Is it ok to tell all concerned with the French film The Artist ‘merci beaucoup’? I mean, we have the word from Newt Gingrich that primary voters should abominate Mitt Romney, his rival for the Republican presidential nomination, because he speaks French. Hard, though, to feel empathy with the linguistically burdened Mr Romney. He himself assailed Ambassador Jon Huntsman, the sanest in the Republican asylum, for being able to speak Mandarin. This is double treason by the lights of Romney and his xenophobic Tea Party chorus in their tricky tricorne hats. Citing the toxic atmosphere, Huntsman has now dropped out. The punditocracy writes him off, but he’s a possible for 2016 when, the way things are going, everyone in the States will be required to speak Mandarin.
See how easy it is to be diverted by the spectacle of the party of Lincoln losing its marbles. The trouble is that I’ve seen presidential elections close up since I was one of Adlai Stevenson’s student groupies at the University of Chicago, when we tried to deny Dwight Eisenhower a second term in 1956. We lost — and justifiably, since Ike went on to be one of the greats, though his presidency has only lately had the benefit of scholarly research showing how much good he did by stealth. It was disconcerting to have President Obama casually diss Ike (and Clinton) during a year-end interview for CBS’s 60 Minutes. He asserted he’d put his own administration’s legislation and foreign policy ‘against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR, and Lincoln’. Nice touch, that ‘possible’, egotism masquerading as deference. It was prudent of someone (his handlers? Obama himself?) to confine that provocative bit to the text. It was excised from the broadcast segment of his interview, seen by 14 million.
Never mind a Democratic president’s snub. Eisenhower would be drummed out of today’s Republican party. Hey, he spent $400 billion of public money on a single project! Ike’s logistical sense, enhanced by leading the Allied armies in Europe, impelled him to build 45 million miles of interstate superhighways. Without them, America would not have enjoyed the boom years, every dollar invested yielding $6 in return. Now his old party is so obsessed about deficits it won’t vote any money to repair America’s decaying infrastructure. Private affluence, public squalor. It just voted to cut funding for the Internal Revenue Service. Nobody loves a tax collector but uncollected revenue — $320 billion and counting — increases the burden on the rest of us and will only deepen the deficit the party claims is its first concern. This is just daft. Newsweek magazine asks the right question on Andrew Sullivan’s cover story: why are Obama’s critics so dumb?
I’m afflicted by anniversaries. It’s 30 years since I was defenestrated by Rupert Murdoch as editor of the Times. I’ve celebrated by publishing a fourth edition of my Good Times, Bad Times, reflecting in part on what my experience suggests he knew of phone hacking and when. I’ve also been impelled to revisit the past by a summons to the House of Lords. Thirty-eight years ago I sat through days of hearings by the Law Lords deliberating on whether I and the paper I edited, the Sunday Times, were guilty of contempt in 1972-73 in campaigning for justice for the thalidomide families. All five Law Lords voted to ban publication of our report. Only a 13-11 victory in the European Court of Human Rights removed the gag order. The experience this time was by video link to a select committee hearing, and it was sunny. The peers were concerned to know how serious journalism might be spared the straitjacket for the press being fashioned in the wake of the Murdoch scandals. The one good consequence of the malignities exposed by the Guardian is that from Leveson and the Lords we might at last see a grand bargain that would remove restrictions on real investigative journalism in the public interest but get the mad dogs on a leash.
Did I mention The Artist? I’ve been coming to America since the 1950s, lived here since the 1980s, and I’ve never known it so miserable: 20 million looking for work, a corrupt deadlocked Congress, pygmies vying for power. We stumbled into the cinema, escaping like an audience in the 1930s. At the end everyone came out into the freezing cold with big smiles. One emerges from Hollywood tyre-squealers worn out by navigating all the impossible turns. Here we felt like tap-dancing all the way home.
Harold Evans’s Good Times, Bad Times is published by Bedford Square Books.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 21, 2012