Sunday, December 2, 2012


Ever since Spielberg's "Lincoln" came out, political pundits have rushed to weigh in with their opinions on the film and the "lessons" that it offers Obama. Some have been more successful than others. But more significantly, the convergence of popular culture and contemporary politics tells us that the mythology of Lincoln is intact and as readily accessible as ever. Few historical figures remain so complicated, so important, and so revered as Lincoln... which means few are so abused by contemporary writers and politicians to advance their own agendas. Slate's movie critic, Dana Stevens probably got it right in her review when she wrote: "Of course these two figures were bound to collide at some point: the most mythic of American presidents and the most myth-making of American filmmakers."

Most people most of the time cannot escape the gravity of the heroic Lincoln myth, and that is certainly true of Spielberg. Admittedly, it is hard to deny the awesomeness of Lincoln, that lonely individual who seems to have stepped out of time and space to save the nation in its moment of great crisis.  This is the Lincoln to whom Walt Whitman paid tribute (in what we should acknowledge was not one of his better poems). This is the Lincoln who, in the film, at one point actually asks an aide whether "we can choose to be born or are we fitted into the times we are born into?"—"you maybe" is the indulgent reply. And who better to portray this Lincoln than Daniel Day Lewis, whose awesomeness may be even less in doubt than Lincoln's. Let's not forget, Lewis played this guy, this guy, and this guy, and in "Lincoln" gets to proclaim, "I am the President of the United States CLOTHED IN IMMENSE POWER."

Good stuff, except that: 1. Lincoln was usually clothed in a shawl, which doesn't exactly scream power and 2. this representation of Lincoln advances a longstanding view of emancipation as the gift of white men to black slaves, born of the moral clarity of Lincoln's mind and midwifed by the sacrifice of (mostly white) soldiers. Unbalanced by a dearth of substantive black characters, the film establishes Lincoln as the center of all historical agency in the fight for emancipation. All actions toward the successful passage of the 13th Amendment have their origin in him. The story of emancipation made real by the inexorable pressure of African-Americans who forced the hands of white politicians like Lincoln is all but ignored. This is a history recounted by many historians like Barbara Fields and Eric Foner, but perhaps best told (in brief) by Ira Berlin.

The cunning of the movie is that the Great White Man view of history it unintentionally promotes is shrouded by a different kind of balance struck between high-minded idealism and the nasty business of vote wrangling. "The genius of 'Lincoln,'" A. O. Scott gushed in the New York Times "lies in its vision of politics as a noble, sometimes clumsy dialectic of the exalted and the mundane."

Politics! So grimy, so sleazy, so beautiful! Here was the escape route for pundits who desperately loved this movie that had sated their appetite for hagiography, but had to find a smarter way to write about it. So columns started appearing like "Lincoln's Master Class in Politics," "Spielberg's Lincoln: A Lesson in Realpolitik for a Squeamish Age," and "Why We Love Politics." Frank Bruni of the New York Times used this reading of the movie to condemn Grover Norquist:
There’s no place for absolutists and absolutism in a democracy, which is designed for give-and-take, for compromise. That’s one of the lessons of “Lincoln,” which moviegoers are thronging to and intellectuals are swooning for precisely because it illuminates and validates the intrinsic and purposeful messiness of our system. It exalts flexibility. It venerates pragmatism.
Growing up a hardscrabble, self-taught prairie lawyer, Lincoln was the perfect puppet master to manipulate this system built on compromise—at least, so David Brooks implied on a Meet the Press roundtable. "Politics is about paying attention to other people," he helpfully explained, then continued:
There’s a beautiful scene where Lincoln is tending a fire.... getting in the trenches with people. And he gets down on his hands and knees and he’s moving the wood around the fire.  That would never happen in a [modern] presidency. There’d be a million people to move the wood for him.  So he was down there with people and could relate in a much more natural way—how to control them with a story.  And I’m afraid we’ve made the imperial presidency, made that so much harder.
There are two problems with this. The first is that in celebrating the importance of a president connecting with the common people, Brooks has apparently forgotten that he endorsed Mitt Romney for president in October after calling him Thurston Howell Romney in September. If being down with the people is so important to Brooks, maybe the guy who worked as a community organizer might have been the better choice.

(Incidentally, I know I pick on David Brooks a lot. It's because he doesn't make sense to me. Also, I am the author of this blog, CLOTHED IN VERY COMFORTABLE SWEATPANTS, and I'll write what I like.)

The second problem with the compromise reading was noted by Dave Weigel at Slate & Greg Sargent at the Washington Post, who argued that all of these pundits were misreading "Lincoln." Far from a story of compromise, Weigel observed that "Everyone else who watches it sees a story about a president who refuses to move from one goal and bribes people to get there." So the question for Obama, who screened the film at the White House, is whether to compromise like the Lincoln most of the pundits revere, or hold firm like the Lincoln everyone else admires.

But there's a broader historical issue that everyone I've read seems to have overlooked, and that is the naked fact of secession. Whether Lincoln succeeded in this legislative fight in 1865 because he compromised or because he held firm, everyone seems to have lost sight of the fact that his most strident, uncompromising political enemies had left the Congress to join the Confederate government. All the maneuvering Lincoln did in 1865 was to corral votes in his own Republican Party, while sniping a few lame-duck Democrats. That political reality has little in common with 2012.

Just to illustrate the point (and for fun), consider how Obama might lead the nation if the 112th Congress, the current lame-ducks, did not include the Senators and Representatives from the eleven states of the former Confederacy. Currently, the Republicans control the House with 242 members to 193 Democrats. In the Senate, Democrats have a small majority, 53-47. Lose AL, AK, FL, GA, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, TX, and VA and the Democrats would control the House 156-148 and the Senate (with a supermajority) 47-31.

Fiscal Cliff, solved. For that matter, the Fiscal Cliff would never have existed with that Congress.

As I mentioned in my first blog post, contemporary American politics reminds me of "the ideological rigidity of the 1840s and 1850s." It is not akin to 1865 at all. Lincoln, even if he had been president in that decade of tumult preceding the Civil War, did not have the ability to make pro-slavery Southern Democrats see reason or to compromise—that choice to concede to the will of the larger nation rested with Southerners alone. The lesson worth learning from that history has nothing to do with Obama and everything to do with the Republican Party.


  1. Hey Chris-- while you (rightfully) object to historical comparisons between Lincoln and Obama, you might be interested in this article by Robin Kelley:

  2. ...and also in a better one.