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  • Writer's pictureJeff Matthews

Lincoln Would Be Nervous

News traveled slowly during our Civil War, especially if the telegraph wires had been cut, which frequently was the case during that all-out conflagration between the well-equipped, poorly led Northern troops, and the poorly-equipped, well led Southerners.

And that was unfortunate for President Lincoln, because the telegraph was his main source of news and information about events in fields ranging from central Virginia to the bluffs above the Mississippi River at Vicksburg.

Lincoln retreated to the telegraph office frequently, both to get away from the hangers-on looking for jobs and to read first-hand the reports that clicked off the wires. (In fact there is a new book on precisely this topic, “Lincoln in the Telegraph Office.”)

Lincoln learned the hard way that bluster and over-confidence from his commanders always—always—preceded disaster.

It happened so frequently under McClellan, Pope and especially “Fighting Joe” Hooker in the Wilderness surrounding Chancellorsville that Lincoln began to predict imminent defeat whenever a telegram predicting imminent victory from anybody but U.S. Grant crossed the desk from the telegraph operator.

And he was, in nearly every case, right.

It depressed him mightily—both the expectation of impending defeat, as well as the fact that the generals never seemed to learn that overconfidence left them blind to the dangers in their front, which is why they always got whipped.

And I think Lincoln would have had the same visceral reaction to the ultra-confident words from the Ralph Lauren flak in this weekend’s Barron’s, who was responding to a skeptical question about insider stock sales:

Polo senior vice president Nancy Murray says most of the transactions are programmed and tax-related selling. “We think the stock is just beginning to enter its appropriate valuation level,” she says. “And I stress ‘beginning.’ ”

That kind of ultra-confident spin, however justified based on the track record of one of the best-run consumer product franchises in the world, might well have given Lincoln one of his famous bouts of depression, were he running the company today.

After all, he would know, Pfizer’s entire management team hosted Wall Street’s Finest in Groton Connecticut on the last day of November…i.e. last Thursday.

And the result was a batch of optimistic assessments of Pfizer’s ability to renew its cholesterol-drug franchise, as well as increased earnings forecasts…both of which came to grief Saturday afternoon.

Almost as fast as “Fighting Joe” Hooker in the Wilderness.

Jeff Matthews I Am Not Making This Up

© 2006 Jeff Matthews

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes a solicitation of business or investment advice. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.

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