British newspaper publishers love prime ministers. Conversely, prime ministers love publishers. That is, if the publisher in question owns a national newspaper with a big circulation (often in the millions).
You cannot get into the club if you only own, say, the Lewisham Borough News. This is an exclusive club for those who wield real, palpable power: Witness the scandal of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in Britain today.
The club has been operating for more than 200 years. But it was at the turn of the 20th century, with ever-expanding voter rolls, that the intimacy became really intense. Victorian prime ministers had to put up with editors and owners of journals of opinion, like The Spectator or Punch, and sometimes The Times.
Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his Liberal rival, William Gladstone, bargained with the media of their day. But these did not sway huge swathes of the electorate in the way that was to come. General education produced millions of avid readers and improved printing technology, notably the Linotype machine, made large mass- circulation newspapers possible.
Two brothers, Vere Harmsworth and his more colorful sibling, Alfred, were the first big-time press barons. In time, they were rewarded with titles: Alfred became Lord Northcliffe and Vere, Lord Rothermere.
It is unlikely that all of the prime ministers — and all of them had to deal with the press barons — really liked the intimacy. These men mostly had huge egos, daunting agendas, and their friendship always came with a price. So, of course, did the friendship of the politicians. They sought support in elections and freedom from scrutiny in governing.
Part of the price was usually the peerage, but then there were other considerations. Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian, wanted prime ministers to endorse his campaign for “Empire Free Trade.” Others had other interests; but the tariffs on newsprint, the subsidy of cable traffic (which made getting news from overseas cheaper), and subsidized postal rates for newspapers and periodicals were common to all.
Northcliffe lectured World War I Prime Minister Lloyd George on how to run the war — and everything else. Beaverbrook treated Lloyd George’s successor, Bonar Law, a fellow Canadian, as his surrogate in government and campaigned for him relentlessly.
After that, Beaverbrook turned his demonic energies to supporting Winston Churchill — even though Churchill was at a low period during much of the1930s. Not only was the man who was to be Britain’s greatest prime minister out of power, he was also out of money.
The newspaper proprietors, in surprising unity, came to Churchill’s aid. Churchill boasted that he made 1 million pounds from his articles in one year and retired his debts. That was an astounding amount of money, and it reflected the fact that the newspaper bosses were overpaying him enormously, according the historian A.J.P. Taylor.
The leading paymasters were Beaverbrook, who owned the Daily Express and the Evening Standard, and Brendan Bracken, the Irishman who owned the Financial Times. In Churchill they saw potential, a lively contributor, and someone who gave the best dinner parties in England. Bracken even encouraged rumor that he was Churchill’s illegitimate son, although he knew this was nonsense.
The cultivating of prime ministers was an ecumenical affair. Cecil Harmsworth King, who ran Mirror Group Newspapers in the 1960s, lectured Prime Minister Harold Wilson on everything, including his own somewhat ridiculous idea that Britain needed a bipartisan national government — as in wartime — to get it out of his its financial difficulties. Rupert Murdoch went all out for Margaret Thatcher. But he turned against her successor, John Major, and supported the Labor Party and Tony Blair. Gordon Brown failed to get Murdoch’s nod, but current Prime Minister David Cameron did. The rest, as they say, is history.
When television came along, the proprietors had a new incentive to cultivate prime ministers: licenses. The big winner here was the least pushy of the publishers, Roy Thomson, another Canadian, who owned The Times. He got the license to run commercial television in Scotland and became Lord Thomson. Like Murdoch, Thomson did not crave the company of prime ministers. He was happy to let others carry his requirements to the men in power. Murdoch has used various intermediaries, including the American economist and free-market ideologue Irwin Stelzer.
Is it all over now? Will prime ministers shun the company of media barons?
Will the sun rise in the East tomorrow? — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
You can blame the mess that is Pakistan on an excess of liberal idealism in London after World War II. When the Labor Party under Clement Atlee trounced Churchill’s Conservatives, it came into power with an agenda of idealistic socialism that was to have consequences down through the decades.
At home this socialist administration planned for national insurance in health and pensions, which Churchill supported, and for an almost immediate British withdrawal from India, which he vehemently opposed.
India was already far along toward some kind of independence by the outbreak of World War II. The manner of Britain’s going was more the issue than that it would happen. The speed and the nature of the withdrawal are debated to this day, as is the rough partition of British India into India and West and East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
In the end the withdrawal was swift, ill thought out, and led to enormous loss of life: an immediate slaughter of more than a million people in religious violence. If you add the deaths in the 1965 and 1971 wars, the toll rises by more millions, especially when you count in the endless violence over the disputed territory of Kashmir.
There were many weaknesses in the British withdrawal, including the absurd idea of two Pakistans separated by India. Pakistan was an idea supported by Muslim leaders going back to the 19th century, but the creation of a modern country based solely on religion had yet to be tested.
Where the socialist idealists in Britain failed was in realizing that the industrial and entrepreneurial heart of British India (The Raj) lay not in the poor Muslim areas but in the more sophisticated cities of India, with its diversity of languages and religions–even though Hinduism dominated.
What is now Pakistan was poor, feudal, corrupt and torn between the two sects of Islam, Sunni and Shia.
Pakistan might have been left to stew, if it had not been for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, coupled with the Indian championing of regimes hostile to the United States. Through this support of the unaligned movement (a bunch of troublemakers like Cuba and Tanzania), India thought it could play the United States against the Soviet Union. All it did was to accelerate the U.S. tilt to its unstable neighbor, Pakistan.
The Soviet incursion into Afghanistan lured the United States deeply into the region. Pakistan became our ally and we willfully overlooked its feudalism and corruption and, most importantly, the spread of a potent Islamic militancy, through its religious schools (madrassas). We heavily favored Pakistan, even though we knew the country was trying to build a bomb.
In the mid-1980s, I interviewed Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s strong man. He denied Pakistan was working on a weapon, but his own detailed knowledge of bomb construction gave the lie to his protestations. I left Pakistan convinced that a nuclear weapon was in the works. What one did not know was the willingness of the rogue scientist, A.Q. Khan, to sell the technology to all comers, like North Korea and Iran.
This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to the White House briefing room to announce that the United States was committing $100 million to refugee aid in Pakistan, on top of the $60 million already committed. She also asked people to use their cell phones to dial more dollars for refugees.
There is irony here. It was American food aid that supported Afghan refugees and their Pakistani supporters from the tribal areas during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. I stood outside Peshawar and watched convoys of trucks with sacks of American grain heading to the refugee camps where the Taliban was incubating. When I went to those camps, beneficiaries of our food complained that it was not accompanied by enough cooking oil. American policy and food have nurtured the Taliban.
While India’s economy strengthens and the country celebrates 60 years of democracy, Pakistan is in chaos, fed by the ancient evils of religion and corruption.
In a further irony, Britain’s ill-planned withdrawal from India, in a frenzy of liberal idealism, had no effect in Britain beyond opening the door to floods of poor immigrants from Pakistan: immigrants who have vastly complicated Britain’s response to terrorism. –For North Star Writers Group
President Bush, one gathers from his exit ruminations, believes history will treat him more kindly than today’s polls. But history is tricky. Although it has tended to give presidents the benefit of the doubt–once aspersions are cast, they can stick and grow. Dwight Eisenhower, has been reevaluated upward, as has Harry Truman. But there has been no mercy for James Buchanan, and not much for Warren Harding. And Jimmy Carter is in historical limbo.
When we leave these shores, history gets vicious. In French history, untold numbers of monarchs have been pilloried by historians as decadent, feckless and idle. Their queens, too. It is unlikely that Marie Antoinette actually said, “Let them eat cake.” But that libel has stuck to her down through time.
In English history things are just as bad, or worse, but the targeting has been more precise. Although appeasement was popular when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain capitulated to Adolf Hitler, he has been vilified ever since. English monarchs have had to deal with English writers. They dubbed Mary I “Bloody Mary” and contrasted her unfavorably with her half sister, Elizabeth I, an all-round favorite.
If you came to the attention of Shakespeare, you were pretty well done for. Richard III, is a villain in history, despite scholars’ attempts to rescue him and a relentless disavowal of the popular concept of his villainy in the north of England, where he is still a local hero.
Then there is the linkage between the most denigrated English monarch, John, and our own George W. Bush. Not only did he merit a fairly obscure Shakespearian play, but his name was so blackened by his barons that no other English monarch has ever been named John.
Actually John was not all bad, but he was definitely luckless. His father, Henry II (whom we know from the play “Lion in Winter”) disliked him so much that he inherited no land and was known derisively as “John the Lackland.” He was totally overshadowed by his elder brother, Richard the Lionheart.
But when Richard headed to the Middle East in the Third Crusade, he put John in charge of things in England and the chunks of France controlled by the English crown. John gets no credit, but apparently he was an able administrator and an undistinguished soldier. He also had the unedifying habit of flying into towering rages.
The seeds of John’s later humiliation at Runnymede in the Thames River were sown in France, after Richard was killed and the crown passed to John. As commander in chief, John systematically lost English lands to the French. And he picked up a new sobriquet “John Soft Sword.”
With a diminished empire, John increased taxes on his subjects and the barons in particular. Apparently, history does not take kindly to those who increase taxes. But there is no evidence that it rewards those who cut them.
Anyway, the barons had had enough of John and forced him to sign the Magna Carta (the Great Charter) in 1215, which embodied habeas corpus (produce the body) to control reprisals by the king. It became the central pillar of English Common Law and its U.S. derivative. It also became a cornerstone for human rights legislation elsewhere and remained such, until George W. Bush and his administration excluded enemy combatants from its provisions.
The president might be encouraged to know that there was an attempt by historians to reposition John more favorably in the scheme of things seven centuries later. However, a children’s verse by A.A. Milne in the 1920s which said, “King John was not a good man–/He had his little ways,” confirmed the old view.
Winston Churchill, referencing habeas corpus, summarized the legacy of John’s reign: “When the long tally is added, it will be seen that the British nation and the English-speaking world owe far more to the vices of John than to the labors of virtuous sovereigns.”
Presumably, history will record that Bush admired Churchill but lacked his enthusiasm for John’s legacy: the Magna Carta.
In this extraordinary political season, last week introduced a new dimension: a minute examination of one candidate’s rhetorical skills. Barack Obama was put under the microscope to see whether he could produce a transcendental speech that would nullify the excesses of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
That this should be is extraordinary in itself. We have heretofore judged politicians on their religious affiliation, but not on the utterances of a particular clergyman.
More, as a people, we have shied away from lofty rhetoric, favoring meat-and-potatoes speech. Our best orators have not played well with the electorate, although sometimes they have handed down memorable thoughts. William Jennings Bryan comes to mind as the preeminent orator of his day. We still remember his mesmerizing “Cross of Gold” speech, but we also remember him as being baited and brought down by Clarence Darrow in the “Scopes Monkey Trial.” Today, we adore the cascading cadences of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But his was a voice of protest, a cry of pain, not a solicitation for votes.
One of our best orators was Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who filled the Senate chamber with speech but changed no minds. In that, he was like Winston Churchill before World War II. According to Roy Jenkins’s detailed book on Churchill’s parliamentary life, members of the House of Commons revered Churchill’s eloquence but resisted his logic. Jenkins reports that when it was known that Churchill was to speak, the House would fill up with enthusiastic members who came for the show. But that was all they came for.
Rhetoric had its birth, and maybe its finest hours, in the ancient Greek democracy. The ability to argue brilliantly in public was revered as established as an art form. It continued, but was modified, in the Roman Forum. As the Roman state became more important than the individual, the nature of public oration changed: disputation surrendered to the triumphalism of Julius Caesar.
Through history there were great speakers from the thrones and the pulpits. But the growth of parliamentary democracy in England brought the art of public persuasion back to life, as it had been in Greece and Rome.
Initially, when British parliaments reflected only a small part of the population, debate was erudite with many references to the classics. As the franchise expanded in the 19th century, the language was modified to be more comprehensible to the public.
The House of Commons provided an arena, and rhetorical success there meant success in politics, witness H. H. Asquith, David Lloyd George, F.E. Smith, Charles Parnell, and Daniel O’Connell. The Liberal William Gladstone and the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli, the great rivals, went about it with scholarship and wit, enhanced by their personal antipathy to each other. Gladstone was the greatest orator (he could speak without notes for four hours), but Disraeli excelled at repartee—the quick thrust and the lethal turn-of-phrase were his weapons. So popular were Gladstone’s speeches that he had to employ shouters: men who stood just in earshot and repeated the great man’s words so that people could hear them.
Broadcasting has banished the thundering speech in favor of a more intimate conversation between politician and voter. Franklin D. Roosevelt understood this and changed political speech from big, bold oratory to a crowd to intimate communication to individuals. He also understood the value of scarcity and addressed the nation infrequently, compared to today’s presidents who broadcast once a week to an inattentive nation. Ronald Reagan, always referred to as a great communicator not a great orator, followed the FDR example of delivering big ideas in soft, informal language.
Whether Obama becomes the Democratic nominee and president or not, he has raised the rhetorical stakes. He has melded something of the eloquence of the 19th century with the collegiate delivery of today. He has also raised expectations for his future speeches. People will expect them to be as well crafted and as nuanced as his Philadelphia speech. As a speaker, Obama will always be compared to himself—and that is a high standard.