WASHINGTON — Recently my friend Bill Buckley wrote a rude column about our mutual friend, Conrad Black, on the occasion of Conrad’s sentencing on three counts of mail fraud and one of obstruction of justice, a mere speed bump after the mountains of charges originally filed against him. Conrad is appealing. Friends should stand by him either in polite silence or they can join me in public encouragement. The case has been variously characterized as an example of “corporate kleptocracy” by those who insist Conrad is a scoundrel or prosecutorial zealotry by those who think that in building a great newspaper chain he saved some of the finest newspapers in the English-speaking world and introduced a sophisticated conservative point of view into the dull drone of our liberal-polluted Kultursmog. Michael Barone, one of the wisest political observers in the country and a lawyer, has asseverated that “the case should never have been prosecuted.” That is about the way I see it, and Bill’s column was ill-timed.
“I don’t need you when I’m right. I need you when I’m wrong,” the late Louisiana politician Earl Long allegedly said to a legislator when seeking his vote for a dubious tax measure. My rule of friendship is a variation of old Earl’s maxim. “I don’t need you in good times. I need you in bad times.” And it is in bad times that many, particularly in the political class, take a powder. “The phone never rings,” is how a former high official from the Reagan Administration described his life immediately after being falsely accused of some vague malfeasance now long lost down memory’s well. My friend from the Reagan years was innocent, but he was also a vigorous combatant. He cleared his name, but the abandonment he suffered has been on my mind through Conrad’s long years of scandalous news stories and expensive prosecutions.
Friends stand by their friends in their time of trial. My friendship with Conrad goes back two decades, though it has not been an easy friendship. He is said to be a tough business bargainer and I can tell you he is. In an extended negotiation with me he was tough and wily. Never was he unethical, but in the end I did not like the deal and I rejected it. Afterwards we were perturbed with each other for a while, but my anger fizzled out. He is the rare media mogul who is pro-American, pro-Western, and pro-Israel. He is immensely civilized, reads and writes intelligent books, and has a sardonic wit. His indomitable character and cheerful resilience have been demonstrated throughout the proceedings against him. Eventually he forgave me for my independent streak and we renewed our friendship. He may be indomitable and resilient, but he is not narrowly stubborn.
To return to the Buckley column, Conrad has been a major figure in the recrudescence of conservatism throughout the Western world that Bill and a handful of others began some fifty years ago. That is all the more reason that Bill should have stuck by Conrad. We should stick by our own — certainly when they are innocent or even when their case is in doubt. There will be plenty of others to attack them, some from political animus, some from ignorance, some from self-righteous egotism. Standing by a friend under fire is the obligation of friendship. Standing by a friend who shares your values is a defense of those values.
I have considered Conrad’s four convictions and I agree with his appeal. He has not intentionally done anything wrong. He is the victim of prosecutorial excess. If he had done something wrong it would be for the most part a disagreement over bookkeeping, not the kind of thing that should yank a man of his immense gifts from society and deposit him for years in prison.
Conrad was our friend in good times and it is his friends’ obligation to be his friend during the cruel winds of bad times. If a friend of Conrad disagrees with this, he should be gentleman enough to remain silent.
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