Spielberg Taps Britain’s Spinmeister, and Lincoln Spins in His Grave

The Brit who resigned twice from the cabinet in two years is now comparing his career with the American president who ended slavery. Peter Jukes reports.

Disney-DreamWorks II, via AP; Getty

Once known as the Prince of Darkness, and when elevated to the House of Lords as the Dark Lord, Peter Mandelson, a key architect of New Labour, has always seemed to enjoy his notoriety as the master of spin and the political fix—qualities not immediately associated with the principled, dogged, and homely reputation of Abraham Lincoln.

However, as Stephen Spielberg’s epic movie Lincoln opens in London and across Europe, Lord Mandelson has been marshaled into the publicity campaign, recording a promotional video in which he explicitly compares his career with that of the 16th American president, who was assassinated within days of winning the Civil War.

Lord Mandelson, who resigned twice from the cabinet within two years because of press storms over allegations of impropriety, is more familiar with the dangers of character assassination.

“When I look back at Lincoln’s presidency and what he had to struggle through,” Mandelson says in the video, with a bronze bust of Churchill looming behind him: “I see a man who had a great sense of conviction, of moral certitude, that he was right and changes that needed to be made were absolutely necessary for the U.S. at the time.”

Though it’s already garnered multiple Oscar nominations, with the British-born actor Daniel Day Lewis the odds-on favorite to win an unprecedented third Oscar for his mesmerizing performance in the lead role, Lincoln may not be immediate appealing to European audiences. Shot and lit like an oil painting by the Polish cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the epic eschews the expected recreation of historic battle scenes that dominated Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and replaces them with the intractable political battles involved in securing enough votes to seal the 13th Amendment banning slavery.

While The New York Times hailed the film as “less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson ... alive with moral energy” the British tabloid Daily Star, in an equally rapturous but pithier review described it as “the West Wing with whiskers.”

Many British politicians are addicted to the long-running Aaron Sorkin TV drama, which (while Bush and Cheney were actually running the U.S.) imagined the trials and tribulations of the factional liberal presidency of Jed Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen. But U.S. influence in recent British politics goes deeper than that for the trio of Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown, and Tony Blair, who created New Labour after four successive election defeats in the ’80s and ’90s were inspired by the electoral victories of Bill Clinton and his successful tactics of triangulation and the “third way.”

Mandelson certainly focuses on Lincoln’s willingness to deceive his cabinet colleagues, cut backroom deals, and bend the rules to get legislation done. “He was somebody who was also prepared to use pragmatic means to arrive at his goal,” Mandelson says in his own paean to pragmatism: “Recruiting his rivals and his adversaries to the cause he was pursuing ... This is the art and skill of politics.”

The tribute is not without irony. Though he accepted no fee for appearing in the promo, Mandelson’s praise for Honest Abe caused derision in some quarters as the former minister is often more associated with privilege and spin. His two resignations, in the late ’90s and early noughties, were connected to the purchase of an expensive flat and connections to the wealthy Hinduja family. He notoriously told a U.S. industrialist in California in 1998 that New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes”—though last year at Davos he modified this theme, declaring that globalization had failed to distribute wealth and incomes fairly.

But perhaps the irony is deeper, and more calculated. Though the Lincoln film might not gain much benefit from Mandelson’s endorsement, he could derive a fillip from it. Tony Kushner’s screenplay is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestselling biography Team of Rivals, which Mandelson confessed he was reading three years ago. As he explained in his autobiography, The Third Man, Mandelson’s main job in the trio was balancing the rivalry between Brown and Blair. Though seen as an early supporter of the more telegenic Blair in the ’90s, Mandelson left his prestigious post as a European commissioner to help Gordon Brown’s reelection campaign.

Of course Brown lost the subsequent election in 2010, and Mandelson’s replacement in Brussels, Baroness Cathy Ashton, was then elevated to the role of the European Union’s first ever foreign affairs high representative. Mandelson lost out on both counts. Now, as a highly experienced politician in his late 50s, he looks sprightly, able, upbeat, and still set on some kind of public role.

Ultimately, any promotional work Mandelson does in the next few months is likely to be for his own benefit.