full” is set to hit U.S. bookstores in October, a date picked by his American publisher because it fell after the July 13 verdict in Black’s criminal trial.
Black acknowledges his felony conviction will complicate selling his book. Pending his sentencing in late November, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve has refused to let Black return to Canada and has restricted his movements to the Chicago area and to a county in South Florida, where Black has a mansion in Palm Beach.
“As it is now, my geographic limitations are not conducive to a massive book tour,” Black said wryly in an interview August 7.
It’s hard to miss the parallels between Nixon’s lofty rise to the Oval Office and dramatic fall during Watergate and the recent events in Black’s own life. Only a few years ago, Black headed the world’s third-largest media empire and counted people such as Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher and William Buckley as friends. Now, his assets are frozen and he is facing a possible sentence of 24 to 30 years in prison.
Known as a pugnacious fighter himself, Black still declares his innocence and has hired a prominent New York attorney to pursue his appeal. Meanwhile, he isn’t embracing Nixon as a metaphor for his own life.
“Nixon was in many ways, a morose and very solitary figure, and I’m not. I get on quite well with people. We all have our down moments but in general, I’m quite equable,” Black said as he was packing for Florida. “He was a great historic figure, and I am just who I am. The comparison falls there.”
Then he adds: “It’s hard not to acknowledge his sleazy side, which I do not have.”
Prosecutors beg to differ.
In closing statements, Assistant U.S. Atty. Julie Ruder described Black as a liar, thief and chief architect of a scheme to channel $60 million to himself and other top Hollinger executives at the expense of the company’s public shareholders. “The rules don’t matter to Mr. Black,” Ruder argued.
The jury agreed that Black had stepped over the line, finding him guilty of three fraud counts and obstruction of justice. They acquitted him of other fraud counts, as well as charges of racketeering, tax evasion and abusing company perks.
Peter Osnos, the founder of PublicAffairs Books, Black’s U.S. publisher, is taking a cautious approach but is hoping readers won’t judge the book by its author.
“We watched the trial and would have preferred, as Conrad would have, that he be exonerated,” said Osnos. “We’re making a calculated guess that we can get past this issue and get people to appreciate the book on its own merits. Whether we succeed or not, it will remain that he has written an extremely fine book.”
Personal misdeeds by authors have long bedeviled publishers who make bets on books long before they are scheduled to hit the presses. Occasionally, tawdry or embarrassing developments only add to a writer’s buzz, but it usually works the other way. Serious missteps can hurt an author’s credibility and depress book sales, publishers say.
After it came out that James Frey had made up portions of his gripping memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” Frey was castigated by Oprah Winfrey on her talk show and his publisher was sued for fraud. Random House quickly agreed to pay up to $2.3 million to settle a lawsuit by readers who argued they had been cheated because they thought the events depicted were real.
Of course, “A Million Little Pieces” was already a best-seller when the scandal broke, and the controversy likely boosted sales in the short-term, at least.
In the business world, Michael Sears, a top executive at Boeing Co., saw his management book, “Soaring Through Turbulence,” go down in flames after he was fired from the Chicago-based aerospace company for criminal conduct related to a $20 billion Pentagon contract.
Sears’ dismissal could hardly have occurred at a worse time: Advance proofs of the book were in the mail to the press. His publisher, John Wiley & Sons, dropped the book and asked that the galleys be destroyed.
Black’s situation is quite different.
He isn’t writing about himself for one thing, and the quality of his research has not been called into question, noted Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly.
Black also has the advantage of already publishing a weighty biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a work that received glowing reviews for scholarship and interpretation. “A sweeping, occasionally sprawling biography ... and an engrossing one, thanks to the storytelling and pungency of its judgments,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel Yergin in the New York Times.
Despite the positive reception, the timing of Black’s Roosevelt tour de force also was inauspicious.
Just as it was launched in November 2003, Black was forced to resign as chief executive of Hollinger International, his Chicago-based newspaper company, after an internal investigation alleged he and other executives had misappropriated $32 million from the company through unauthorized and undisclosed bonuses.
When Black forged ahead with a scheduled book signing in Toronto, the event turned into a media scrum with reporters peppering him with questions about his alleged misdeeds. “It was very difficult with Roosevelt. They wouldn’t leave other matters alone,” Black recalled.
The FDR book sold more than 40,000 copies in the U.S. and Canada, a number that many authors would envy. Including U.K. sales, the total might be closer to 60,000, Black said. But publisher Osnos believes it could have been a best-seller if external events hadn’t intervened.
“The minute the frame of reference for Conrad changed, the tone of the reviews changed,” Osnos said. “People started sneering a bit.”
In the case of his Nixon book, Black’s choice of subject may have been prescient. Nixon’s ruthless qualities and the up-and-down nature of his career make Black a fitting interpreter for him.
“Let’s face it, Conrad knows as clearly as any person knows, what happens when everything is at risk,” Osnos said. “He is not writing at an academic distance about the nature of this kind of pressure. I’m hoping people will take the book seriously enough to read it and appreciate it for what it is—a full biography of Richard Nixon.”
Publishers Weekly’s Nelson said the Nixonian character of Black’s current travails may actually draw people to the book.
“The coincidence of (Black’s trial) having to do with payoffs and secrecy and losing your temper, and the guy coming out with a book about Nixon, the poster child for all those things, is kind of delicious. I think it might actually help the book.”
Many people find it improbable that Black was able to write a book during a period when he had a criminal trial and financial ruin hanging over his head. Starting in April 2006, Black was prolific, writing at least 3,000 words a day, finishing his first draft in November.
Black shrugs off the feat.
“You don’t have much to do when you’re being persecuted by prosecutors. You take calls from lawyers and discuss how to respond to certain things, but it doesn’t take that much time,” he said. “Brooding is a fundamentally unproductive activity. It was a strong temptation, but I rose above it and took on the project.”
Black had the advantage of knowing his subject personally. Through billionaire publisher Walter Annenberg and Dwayne Andreas, the longtime chief of Archer Daniels Midland Co., Black managed an introduction to Nixon. Nixon invited Black to dinner twice in New York and once at his home in Saddle River, N.J. Black reciprocated by having Nixon to his mansion in Toronto.
When Nixon was in London, he would seek out Black, then the head of conservative newspaper the Daily Telegraph. An avid historian, Black questioned Nixon extensively about many of his key decisions and would later jot down notes about their conversations. Nixon was aware Black was planning a biography, Black said.
Black acknowledges Nixon’s fundamental personality flaws, which included deep-rooted insecurity and mistrust of almost everyone around him. (Nixon even approved a wiretap of his brother Donald).
Describing himself as a “revisionist” rather than an apologist, Black provides more generous explanations of some imbroglios that presaged Nixon’s downfall. He also concludes, in the end, that Nixon was a good president who served the country well and that he redeemed himself after resigning by becoming a citizen-diplomat and adviser to presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
“I chose Nixon because it was time to re-integrate him into American history and stop pretending that he was a freak with cloven feet and horns who just happened to be elected to national office four times,” Black wrote in a recent e-mail.
Like Nixon, Black vows to fight on during his darkest hour: “It’s been four years of warfare and whatever its bureaucratic incompetence, the U.S. government and its acolytes in Canada are quite efficient at persecuting individuals. I think I’ve done pretty well and I’m not finished.”
His book is dedicated to his wife, Barbara Amiel Black, a controversial columnist in her own right and a former Hollinger executive and director.
“Through good and bad times, she has been magnificent. No man could ask more and few could have received so much. She is beyond praise and criticism.”
EXCERPTS FROM `RICHARD M. NIXON: A LIFE IN FULL’
“Richard Milhous Nixon was one of America’s greatest political leaders and probably its most controversial president. He was both brilliant and strangely awkward, but ultimately and uniquely indestructible. And in his perseverance he made many of his countrymen awkward also.
“If Nixon had hired a serious lawyer and told him the truth, it would have helped. His entire, often brilliant, career was now on a knife edge.
“He knew that the media is best dealt with by standing up to the hostile ones, answering calmly, keeping cool, maintaining a sense of humor and rising above it. Many journalists are extremely biased and destructive, but most of them are just doing their jobs like anyone else.
“The expression expletive deleted entered the language and became instantly notorious. The man who had scolded President Truman for telling opponents to “Go to hell” in 1960 scandalized some of his straight-laced followers with the frequency of blasphemies and recourse to scatological vulgarity.
“To (wife) Barbara: Through good and bad times, she has been magnificent. No man could ask more and few could have received so much. She is beyond praise and criticism.”