At the very beginning of the movie, there’s a seemingly inconsequential scene in which Secretary of State William Seward (ably portrayed by David Strathairn) attempts to convince his boss that mobilizing support for a 13th Amendment to abolish slavery was not only political suicide, but would be met -- inevitably -- with harsh and vigorous criticism from House Democrats. Lincoln, however, with his characteristic soft-spoken charm, replies coolly: “I like our chances now.”
While this conversation probably never actually took place (indeed, Goodwin makes no mention of it in “Team of Rivals”), it is a simple yet revealing response. This echoes Lincoln’s patience to wait for the appropriate tactical moment to announce his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to the general public in September 1862 (after the Union army’s long-awaited victory at Antietam). He likewise, in this situation, understood the importance of timing. And with the 1864 lame-duck session in full swing (and the public’s increasingly growing desire to finally settle the slavery question -- in Lincoln‘s words -- “for all coming time” before the war ended and the Emancipation Proclamation became null and void), the 16th president recognized that now was the decisive moment to act.
Eschewing the initial advice of his supporters, he shrewdly rounded up the requisite votes (by any and all means necessary) from an unlikely coalition of former Whigs, conservative Republicans, and War Democrats. In the end, after several weeks of cajoling, lobbying and politicking, the amendment passed by a razor-thin margin of two votes in a Congress of 184 Representatives.
One need only spend a few hours watching “Lincoln” (a masterful and deeply engrossing film that I encourage all Americans to go and see) to understand why our 16th president was by all accounts “a political genius.”
And there is still much we can learn from him.
Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has reportedly invited Steven Spielberg to screen “Lincoln” in the U.S. Senate Chamber later this month. Perhaps this might just do some good, and impel Senate Republicans and Democrats to finally put aside their differences (at least until the looming “fiscal cliff” fiasco is averted) for the sake of the nation.
After all, given the grossly partisan antics we’ve seen thus far, it certainly can’t hurt.