Learning from Lincoln: Both Onscreen and Off

Daniel Doherty

12/8/2012 12:01:00 AM - Daniel Doherty

What is it about Abraham Lincoln that has captured the hearts and minds of the American public since his assassination nearly 150 years ago? After all, one could argue -- rather persuasively -- that our 16th president was the least qualified candidate ever elected to high national office; in fact, his public service record included just four terms in the Illinois state legislative, one unremarkable term in the House of Representatives, and two unsuccessful bids for the US Senate. In addition, he had virtually no executive experience and, as his contemporaries invariably pointed out, Lincoln seemed wholly unfit to lead the nation during the chaotic and consequential times in which he lived.

And yet what’s so striking about Steven Spielberg’s outstanding film “Lincoln” is the eponymous hero’s latent political acumen. Since his death in 1865, Abraham Lincoln has been immortalized as the “Great Emancipator” and “The Rail-Splitter” -- two larger-than-life epithets that continue to inspire our collective imaginations. But, as Spielberg sharply demonstrates (through the talented Irish-born actor Daniel Day-Lewis) Lincoln was, after all, a human being -- a man who struggled, fought and ultimately died for the one indispensable cause that meant everything to him: the right for a free people to govern themselves.

Historians such as Eric Foner and the late David Herbert Donald have written important and absorbing works about Lincoln’s life and legacy. His empathy, keen wit, good-humored temperament, and passion for storytelling are only a few of the amiable characteristics evinced in the film. But perhaps Lincoln’s greatest quality -- as painstakingly revealed in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s absorbing book “Team of Rivals,” on which the aforementioned movie is partly based -- was his ability to recognize and seize opportune political moments.

Far from being the country bumpkin and second-rate lawyer often depicted in the contemporary newspaper articles of his day -- Lincoln was in fact a shrewd and cunning politician. And this trait is manifested brilliantly in the film when he decides -- against the wishes of some of his most ardent supporters -- to pursue a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery.

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.