If one thing distinguishes all of Conrad Black’s books, from his brilliant biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon to his impassioned 2011 apologia, A Matter of Principle, it is exuberance. The onetime press magnate takes up nothing that he does not enliven, and by offering readers a tour d’horizon of American diplomacy, from George Washington to Barack Obama, Conrad Black has put together a study that is as bold and thought-provoking as it is trenchant and entertaining.
Open the book on any page and you will see examples of these winning qualities. Apropos of the attitude of England’s political class to the American Civil War, Black notes how Lord John Russell, Lord Palmerston, William Gladstone, and Lord Salisbury, “who between them had 11 terms of prime minister for a total of 42 years between 1846 and 1902,” were all in favor “of exchanging embassies with the Confederacy and, if need be, accepting war with America.” It took Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert—a German, Black reminds readers—and the rococo Tory Benjamin Disraeli to remind them “that the British government could not take a position in favor of slave-holding and secessionism,” especially since this would ultimately result in their losing not only the West Indies but Canada. Like so much else in the book, Black delivers this as though he were speaking with readers over a convivial dinner table.
We are currently blessed with many good historians—I would single out Andrew Roberts, Juliet Barker, Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy, Daniel Walker Howe, and Piers Brendon—but even in this distinguished company Black stands out, harking back as he does to an earlier, brasher tradition. Of gentlemen-scholars, only Winston Churchill exhibits a better feel for the great trajectories of history; and when it comes to exploding the fallacies of historical orthodoxy, Black puts one in mind of Hilaire Belloc, who attacked the complacent Whig version of history at every turn. Black is particularly good at skewering liberal myths about the Vietnam war, which he sees as a tale not only of strategic blunders but of old-fashioned funk, epitomized by a well-meaning but inept Lyndon Johnson, whom Black nicely characterizes as having been “chased from office by a ragged little Vietnamese Communist, a goateed former salad-mixer for Escoffier.”
Certainly no other historian now writing is funnier than Black. In speaking of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who moved China from Maoist Marxism to socialist capitalism, Black remarks how Deng accomplished this feat by “encouraging entrepreneurship, plowing the resources of the state into economic investment, welcoming foreign investment, and radically modernizing key industries.” By any chalk, Deng was a far cry from his predecessor, Lin Piao, who, as Black points out, “was such a helpless cocaine addict that he had to breathe motorcycle fumes to clear his head.”
Then, again, this book shows how deftly Black uses details to illumine the larger historical picture. Of FDR’s tenure in office, for instance, Black observes how New York’s Archbishop Francis Spellman “issued a statement that was read in every Roman Catholic church in America, asserting that ‘It is better to have strength and not need it than to need it and not have it. We seek peace, but not a peace that consists in a choice between slavery and death.’ ” As Black remarks, it was a ringing endorsement of Roosevelt and his war effort without ever making reference to the president by name. Yet, “At the decisive moment, the leadership of that Church delivered all it had for the president.” (Why Cardinal Dolan failed to do the same last year for Mitt Romney must baffle those who wish the church would take a more consistent stance against its political enemies.)
The figure most perceptively portrayed here is Richard Nixon, whom Black considers to have been “the most strategically astute and imaginative president in the country’s history,” his only rivals being Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan. As for Nixon’s peculiar genius, Black locates it squarely in the president’s ability to connect with and win the loyal support of ordinary people—the same people who would reject Jimmy Carter’s inept response to Iran’s invasion of the American embassy and rally around Ronald Reagan’s simple but effective objective in the Cold War against the Russians: “We win and they lose.” In that regard, a good deal of Flight of the Eagle is not only about the leadership of America’s presidents but the good sense of America’s people, whose support made that leadership possible, often against the advice of the country’s elites.