Sunday, November 25, 2012

Angels Can Make Sausage

I’m back!  Sorry for the Thanksgiving break, but I am sure you had plenty of other stuff(ing) to be thankful for besides this blog.  I certainly was thankful for the food, family and friends I visited over the holiday.  I am also thankful for Steven Spielberg’s latest film that I saw a few days ago, the obdurately titled, Lincoln.

The picture, which opened wide a week ago, has experienced some mixed buzz.  While the critics and Academy Award prognosticators have generally been awed by this incarnation of Honest Abe, mainstream audiences are being split by the movie like so many rails.  I personally think it is a wonderful film for precisely the same reason some are turned off by it.  This is a movie that, for those who pay attention, reminds us of the better angels of our nature…and, just as importantly, of the politics those angels can sink into.

The most remarkable thing about Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis’s extraordinary effort is they portrayed a man of pragmatism and not of marble.  Too often our fellow Americans want to romanticize the past and its leaders.  When it comes to presidents who have their names inscribed on statues or airports, this becomes even less a case of mythologizing and more a ceremony of complete canonization.  Joseph Hoover once famously said to Jimmy Stewart, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  That is a wonderful sentiment for when we stare misty-eyed at nostalgic mementos of “olden days,” but when we are trying to learn from the history of those who came before, it is a major problem if historical figures and events become nothing more than partisan Rorschach tests.

Let me ask, how often have you heard someone—be they a political pundit, newspaper columnist, work colleague or that disgruntled uncle from Thanksgiving—invoke the Founders, Lincoln or some other worshipped statue as a deity whose outrage they represent?  Today, I cannot count how many people seem to think that politics got nasty yesterday and it’s the other guy’s fault.  This broad point is always the same: Why should I care about politics when it has become so dirty and nothing ever changes?  It’s not like when <insert POTUS here> was in charge!

I cannot deny that the current level of partisan bickering and gridlock annoys me too.  But Spielberg’s Lincoln does a wonderful thing and reminds our cynical selves of the nobler side of politics.  Being charitable and socially connected is great, but the still last, best hope for effecting true change on a grand scale comes from getting down into those partisan trenches and rolling up the sleeves to compromise, barter and do all those other 4-letter words ideologues of all stripes don’t want to hear.

In the film, Lincoln enters 1865 after securing a second term at the polls.  The Civil War, beginning its fourth year, may be winding down and the then-conservative Democratic Party has just lost 34 seats in the election.  That meant 34 lame duck Democrats who could potentially vote how they wanted, because there was no angry constituency to face.  Lincoln saw this as a second, and possibly final, opportunity to pass the 13th Amendment and abolish slavery once and for all.  Everyone knows about the Emancipation Proclamation, but most forget that it was a war document that only “freed” slaves in the rebelling Southern states and left the pro-Union border state slaves in bondage.  To truly end this evil institution, Lincoln needed the 13th Amendment to pass the House of Representatives.  And if you think we live in a polarized time now, try the Civil War.

Before Lincoln can even turn the minimum of 20 Democrats he needs to get the 2/3 majority for a Constitutional Amendment through the House, he must also contend with conservative Republicans who care little for the abolitionist movement and more ideological Republicans who think Lincoln is an appeaser for not abolishing slavery the moment South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter.  Personifying the latter is Tommy Lee Jones in a deliciously restrained performance as Representative Thaddeus Stevens, a lion for the abolitionist cause.  He views Lincoln as a fair-weather politician who does not feel the moral imperative of ending slavery.

Representing the apathetic Republicans is Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), a private citizen who still controls the conservative bloc of the party.  Lincoln must keep Stevens from torpedoing the effort by saying what he really thinks and labeling the anti-amendment Democrats as the bigots that they are while also stroking Blair’s ego (and love for his uniformed son) by sending him to Richmond to begin the process of negotiating a peace with the South.  All of which makes getting those 20 Democrats to vote for the amendment harder because a Southern surrender means they can wait for those states to return to Congress and kill the amendment for them.

Lincoln gets his amendment, but only by pandering, cajoling, bribing and misleading the People’s House.  In the film, Lincoln boldly exclaims, “I am the president clothed in IMMENSE POWER!”  Surely, Spielberg admires how he uses that power in ways that most Americans today would express disgust at.  Lincoln, the master statesman, sizes up all individuals and uses their greed or love of a dead brother to his advantage.  The charitable would say he is shepherding the votes he needs and the critics would bemoan that he’s buying them.  Either way, the Great Uniter of history united his coalition by any murky, political means necessary.  For him, it is all for the greater good and for the audience it is for what is hopefully a better appreciation of our system.  Obviously, not all leaders are as well meaning or brilliant as Abraham Lincoln.  But politics is still the Art of the Possible.  Even a sausage factory can have a greater vision.

Lincoln is a powerhouse of a film that consists almost wholly of old men sitting in rooms talking.  However, if you listen, what they are saying is of the greatest importance.  Perhaps, if more people listened to what the old men sitting in those same rooms said today, they would be able to remember why politics can matter if used right.  Especially if they quit wishing it was more noble like when Lincoln was president.

1 comment:

  1. One of your finest posts. It made me want to watch it again, actually.