Nicholas Wapshott

Barack Obama and the lessons of Lincoln

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 20, 2012 18:56 UTC

You have got to admire Steven Spielberg. He has taken the well-worn story of Abraham Lincoln’s final days and turned it into a pointed piece of contemporary political commentary. When he first met Doris Kearns Goodwin back in 1999, well before she had completed her masterly account of the Lincoln White House, Team of Rivals, it seems Spielberg decided to film an episode in Lincoln’s life that would ring true at the time of release many years later. He chose to concentrate his “Lincoln” movie on a pivotal time in the presidency: the final five months when Lincoln had just been re-elected, when the Civil War was all-but won, and when the fractious House was undecided about whether to fall in with Lincoln’s stated aim of abolishing slavery.

There is an obvious comparison to today’s politics, with President Barack Obama newly re-elected and facing a similarly hazardous short period to dragoon a recalcitrant and largely hostile House to do his bidding over taxes, entitlements and spending. Where Lincoln was working against the clock to ensure the Civil War would continue long enough to prevent Southern pro-slavers from returning to the Union Congress to wreck his plan to outlaw slavery, so Obama is teetering at the edge of a similarly perilous precipice. And just as Lincoln was surrounded in government by his old rivals, so Obama has as loyal lieutenants his former challengers for the Democratic candidacy, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.

As Spielberg’s movie shows, Lincoln rejected his close colleagues’ assessment that the daunting arithmetic of the divided House meant he would fail to force through his emancipation measure. Lincoln’s towering achievement is so well known to make a spoiler alert unnecessary. Through guile, arm-twisting, argument, bribery, and bullying, the president pressed on and, while he kept members of a Southern peace delegation kicking their heels, the requisite votes were found to convert his Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 into law. Whether Obama can pull off a similar coup and save America from a ruinous combination of high taxes and deep public spending cuts remains to be seen.

Spielberg’s Lincoln is also an eloquent reminder that not long ago Republicans were the defenders of civil rights for all. The Party of Lincoln has long since turned its back on such noble thoughts and become a redoubt of grouchy old men bemoaning the fact that America, a nation of immigrants, has become a multicultural haven. What would Lincoln have made of the skulduggery and dissembling that led Republicans in so many states to hastily pass laws ostensibly to ward off voter fraud that are in fact shameless attempts to hinder the poor, the young, the old and those in racial minorities from using the ballot box? That pained groaning you hear is Honest Abe spinning in his tomb in Springfield, Illinois.

The screenwriter of Lincoln, Tony Kushner, mainly keeps to historical fact, though in the opening scene he imagines a conversation between the president and two black soldiers that forges the link between the slice of history we are about to witness and the events we are living through. While one infantryman nods in deference, the other urges the president to do the right thing, to fulfill his destiny and give blacks freedom and the vote. With the war almost won, the young man argues, it is no time to backslide. The young soldier looks forward to an election where former slaves stand in line to vote and eventually take their rightful place in Congress.

Conservative media eat their own

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 12, 2012 18:41 UTC

In the civil war that broke out between Republicans the minute the election was called for President Obama, media conservatives have turned on media conservatives. But none have shown more recklessness than Andrew Sullivan, chief American columnist for Murdoch’s Sunday Times in London, who on “Real Time With Bill Maher” cheerfully chewed off the hand that feeds him. “The Republican Party has to say, ‘We have no part of Fox News,’ ” Sullivan declared.

Attacking Murdoch’s grip on the post-defeat Republican debate through the strict party line dictated by Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, the clearly agitated Sullivan said, “The media-industrial complex on the right is so lucrative they don’t want to lose it. And it is now controlling a political party. That has to be severed. Fox News has to be demonized and cut off.”

Sullivan is no leftie. An avowed Reagan and Thatcher fan who moved to Washington  from Britain and became a U.S. citizen to more closely involve himself in conservative thinking, he is the moderate right’s equivalent to that other naturalized Brit, the late Christopher Hitchens. [r2] Sullivan is smart, eloquent and has championed individual rights and attacked social conservatives, not least because he is openly gay.

A lost chance to overturn Keynes with the fiscal cliff

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 9, 2012 23:27 UTC

If free-market economists were serious about their ideas, they would surely be arguing vociferously right now for the economy to plunge over the fiscal cliff. But where are the laissez-faire economists lining up to urge John Boehner to lead his Tea Party tribe in the House to veto all compromise and put our money where their mouths are? They are strangely silent. Instead, the debate is about how Keynesian we should be.

A reminder for those who haven’t read John Maynard Keynes lately, or who have never read Keynes but oppose him anyway out of principle, he was a British math whiz who transformed economics forever with the publication of his “General Theory” in 1936. It suggested three ways to put wind in the sails of an economy in the doldrums. The problem, Keynes suggested, was that there was not enough demand for goods and services, and that governments should take a lead in stimulating spending to encourage business leaders to invest and create jobs.

Keynes’s first prescription was for central banks to make borrowing as cheap as possible with low interest rates. This deters saving and makes new investment in business activity more attractive. Businesses will employ workers who go out and spend their earnings. After studying the roots of the Great Depression, Milton Friedman and Anna Schwarz blamed the economic slump on money being too tight for too long. Such was the fear of returning to the deflationary devastation of the 1930s that successive Federal Reserve chairmen have taken this lesson to heart. Faced with a recession in 2001, even Alan Greenspan, a lover of the free market who flirted in his youth with the Lioness of Laissez-Faire, Ayn Rand, kept money rock-bottom cheap for the whole of the first decade of this century.

What should Mitt Romney do next?

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 7, 2012 20:59 UTC

Amid the triumphant acclamation and the reluctant resignation of the two presidential candidates’ early morning speeches was the hint that politics is about to take a strange turn. Mitt Romney’s concession address was suitably gracious and, above dissenting heckles from his disappointed party workers, he included this veiled job application: “Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work, and we citizens also have to rise to the occasion.”

Within half an hour President Barack Obama responded in kind. “I just spoke with Governor Romney and I congratulated him and Paul Ryan on a hard-fought campaign,” he said. “In the weeks ahead, I also look forward to sitting down with Governor Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward.”

What do the two men have in mind? The role of defeated presidential candidate is a hard one to endure. America does not like losers, and those who fail to win the world’s most important office are given short shrift. Often they become bywords for has-beens and no-hopers, tacitly blamed for letting their ambitions run ahead of reality. George McGovern was a courageous man, a bomber pilot in World War Two who knew war from the inside and could not bear to see America’s young men sacrificed in a dubious cause. His reward after losing the 1972 race was ignominy and derision. The same was true of another war hero and failed presidential candidate, Bob Dole, in 1996, who became a spokesman for Viagra.