Reading the Entrails: A forensic review of Conrad Black’s FDR

By John Harris | February 2, 2009

Conrad Black, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom (Public Affairs, 2003).

Conrad Black is a competent scholar and a good writer—in the genre of political biography, he is better than his own biographer Peter Newman, who has bragged of Black, “I was his original myth-maker.”

Maybe. But Newman is indulging in what Black refers to contemptuously as “posthumous psychology.” About Black, Newman wrote that “He was one of the great ham actors of our time. In retrospect I realize he was . . . digging a protective moat filled with beehives of words to guard his inner self. The barely concealed symptoms of his neurosis were hard to miss . . . .”

This might well be true, but since Newman is unwilling to parse Black’s neuroses and connect them to the business activities which are the basis of his notoriety and most of his fame, trotting it out is intellectually specious.

Black is fairly free of any straining after style in his writing, though his verbal speech, as his nickname “Thesaurus Rex” (Newman) indicates, may be another matter. Newman, on the other hand, is a man always intent on racking up smart figures of speech which he himself candidly calls “ditzy metaphors.” The beehives in the moat, above, are a good example. The fact that Newman is aware of this flaw doesn’t make it any easier to put up with, since he can’t seem to correct it or even restrain it. Neurosis, maybe? That ten percent of Newman’s metaphors work doesn’t relieve the pain of enduring the ninety per cent that don’t.

There are a few exceptions to the accessibility of Black’s commentary — words like “flibertigibits,” “pettifogging,” and “revanchism” and lines like “herniating wads of incontrovertible evidence of their skullduggery” are gag-points for most people. But there are no “hives” of such words and lines, and most of the big words can be understood from their context. When Black is distracted into style it is usually by possibilities not for rhetorical flourishes like metaphor, parallelism or multi-syllabic words, but for ironies. He is a cool thinker, and irony is both the fundamentally sane person’s defense and pleasure. It is worth noting that irony is particularly the favorite tool of the sane, conservative person, and Black is a very arch archconservative. His expressions of magisterial amusement don’t beg a reader’s approval and don’t get in the way of understanding. You can smile at them even when you judge them naughty or even inaccurate.

Thus we learn that the young FDR’s tutor in Latin and mathematics “rejoiced in the name of Arthur Dumper,” and that the tutor of Eleanor Roosevelt and her sisters was a lesbian and an atheist, “but only the second preference was visited upon the girls.” We learn that FDR, on his whistle-stop tours, “would emerge beaming, say he was ‘glad to be back’ (whether he had ever been there or not), announce he was there to listen and learn, and then . . . depart, having listened to no one and learned nothing.”

Black tells us that, “Roosevelt never cured himself of aerated pieties about his implacable duty to seek and retain the nation’s greatest office, as if his almost insatiable ambition for power had nothing to do with it.” Regarding taxation, “Roosevelt had a quaint, pseudo religious notion of the moral duty of taxpaying . . . but the first Christian said nothing about rendering to Caesar more than was his due.”

This last irony reveals something of the limitations of Black’s perspective—I believe the correct implications of Christ’s statement would be that all material things belong to Caesar, not just the percentage that Caesar might at any one time choose to demand in taxes. Perhaps Black, at the start of his prison term for fraud and obstruction of justice, after pondering the loss of his company and much of his fortune, might now have a different perspective. Still, another limitation of Black’s perspective is that he easily drifts into sarcasm, some of it extreme enough to appear mean-spirited. When Black tells of Chamberlain, dying of cancer and saying, “I want to die.” he remarks, “In this at least he was successful.”

There is immense detail in Black’s biography, but virtually all of it is telling and relevant. Similarly, Black’s interpretation of the facts, his explanation of FDR’s words and actions, is nearly always interesting if not always convincing. Black often argues points that he makes very clear but that do not necessarily provide the only explanation of FDR’s narrative. It works because the reader becomes engaged in working out what the real message of FDR’s experience is, at the same time experiencing the strengths and weaknesses of the arch-capitalistic point of view of which Black is a thoughtful proponent.

Black’s basic argument starts with the idea that, in a democracy, the freedom to own and enjoy property is an essential freedom. In his view it is as essential in the way that freedom of speech, and of association, are. This is why what Black calls “the infallible system of checks and balances in the American Constitution” guarantees property rights. As the founding fathers set it up, “property rights were an aspect of individual rights and not in competition with them. …There had been no practical dispute between Jefferson and Hamilton on that point. Monticello had not been a commune, other than for Jefferson’s slaves.”

However, Black understands that there must be some regulation limiting the ownership and enjoyment of property because property tends to concentrate in the hands of those who most want it or most enjoy accumulating it. Without regulation, the right to own and enjoy property can infringe on “individual rights,” like the right to life. As Black explains, “FDR construed the right to life to mean the right ‘to make a comfortable living’.” The free accumulation of property by one person can infringe on another’s right to make a living. When the vast majority of citizens cannot make a living, democracy is threatened. The government must act. As FDR put it, “Because we cherished our system of private property and free enterprise and were determined to preserve it as the foundation of our traditional American system, we recalled the warning of Thomas Jefferson that ‘widespread poverty and concentrated wealth cannot long endure side by side in a democracy’.”

Black is an arch-capitalist in that he believes that less regulation is better than more. With excessive government regulation of property rights, vital freedoms can be lost, so feeding frenzies, unfair accumulation of wealth and economic collapse are acceptable evils. Yet Black concedes that, during the Depression, “something” had to be done by the state. Because the only solution to these evils is regulation to an extent that is prohibited by the Constitution because it could lead to tyranny, it takes an exceptional leader to work around the Constitution to administer the statist/socialist measures that, Black says, were required to save capitalism and therefore democracy. FDR was such a politician. Black sums the New Deal up as “an intellectual tour-de-force . . . an unsettling mélange of socialism, atavism, humbug, and snobbery.” The atavism and snobbery are a reference to FDR’s “claiming a right to repeal one hundred years of economic history, and establishing government by a single member of the landed gentry in the paternalistically interpreted interests of the suffering people.” The humbug is a reference to FDR’s methodology in getting the New Deal past the Supreme Court, Congress and the business community.

“Socialism”, in Conrad Black’s mind, means any kind of government ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of wealth. Black accepts that it is the only solution to the excesses of capitalism, but is disturbed by the enthusiasm, even eagerness, with which FDR devised and administered his socialist program: “Roosevelt saw no evident philosophical limits to the practice of taking money from people who had earned it, spreading it around the growing apparatus of government, and massaging the remaining proceeds among people who hadn’t earned it, on a rather arbitrarily adjudicated basis of merit.” Black is also disturbed by the fact that FDR saw business leaders (i.e. the rich) as his main opposition and attacked them in vehement terms. In his 1935 State of the Union speech he spoke against “the forces of entrenched greed,” saying, “They steal the livery of great, national, constitutional ideals to serve discredited special interests . . . their principles: aristocracy towards labor, towards stockholders, towards consumers, towards public sentiment.”

Black argues that in this “vituperative outburst” FDR was “creating an imaginary, un-named (and largely inexistent) scapegoat,” and that “elements of the business community were durably offended by Roosevelt’s demagogy.” However, Black notes that FDR was careful not to stigmatize anyone by name. This was genius, because actually there was no conspiracy: “The business community was neither sufficiently malicious nor uniform of view to conspire against the President. Many business leaders recognized that restoration of the twenties would lead back to economic depression.” Most “were unaware as businessmen often are, especially in America, of the subtleties of politics.” Black remarks that FDR would likely have agreed with Keynes’ “not inaccurate” remarks in a 1938 letter to FDR: “Businessmen . . . are much milder than politicians, at the same time allured and terrified by the glare of publicity, easily persuaded to be ‘patriots’ . . . . You could do anything you like with them if you would treat them (even the big ones) not as wolves and tigers, but as domestic animals by nature . . .”

And so, as with other of FDR’s stratagems of which Black disapproves, the New Deal’s attack on business worked: “As the decade progressed, Roosevelt would arraign others in the dock beside the money changers: war profiteers, monopolists, malefactors of great wealth, economic royalists, and so forth. Audiences were delighted, an atmosphere of purgative reform prevailed, but there were no specific culprits.” In private, of course, as Black says, there were specific culprits. In dealing with the most belligerent of his arch-capitalist business and political opponents, FDR made “shameless” use of IRS investigations and government patronage. He also deprived businessmen of their influence over public policy and their access to patronage. He removed most of the businessmen from the administration of the National Recovery Association, producing “a non-business majority of academics and a labor leader.”

Any formalized opposition to Roosevelt and the New Deal that the business community did produce is regarded by Black as amusingly ineffective. A number of wealthy businessmen launched, in 1934, “the Liberty League, an independent educational organization preaching the eternal American political verities.” This early “think tank” would counter the propaganda of the Democratic Party, now in the hands of “such radicals as Roosevelt, Huey Long, Hearst . . . .” In 1935, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce adopted resolutions opposing the government’s entire legislative package: workfare programs, Social Security, changes to the Federal Reserve, regulations on the coal industry. The Chamber “accused Roosevelt of trying to ‘Sovietize America’.” Bankers threatened a capital strike.

FDR easily decimated this opposition. It was clear to the public that the cry of “communism” didn’t apply, and that the business community had nothing positive to suggest.

Other opposition from businessmen was led political or media personalities who enticed business leaders into their organizations. Many business leaders, especially Catholic ones, joined up with people Black refers to as “populists” and “Bonapartists” to advocate for the “corporatist” economics of Mussolini. Corporatism, a movement that had already gained considerable purchase in the U.S. during the 1920s, envisages an economy run by oligarchies or cartels of industrialists, bankers, retailers, and others, who own their companies but are licensed by the government. The cartels would be appointed by and would report to the government. This form of economic organization gained credibility in the U.S. less on its own merits than on Mussolini’s and Hitler’s evident successes in bringing Italy and Germany out of the Depression. Also it seemed like a reasonable compromise: “As economics it was bunk, but it was dogmatically acceptable, a middle way between the evils of uncontrolled Mammon (capitalism) and Godless socialism.”

Corporatism was promoted by, and led to strange configurations of, factions from both left and right. In 1934, the hugely popular CBS radio commentator Father Charles E. Coughlin (a Canadian) started the National Union for Social Justice and proclaimed the end of capitalism. The banks were to be nationalized, to eliminate the influence of the international bankers like the Rothschilds, the Morgans, the Warburgs, and the Kuhn, Loeb Company. Coughlin argued, with increasing stridency, that the bankers were at the head of a Jewish conspiracy. He wanted the gold standard abandoned and unions banned.

In their heyday, Coughlin’s broadcasts attracted up to 40 million listeners. In 1935, when Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long was assassinated, his Share Our Wealth Society, started the year before, came under Coughlin’s influence. It advocated heavy taxes on the rich to support a $5,000 annual payoff to every American family. Ordinary folk would also get a guaranteed annual income, a thirty-hour workweek and at least one month a year of vacation. By 1935 there were 27,000 Corporatist clubs with 7.5 million members.

For Coughlin, as well as the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh who supported Hitler and his National Socialism movement, FDR’s tactic was to express vague support once in awhile, placating their many followers but also dealing out the rope by which these leaders hung themselves. FDR’s foreign policy and his gradual manipulation of the public into hatred of “the dictators” ended the careers of the “populists” and “Bonapartists.” As the dictators in Europe progressed toward their orgy of conquest and repression—every detail of which was communicated nationally and with appropriate condemnation by FDR in his “fireside chats”—the influence of the corporatists waned, and eventually folded into the American Nazi Party.

Black explains that FDR’s overall objectives were to “prevent the extremities of American society from crowding the centre and stampeding the masses into unacceptable attitudes.” Regarding the New Deal, the right “emitted the usual howls of outrage at this extravagant assault on the work ethic, thrift, and fiscal responsibility. . . . The far left was scandalized by what it considered excessive timidity in the scope and generosity of the scheme.” In public, FDR would deliver different speeches, written “for the delectation of two different audiences but not sufficiently contradictory to attract the stark incredulity of the press.” He would parrot “principles” to appropriate groups without ever specifying what his evident adherence to them would result in. In private, FDR would rigorously exclude principles or economic theories from policy discussions in his executive and with Congress, largely by assigning the same policy tasks to a rightist and a leftist advisor and shuffling the results himself. Right and Left subsequently fired their salvos at one another over the New Deal, leaving FDR to sail in evident serenity down the centre. His mandate to the Democratic Party in the 1940 – 41 election (a close fight against Wendell Willkie) was that “there would be a clear commitment to liberal principles, yet in a tone unfrightening to reasonable members of the business community.”

If Black’s admiration for the New Deal and the way in which FDR administered and argued for it is grudging, he is lavish in his praise of FDR’s foreign policy. As Black has it, FDR, right from the time of his election in 1932, recognized Hitler as his great antagonist, saw an approaching “final conflict” between tyranny and democracy, and manipulated the public into accepting the necessity of abandoning isolationist policies and playing a major role in international politics. FDR’s message was simple, consistent and appealing to national pride—especially the pride of those with British ancestry. He delivered the message over and over, in his fireside chats and his speeches. He spoke of the English-speaking peoples as the torchbearers of civilization at its best, and of the highest forms of democracy.

To back this up with appropriate symbolism, FDR invited King George VI, the Queen and Princess Elizabeth to tour the United States in June, 1939. The tour was a great success. FDR spoke publically of the dictators as evil and a threat to democracy. He was already thought of by the majority of Americans as successful in lifting the U.S. out of the Depression, and by the time war broke out a few months after the Royal tour, he was thought of as the man who would be the natural war-time leader when the U.S. eventually took on the dictators. He would be the leader of the entire free world, and the U.S. would supplant Great Britain as the defender of democracy.

Ending isolationism as rapidly as possible made economic sense — it wouldn’t have mattered whether America landed on either side in the European conflict or just sold arms to everyone. FDR was able to augment his New Deal. The First to Third New deals, 1932-1935, had been purely economic, moving from banking regulations through workfare to social security to subsidized housing. With the Fourth New Deal, 1939, “jobs were created by rearmament and conscription.” The Fifth New Deal was inaugurated after FDR’s death but had been set up in 1943—veterans’ programs (medical insurance, hospitals, and assistance for home, farm and business ownership). The New Deal in wartime was helped along by the President’s special war-time powers which gave him the ability to designate production quotas, fix prices and wages, settle labor disputes etc. FDR said, “It was Dr. Win-the-War, not Dr. New Deal” that ended the Depression.” Black agrees, but the Fourth and Fifth New Deals were extensions of the New Deal, not changes to the general application of statist, socialist measures to the economy.

The Depression hadn’t ended by 1942 when America entered the war. Indeed, by 1937 FDR was stymied in attempts to augment the New Deal because of resistance from the isolationists in Congress and the rising “unsettlement” of the well-to-do due to taxes, union militancy, and government regulation. The economy was sliding backward, and FRD wanted to deal with it by further doses of social democratic economics. Black thinks these measures would not have been administered without the war.

There is an interesting implication to Black’s analysis. If democratic capitalism necessarily engenders depressions, if these depressions can only be cured by massive doses of statist economic measures, and if the Constitution prevents the administration of the necessary measures except in wartime, then there is a symbiotic relation between capitalism and war. In the U.S., the regular, requisite doses of socialism that capitalism needs to stay healthy can only be administered in times of war.

Black’s subsequent analysis of FDR’s influence on post-war U.S. foreign policy seems to be colored by this important implication. Black says that by 1939 “Roosevelt had already begun to act on the strategic imperative that was unique to the United States. Unlike other Great Powers, the United States would not coexist with what it considered potentially lethal threats to its security; it had the power and the will to do the necessary to remove those threats. . . .” FDR called for a national effort against the dictators in the name of democracy, and Black comments that this call, made in his Fireside Chat of 29 December 1940, “was an unprecedentedly clear statement of America’s emerging role in the world.” In fact FDR, as Black points out, invented the phrase “national security.”

This suggests that maintaining vigilance against security threats and maintaining the ability to strike decisively at any time became a permanent and necessary feature in American politics under FDR’s watch. There have, of course, to be good reasons for war, but how hard is it to find such reasons, especially when, under FDR, the U.S. established such a hair-trigger foreign policy? Potentially lethal threats could be anything.

As Black has it, the rationale was and is that, as the world’s strongest democracy, the U.S. has the right to unilaterally go to war to guarantee its security so that democracy will survive throughout the world. The “arsenal of democracy” must protect itself, regardless of treaties with other countries and membership in international bodies.

Black believes that this foreign policy has made the world a better place since the end of the war: “The refusal of the United States to be an appeasement power, and its accompanying determination under many administrations of both parties to arm itself appropriately, wrought a benign revolution in international affairs. The whole world has been comparatively stabilized by this fundamental American policy . . . .”
“America,” Black writes, “has participated intelligently in world affairs for decades.” Henry Kissinger, “one of America’s greatest statesmen,” is Black’s model of the effective pursuit of FDR’s policy.

The problems with these analyses are obvious. Who says that, in the U.S. system of government, property rights can’t be restricted more without creating a tyranny? It might take a particularly tricky, sophisticated and charismatic president to do it, but FDR did it and Black says it worked. Who says that the only way that social democratic measures can safely be applied, to the extent required during a serious depression, is by means of the special wartime powers of the President? Had the war not come along, FDR might still have been able to extend the New Deal. His comment about “Dr. Win-the War” might suggest more that World War II was convenient in connection with coming out of the Depression, not that it was necessary. Even arch-capitalists might object to Black’s idea that capitalism and war are symbiotic.

It’s questionable that FDR would approve of Black’s “hawkish” interpretation of “national security.” There is evidence, indeed, that FDR would object to unilateral action on the part of the U.S. in the role of a sort of international sheriff, and that he would see how easy it would be for a government to interpret national security in the way the second Bush Administration has, as any threat to free enterprise in any part of the world, or as a Pax Americana dismissal of any objection to U.S. foreign policy. Black doesn’t comment on the fact that America’s current self-proclaimed responsibilities have an “unsettling” similarity to the self-proclaimed “responsibility” of the German (or Italian or Japanese) peoples to dominate other races, or to the “white man’s burden” rationale for European colonialism. And he doesn’t comment on FDR’s calls before and during the war for a world order that would feature “a worldwide reduction of armaments . . . such . . . that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor anywhere in the world.”

But Black believes that FDR, had he lived past the war, would’ve been a hawk, and that he recognized in Stalin and the U.S.S.R. a serious and permanent threat to national security. So long as the war lasted it was expedient to assist Stalin, in particular, who was carrying, on the eastern front, most of the ground-force burden of defeating Hitler. FDR knew he could not allow Stalin to lose or to cut a deal that would end hostilities on the eastern front and place the USSR within the Axis block, making the war unwinnable by any conventional means or within any reasonable length of time. At the same time, he refused to cut any post-war deals with Stalin. Black explains: “Roosevelt knew that if what became the Cold War began, there would be no shortage of people claiming the West instigated it, if great care were not taken to put the onus entirely on Stalin.” And Black connects Roosevelt’s insistence on an early-as-possible, cross-channel invasion of “Fortress Europe,” his impatience with Churchill’s strategically unimportant battles in Africa and the Far and Middle East, with the hope that the British and Americans could liberate most of Europe while Stalin’s armies were still fighting in Russia.

Black believes that FDR “wanted the world organization [U.N.] launched and atomic weapons tested before any showdown with Stalin.” Black admits that no one can now know how far FDR would’ve pushed his pro-active foreign policy. He cites Churchill, who, by April 1945, wanted such a showdown with Stalin just as, after WW I, he wanted the western powers to topple Lenin. Churchill believed that FDR would back such a showdown. As Black has it, if FDR had lived past the end of the war, there would have been no Cold War. There would have been the threat of a nuclear strike or a strike itself, which would have brought the USSR down, and established the U.S. firmly in the saddle as the world’s efficient and beloved sheriff. America’s hair-trigger approach to “national security” would have justified itself in a big way. This of course has been the fantasy of the U.S. ultra-right ever since Hiroshima.

Conrad Black is famous in Canada for his ultra-capitalist enthusiasms, and his pro-Americanism, so it is tempting to read this book as an indication of how his “class”—including his stable of journalist friends as well as his journalist wife Barbara Amiel—will respond to the present economic crisis. Comparisons to 1929 are inevitable; the present slide happened after years of incompetent Republican rule, and resulted in the election of a Democrat. Barack Obama is in FDR’s shoes. Will he model himself after FDR? And what advice would Black, now arguably the world’s prime expert on FDR and as always a prominent spokesman for the arch-capitalistic right, have to give to the new President?

I think his first piece of advice would be to adopt some social democratic economic measures. Black accepts the New Deal as a great success, and criticizes as naïve and unintelligent those members of his class that opposed it. He’ll likely believe that his class may be ready for a dose of economic socialism. He’s not the only one, either. Even the arch-capitalistic magazine the Economist (as of 18 October 2008) is talking about the necessity of saving capitalism from itself. The Economist admits that, “finance needs regulation.” In particular, “capital requirements need to be revamped so that banks accumulate more reserves during the good times [and] central banks need to take asset prices more into account. . . .”

This is a sea-change in arch-capitalist theory. A decade ago, Black’s National Post would’ve attacked such pronouncements as illustrative of a tight-ass attitude to finance that could only slow down the economy. Back then, the National Post was raging at the refusal of the Canadian government to allow mergers of Canadian and American banks. This refusal was said to be a typical result of Canada’s loser mentality. It would deny Canada’s banking industry the benefits of more progressive banking practices and thus the ability to compete on the world market.

Probably Black would go further along the New Deal road than his arch-capitalist colleagues. He might argue that, even at this stage, improved banking regulations aren’t enough. His own personal experience might cause him to shy away now from FDR’s intrusions into corporate financing and management, especially into mergers or buy-outs, even though he acknowledges that FDR’s intrusions were successful. With these, as with make-work projects and “corporate welfare,” the way in which such programs are introduced would be crucial, since they too would have to be managed by the government. Black knows from his studies that business leaders have no taste or skill for that kind of management. Anyway, the public would have to be softened up by making scapegoats of speculators, profiteers, the filthy rich, tax-evaders etc. Black might advise business leaders to accept this as expedient, and maybe even to back silently away when especially obdurate arch-capitalists are subject to tax harassment. Whatever it takes, the “working public”—the masses of voters that in a democracy form the only counterweight to the power of concentrated wealth—should be made to feel included and looked after, so they don’t fall into “unacceptable attitudes.”

And Black would certainly advise Obama that, if the economy slides too far, “Dr. Win-the-War” might have to be evoked so that the necessary executive powers are acquired to apply the full extent of socialist policy that is needed to cure capitalism when it is really sick. Black would probably advocate a prickly attitude on a whole a platter of threats — the war on terror, the drug war, the war on dictators, the war on communism, and the war on nuclear proliferation. Iran is presently at the top of the list of threatening bad guys. This would prepare the public in case it is necessary to declare war or manipulate another country into a war declaration. And here again, as Kurtz said in Heart of Darkness, “you must take care of the motives — right motives — always.” The world must be made safe for democracy.

But Black, having lost his media empire, may have changed his mind about “Caesar”. Maybe he’s also changed his view of American foreign policy. His model, Henry Kissinger, was one of the directors of Hollinger who according to Amiel “betrayed” Black, and thus might not look so good anymore. The entrails may be cold. If Obama wants advice, though, I’d recommend he read Conrad Black’s biography of FDR. As well, he could enter into e-mail correspondence with Federal prison inmate # 18330-424 or better, nip down to the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex and sit in on some of Black’s lectures on history, which are said to be very popular with inmates and staff.

4839 words  February 2, 2009


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