Lincoln, Obama, Blair and the 24 hour media culture
Posted on 11 February 2009 | 10:02am
I have already
vlogged about my (and Barack Obama’s’) favourite book on politics, Team of
Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her brilliant account of the political genius
of Abraham Lincoln was already a hugely successful book even before Obama’s endorsement, which will take it
into a whole new league, marked genuine contribution to history.
As the paperback
is released, Doris Kearns Goodwin has a piece in The Guardian today which
echoes a point I was making yesterday when promoting the Time to Change report
on great figures of history, including Lincoln, who had mental health problems
from time to time.
relates to the difference between the era of Lincoln, and today’s 24 hour media
culture. ‘Lincoln’s cabinet meetings were fiery affairs,’ she writes. ‘Members
openly feuded with one another and with the President. They castigated each
other as liars and scoundrels. Yet this information rarely appeared in the
newspapers; we know about it through diaries and letters. In contrast, one
24-hour news cycle significantly lessens the possibility of containing
dissenting opinions within the president’s official circle. If internal feuds
are reported by the nightly news, magnified day by day by the cable shows,
dissected by countless political blogs, made fodder for late-night comedy, a
modern team of rivals would collapse.’
We may have more
media than ever, in terms of volume, but its impact on good politics has been
broadly negative. I doubt very much that Lincoln in his era, or Churchill in
his, would have been able to achieve as they did in the modern age.
The team of rivals refers to the fact that Lincoln gave the top jobs to his
biggest rivals. Obama has followed his lead, in this as in so much else.
On Monday I was
speaking to history students at Queen Mary, University of London, who are doing
a course on the Blair government. It is led by journalist John Rentoul, who
made the point that Tony Blair was in many ways fortunate in being both a
master of the modern media and a strong decision maker.
Obama may well
turn out to be the same. But already it is possible to see a slight shift in
tone as the media gets bored with Obama the hero as the only narrative
What is without
doubt in my view is that the ability to deal with the 24 hour media having
become a prerequisite for leadership, we are cutting down the pool of real
talent that ought to be thinking of going into politics.