Originally published in Official Artur Davis
Steven Spielberg delayed the release of his movie on Abraham Lincoln to avoid the charge of hagiography, not of the sixteenth president, but of Barack Obama. It was Spielberg’s intuition that there were enough aspects of the film that were susceptible to being twisted to partisan ends—from its similarity to the Democrats’ narrative of a progressive president fighting off a revanchist congressional opposition, to the Obama Administration’s early infatuation with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which is credited as the primary source for the picture, to the linkage between the first American president to align himself with racial equality and the first president whose bloodlines crystallize that equality—to keep its premiere out of the election season.
So, “Lincoln” avoided becoming a bumper sticker in the final days of the last election. It has not managed to side-step a whole slew of efforts by commentators to make it an instructive template for political leadership: David Thomson’s assessment in the New Republic that the guiding principle of the film is the need for leaders “who can stoop to getting the job done” is mimicked by David Brooks’ assertion that the film elevates politics by showing the noble purposes to which ordinary political maneuvering can be deployed. Ross Douthat captures the argument that ”Lincoln” is a tribute to the revolutionary ends that can be achieved when moderates and ideologues align and temper each other.
I will venture a theory that while not one of these observations is wrong on the merits, that they all suffer from reading “Lincoln” through a certain wishful lens: in this light, Spielberg’s version (and Tony Kushner’s screenplay) of Abraham Lincoln is a model of what Barack Obama might develop into if he added more grit to the polish and the cool; or more broadly, this fictional president is an imagining of what any successful chief executive in the future might look like—savvy enough to coopt the hard-liners, tactical enough to accomplish heroic ends through hard-nosed means. In other words, these pundits see a high-minded primer on how a capable president might win friends and influence people: a home-spun, American Machiavelli.
But reading “Lincoln” as an instruction manual ignores the degree to which this film is almost subversively hostile to two of the favorite values of contemporary politics: authenticity and transparency. The blunt truth of this portrait of Lincoln’s presidency is a democratic reality that if it materialized tomorrow, we would find depressing and hardly idealistic. It is a closed universe of insiders who operated free of consistent public scrutiny, or ethics regulations, or even a softer code that words and deeds should be tightly connected to be credible. There is a void of disclosure and standards that is not remotely capable of being replicated today, and that we wouldn’t want to conjure up if we could. The point is not to treat Lincoln is anything other than great, but that his greatness operated in a zone not remotely like our own.
It is not just that Lincoln is “wily and devious”, in Thomson’s description in TNR, or that he takes “morally hazardous action”, in Brooks’ rendition, it is that the times he lived in extracted no particular price for such shiftiness. So, Lincoln saves the 13th Amendment at a critical stage by deploying a word game to fend off the news that a set of Confederate negotiators are offering a peace deal that might end the war without emancipation. The negotiators are not in Washington, Lincoln allows, despite rumors to the contrary and aren’t set to be there: the more complete truth is that they are holed up on the Virginia coastline, waiting for a presidential visit. The deceit is not a small one, and the movie to its credit captures both its importance and dishonesty: by bending the actual time line just a bit to make Lincoln’s dodging the decisive blow to enshrine freedom in the Constitution, Spielberg and Kushner are taking aim at our squeamishness over candor.
And it is not just the white lie over a southern peace offering. Another central point in the picture is the urgency of separating constitutional emancipation from a broader campaign to extend larger citizenship rights on blacks. In Spielberg’s mostly accurate telling, Lincoln’s rival for control of the House Republican caucus, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), equivocates at a key moment in the debate on the full implications of the amendment, and the film is complimentary of Stevens’ waffling, which is the exact rhetorical approach Lincoln himself brandished as a senate and presidential candidate and as the author of the Emancipation Proclamation. That it proved to be the shrewdest course in Lincoln’s day is hard to argue; what is impossible to argue is how aggressively such an evasion would be exploited in our climate (and how zealously we would argue for the dissembling to be unmasked if we were on the losing side).
Not only does Lincoln operate free of our ethics, much less our laws against congressional vote buying, he is immune, at least in this version of history, from much in the way of public scrutiny. The campaign for the 13th Amendment is in this account almost entirely an exercise in back rooms: the film spends one scene on the impact of public opinion, and it is a revealing one: a couple of “swing state” voters from Missouri get in to lobby Lincoln on a minor land dispute, and when Lincoln turns the scales by trying to enlist them to persuade their own wavering congressman to support the Amendment, they are as hopelessly conflicted as their 21st Century descendants urging reduced spending but not on their own favored programs. The upshot is that they support ending slavery if it strips away the South’s rationale to fight, but not if it brings the South’s blacks within reach of their jobs and neighborhoods.
The ambivalence and mixed motives we recognize in today’s electorate, and Spielberg was clever in reminding us through his anti-slavery, but anti-black Missourians. Much less familiar is a presidential campaign of advocacy that avoids speechmaking and doesn’t rely on high moral notes. Tellingly, Spielberg and that saves ”Lincoln’s” strongest moment of rhetorical flight for a fleeting glimpse of the apocalyptic sounding second inaugural (which happened after the 13th Amendment had already been won, and which in the movie, is a flashback only after Lincoln has been shot).
Interestingly, Spielberg narrowly misses one more opportunity to separate Lincoln’s world from our own. In one of his less defensible editorial judgments, he edits out the part of the second inaugural where Lincoln famously declares that we should judge not lest we be judged, and where he pointedly describes the tendencies of both North and South to cloak their cause in spiritual terms. That is not so much the voice of the moderate seeking a middle way, as much it is a heightened wisdom about the limitations of ideology. It is a concession to the possibility of fallacy on one’s own side of the equation—something that almost never slips out of the mouths of today’s candidates—that is at odds with how we value the language of absolutes in our politics. It would have been worthwhile to get that brief glimpse of a figure of high resolve still sounding publicly conflicted and reluctant to claim the high ground of our contemporary speechmaking; in other words, declining to frame the opposition as our politicians are ritualistically taught to do.
There is another striking feature in the movie’s ambiguous relationship with one of our catch phrases, “courage”. The emptiest praise for this film is arguably the notion that it is one long admonition of politicians to man up under pressure. In fact, the two back-bench congressmen who most ostentatiously face down their political and personal fears to vote for the amendment are made out to be timid and colorless rather than morally impressive (one gets a frog in his throat at the moment of voting). In fact, their switch from opposition to support seems more a function of them being broken than of their spine stiffening at a key moment. Is it accidental that Lincoln seems stronger and more exemplary in bribing and deceiving than they do in “manning up”, or is Spielberg slyly telling us something ironic about our admiration for bravery over horse-trading (one senses that Spielberg has heard tales out of school about congressmen being pulled in line by threats of primaries or a threat of being cut off from the White House on the eve of their making a show about standing up to bullies in the other party.)
In the same vein, the other reductionist interpretation is that Lincoln’s virtue was his steadfastness over counseling from his top advisor to go slow on slavery and pocket a victory in the war first. Inspiring, except it is not really true, and not nearly as complex as what the film actually says. The elliptical passage in which Lincoln describes to his Cabinet his labored approach on slavery is dense and beyond the reach of most viewers but its essence is that Lincoln vacillated on emancipating slaves seized from rebel territory for two years before he embraced liberation as a temporary war measure to destabilize the Confederate infrastructure. Indeed, although this fact is beyond the screenplay, he was tentative enough about the aim of demanding emancipation that had Jefferson Davis proffered a bargain of peace for the status quo at any point in the war’s first two years, that Lincoln made well have taken it.
And then there is the last conceit of “Lincoln’s” reviewers, the idea that the seminal ethical struggle in American history, over the legal and cultural status of the black race, has something to do with how Obama might avoid the fiscal cliff or how a President Rubio might massage a reform of entitlements. But the reality, and most of us would think it a happy reality, is that literally nothing in our present landscape resembles the vitriol over slavery and the fissures it exposed in the American identity. Not the fight over the size of government’s footprint in the healthcare market, not the clash over whether the top tax bracket should peak at 35 or 39 percent, not the escalating legal debate over the Constitution’s relevance to same sex marriage equality. That is not to minimize the values in the spectrum of 2012, but it is to put the present in its place as something not remotely as bloody or as consequential as the past.
There is not much in the way of weakness in this movie, which just might endure as the best historical fiction on film since “Amistad”. But we do it an injustice if we miss the two insights at its core: first, Abraham Lincoln’s moral and strategic environment is in a time capsule; it is not our own, and we have erected a culture of what we call accountability on a good day, and distrust on a bad day, that guarantees that we will never return to that world. Second, in an era where integrity is simplified to politicians speaking what they believe to be true and not trimming, where courage is not much more or less than adopting an impolitic point irrespective of the electoral cost, Lincoln is slippery and elusive in a way that our sensibilities would denounce. The tradeoff between then and now mostly makes sense, if only because our presidents are invariably not Lincolns and the stakes are so much weaker. But the narrative is also a cautionary note about the faux expectations we saddle on our current leaders, and to miss that is to see “Lincoln” without hearing it.