The former CEO of Hollinger Inc. and author of a new book on the history of Canada tells us about Canadian identity, creative problem-solving, and his secret to writing 3,000 words a day.
In the book, you rank all of our country’s former prime ministers. Is there a leadership lesson that stands out?
I guess I would say John A. Macdonald who figured out how to use the existence of one crisis to produce a solution to another. It’s the most brilliant form of problem solving, in politics or in business. It’s like Roosevelt seeing the war coming and then dealing with the Great Depression that got him elected by preparing for the war—by bringing the remaining unemployed into the armed forces and the defense production industry. For Macdonald it was avoiding the bankruptcy of the railway by refinancing it as a national defence gesture to prevent a rebellion that would have caused Western Canada to join the United States.
Have you ever employed this method in your own career?
Neither the scale of the problem nor the ingenuity required is comparable, but when we took over the Daily Telegraph it was both operating at a structural loss and practically bankrupt. We invoked imminent bankruptcy to achieve demanning of obsolescent and overstaffed departments and the resulting savings increased operating income to the point that the spectre of bankruptcy receded. So we were able to buy out an oversized and overaged workforce with generous retirement payments and in the process assuaged the concerns of our lenders. This possessed some elements of the Macdonald/Roosevelt formula.
A tendency in recent years has been for authors to nibble away at a small but consequential moment in history—Nixon in China, for example. You clearly prefer to work with a wide lens.
I do like a bigger canvas. I always approach subjects on the basis that I have a new perspective. I would not write anything if I felt it’s been done before. In the case of Roosevelt, I felt he was caught between the idolaters who thought he could do no wrong and believed he was just a gentle, country squire who liked dogs, and his opponents who thought he was a socialist. Both of those views are rubbish. The histories of Canada that I had seen adhere to the theory that it was essentially a series of coincidences and fortuitous events that happened to get us to where we are. I thought that was a shortchanging of 400 years of development. In all of that time we’ve only lost a couple of people to civil strife, we’ve only had a couple of invasions and the wars we’ve been in have been just wars, and we were on the victorious side.
And yet, as you write, Canadians fail to “recognize their own virtuosity.” Why is that?
We had to get our independence from Britain, a country whose protection we needed. Because of that, it had to be a very gradual process, and I think that got us into the habit of being understated. And of course we couldn’t compete with the Americans in terms of showmanship. From the first day they had this star system—the genius of the spectacle that you still see in Hollywood, the Super Bowl and so on. We couldn’t compete, so we made a virtue of not competing. It’s like people who have no money deciding they don’t care about money. Or, you didn’t invite me to your party—well I wouldn’t have gone anyway.
I’ve found that, at least in my generation, the Canadian identity is largely being “not American.”
And when you go to Europe, you’ll have people ask you if you’re an American, or what’s the difference between a Canadian and an American?
That’s why you’re supposed to put a flag on your backpack.
I’ve never signed onto that. Any Canadian, even a travelling teenager, who thought that having an apliqué maple leaf is going to cause a French innkeeper to steal your money any less enthusiastically is dreaming.
Ha! Fair enough, but do you think we’re moving away from the need to compare ourselves?
I do think that will die out. It will be, I’m a Canadian. Period. Why don’t Paraguayans have a card they hold that says I am from Paraguay, not Argentina?
This is not a short book.
It’s not a short history.
That’s true. I mention it because in the past three years you’ve released three books that either push up against or over the thousand-page mark. How do you manage to be so prolific?
I couldn’t do it now. As you know, I had a prolonged series of legal travails and writing was an especially distracting activity and a way to demonstrate to my opponents that I had not become immobilized intellectually by the persecution. Writing is a splendid activity if you have a lot of time on your hands. It’s also very inspiriting in morale terms to do something constructive instead of sitting around discussing bits of strategy with lawyers.
Others would just get drunk.
I did a little bit of that, too—not drunk, but that can stimulate your writing, as you know. As long as you don’t overdo it and start writing gibberish. I had plenty of time to write. I’d take enough exercise to keep myself physically fit, but I don’t like physical sports as a participant. Lots of people enjoy golf. I prefer reading or writing.
Did you set goals for yourself in terms of getting a certain amount done each day?
Depends on the circumstances. In the case of the Nixon book, I wanted to get it done before my trial began, so I had to write 3,000 words a day. That was a challenge.
Remember when you’re writing a work of non-fiction, you’ve got the material in chronological order. It’s not like you’re writing a novel and you have to make things up.
Back to the topic of Canadian leaders—we will chose another one soon enough. What do you make of Justin Trudeau?
I don’t know him very well. He’s a very charming, presentable man. I think the public like him, but he makes me and others uneasy in the somewhat flippant opinions that he gives.
People say that George W. Bush won the election because voters picked the person they’d most want to have a beer with.
I think that depends if someone has another appeal of a stronger kind. I don’t think anybody voted for Roosevelt for that reason. With Bush, I don’t even know that he won that election, but in so far as he did, I think it might have been more that nobody wanted to have a beer with Al Gore.
Conrad Black’s new book, Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present ($50, McLelland & Stewart) went on sale in November.
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