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Honest Abe Makes Sausage

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Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," and the many historical parallels between then and now

“If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”

-Otto von Bismarck



I had mixed feelings when I  found out that Steven Spielberg was making a movie about Abraham Lincoln.

The history junkie in me was excited, but I feared that Spielberg's penchants for extraneous special effects and telegraphed melodrama (cue:  John Williams' soaring strings) could muddle one of the most important chapters in our national narrative. 

Fortunately, curiosity and strong reviews propelled me to a multiplex to see "Lincoln," where I found that my misgivings had been unwarranted.

Despite its grand historical scope and long running time, "Lincoln" has a tight storyline. The entire movie takes place in January of 1865, and most of the scenes are closed-door discussions between powerful men (with a lot of facial hair). "Lincoln" would be a natural fit for the stage, which is not surprising, since the screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Angels in America."

Daniel Day-Lewis is a subdued, subtle Abraham Lincoln. Other than a handful of instances where he's pushed to assert himself, he remains calm, almost retiring, and frequently leavens tense moments with humorous anecdotes. Yet behind his relaxed exterior is a stubborn willfulness to do the right thing, political expedience be damned.  

Though the developments of January 1865 were clearly more momentous than the changes of the past four years, a number of historical parallels with the present are embedded in "Lincoln." 

The movie is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which told how Lincoln - like Barack Obama after him - surrounded himself with independent-minded advisers, as he placed a higher premium on problem-solving than ego-stroking and blind loyalty. And Lincoln's combination of a first-class temperament and a focus on the long game bears an unmistakable similarity to our current president, another Illinois politician of limited experience and big visions who arrived in the White House at a perilous moment. The two men were even sworn in for their first terms on the same Bible (pictured above).

The plot revolves around Lincoln's full-court press to move the 13th Amendment (to end slavery) through the House of Representatives before the close of the Civil War.  Early on, William Seward (Lincoln's Secretary of State, played by David Strathairn), tries to convince Lincoln that he should give up on the amendment in exchange for the South's imminent surrender. Key political ally Preston Blair (leader of the conservative Republicans/Hal Holbrook) has the same advice. Lincoln patiently hears them out and proceeds to ignore their half-a-loaf thinking, as Obama did after the 2010 election cycle, when some of his cabinet officials suggested that he abandon comprehensive healthcare reform in favor of incremental measures.  

While trying to placate allies on his right, Lincoln also works on Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to secure liberal Republican votes on his left. Stevens, head of the House Ways and Means Committee, is an ardent, outspoken abolitionist who thinks Lincoln is timid, and not moving fast enough (a criticism Obama has repeatedly gotten from the left, though he has done more for social progress than any president we've had in four decades).

Throughout the movie, Lincoln engages in the kind of tactics that lead faux populists to see all politicians as a morally inferior, self-serving breed:  he obscures important life-and-death information (about his stalling the Civil War peace process) from friend and foe alike while paid surrogates alternately issue threats and offer plum appointments to representatives to secure their votes. 

Undoubtedly, some politicians have little or no concern for the human condition, but all politicians are not created equal. "Lincoln" shows an exceptional leader performing a very delicate dance (under tremendous pressure) among competing interests for the greater good of humanity.    

And though ending slavery - like creating a national healthcare system - was an urgent moral imperative, Lincoln (and Obama) had to overcome hardcore obstructionism from congressional reactionaries backed by powerful and parasitic economic interests. In both cases, Americans a century-and-a half removed from these battles will scratch their heads and wonder "What the hell took us so long?"

© Dan Benbow, 2012

This essay was originally published at "Truth and Beauty"

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