The Spectator

By Eugene Robinson

On my second afternoon in Australia I found myself in the heart of Sydney, strolling past Circular Quay with Baron Black of Crossharbour — Conrad Black, who once owned The Spectator, among many publications across the English-speaking world. Lord Black had been one of the world’s most influential media tycoons before his recent unpleasantness with the legal authorities in several countries. We were chatting about his interesting but unconvincing theories about the Watergate scandal. It was a glorious day, and one’s gaze was drawn upward toward the city’s iconic structures — the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge — which gleamed against a crystalline sky. But when we encountered a group of men heading in the other direction, my eyes shifted downward to focus on a diminutive man who looked familiar but out of place. It took me a moment to realise he was I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, the one-time top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby, of course, had been one of the most powerful men in Washington before his own recent unpleasantness with the law.

They greeted each other as old friends, felon to felon, and exchanged a few encouraging keep-your-chin-up pleasantries before going their separate ways. I looked ahead at the brilliant white shells of the Opera House, which was where Lord Black and I were headed, and up at the magnificent arc of the great bridge, and I thought: wow. Oz is a pretty interesting place.

It was, indeed, my first visit to Australia. Lord Black and I were en route to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas where we, along with the ABC’s delightful Annabel Crabb, took the stage before an audience of some 1,400 civic-minded souls to be interviewed by the American journalist James Fallows about the future of journalism. That was the starting point, at least. I’m fairly sure that at one point during the hour I launched into an extended rant against President Barack Obama’s acquiescence in — or enthusiasm for — the National Security Agency’s vast program to snoop into the telephone and email communications of all Americans, perhaps all Australians and, oh yes, definitely one irate German chancellor. And I’m quite sure that Lord Black performed his own rant about the unfairness and corruption of the US penal system, which he has experienced first-hand. I must say that I ended up liking him a great deal and wishing him well. He is a man of the right while I am what passes in America for a man of the left, but we found common ground in an abhorrence of oppressive state power. If I get the chance to meet him again, I’ll be happy to buy him a drink. But perhaps I’ll pull him close and say, ‘Conrad, face it. Nixon really was a crook.’

After a day-long conference on the implications for civic involvement of the ongoing disruption of traditional media business models — sponsored by the United States Studies Centre of the University of Sydney — my wife Avis and I flew off to the Whitsunday Islands. A word to all Australian air travellers: you don’t know how lucky you are. Australian airports have basically the same security procedures as ours, but the process is both faster and less demeaning. Even being singled out for the ‘random’ swab test for explosives, which happened to me several times, was quick and pleasant, performed with a smile. Security personnel at US airports do not smile, and you’d better not, either.

Hamilton Island was beautiful, warm, tranquil — a perfect spot for a quick three-days-in-paradise vacation. Our pavilion at the Qualia resort commanded a panoramic view of the archipelago, and we watched as excursion boats ferried tourists out to the Great Barrier Reef and back. As for us, we eschewed any and all unnecessary motion. We did venture out one day to tour the island in the golf cart, or ‘buggy’, that the resort provided. I smiled when I recalled reading in a guidebook that Hamilton was becoming crowded and overdeveloped. Australians really do have a different idea of what ‘crowded’ means. To us, the phrase that came to mind was ‘wonderfully deserted’.

From there we flew to Canberra to visit dear friends — Dr Erik Lithander, a pro vice-chancellor at the Australian National University, and his wife Dr Fiona Lithander, a nutrition scientist who has recently been poached from ANU by the University of Canberra. Aussies had prepared us with dire warnings — ‘It’s cold,’ they said, ‘and there’s nothing to do’ — but we had a delightful time in the capital.

Perhaps we were comfortable there because we live in a purpose-built capital, albeit one with a bit more age on it than Canberra’s century. The museums are impressive by any standard; Avis is an artist, and we spent hours in the National Portrait Gallery. We had good Thai food one night in Manuka (though I should have asked for more heat in my dish; apparently ‘Aussie hot’ means ‘not hot in the least’). The next day our hosts drove us out to a countryside roost called Poachers Pantry for a very good lunch and a hefty dose of local flavour.

And on our last day, as we were being driven to the airport to fly home, we stopped and watched a large group of kangaroos as they went about their Sunday morning marsupial affairs. You really have kangaroos, just hopping all over the place. The moment was enchanting and unforgettable. An amazing place, your Oz.

This article was originally published at The Canberra Times